Simone Leigh’s “Brick House” presides over the entrance to the Arsenale at the 59th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale. (all images courtesy Venice Biennale)

British artist Sonia Boyce and American sculptor Simone Leigh were awarded Golden Lions at the 59th Venice Biennale this weekend, the exhibition’s highest honor. Boyce received the prize for Best National Participation and Leigh was recognized as Best Participant for her contribution to the international exhibition The Milk of Dreams.

Boyce and Leigh — who is also representing the United States with her national pavilion titled Sovereignty — are the first Black women to represent their respective countries at the vaunted contemporary art show.

Sonia Boyce accepting the Venice Biennale’s award for Best National Participation

Sonia Boyce’s exhibition in the six-room British pavilion, Feeling Her Way, begins with an installation featuring five side-by-side videos of Black musicians singing and making music at Abbey Road Studios, framed by a cheery, tessellated pattern made from production stills taken the day they were recorded.

The five artists — jazz singer Jacqui Dankworth, soul singers Tanita Tikaram and Poppy Ajudha, experimental sound artist Sofia Jernberg, and classical composer Errolyn Wallen — improvise alongside one another, occasionally harmonizing and more frequently painting a cacophonous soundscape. Wallen guided the rest of the musicians in an improvisation session, prompting them to channel the roar of a lion at one point and to play with their voices imaginatively. In four other rooms, each individual performs alone. One room is decorated with ephemera from each artist, much like a teenage bedroom.

A view of Boyce’s exhibition at the British Pavilion

“There’s a part of me that enjoys making noise — and wanting other people to create noise,” Boyce said in an interview about the work for British Council Arts.

“Feeling Her Way” is part of The Devotional Project, a more than two-decade-long effort Boyce embarked on to examine and archive the history of Black British women in the music industry.

“Because there isn’t a museum — there isn’t an official institution that has this material — I have suddenly taken on [the task of being] the bearer of the responsibility,” Boyce said.

YouTube video

Leigh’s “Brick House” presides regally over the entrance to the Arsenale, where the exhibition The Milk of Dreams curated by Cecilia Alemani resides, and won the artist the second Golden Lion. Installed from 2019 to 2021 at the High Line Plinth — a rotating public art exhibition spot above the intersection of 30th Street and 10th Avenue in New York City — the 16-foot, almost 6,000-pound bronze bust monument renders an abstract, eyeless Black woman with a clay house for a skirt. Leigh’s sculpture draws eclectic inspiration from the land architecture of the Batammaliba people of Northeast Togo, the distinctive and racist structure of the Mississippian roadside restaurant “Mammy’s Cupboard,” and teleuks, the dome-shaped mud houses of the Mousgoum people.

Artist Simone Leigh accepting the Venice Biennale’s award for best artist

Leigh’s body of work — much of it portraying the faces and bodies of Black women — centrally concerns their histories, experiences, and subjectivities.

“In order to tell the truth, you need to invent what might be missing from the archive, to collapse time, to concern yourself with issues of scale, to formally move things around in a way that reveals something more true than fact,” Leigh said in a statement.

Lebanese artist Ali Cherri, who is exhibiting figurative sculptures of human-animal hybrids made of mud, won the Silver Lion for Promising Young Participant in the International Exhibition. Katharina Frisch and Cecilia Vicuña, whose Golden Lions for Lifetime Achievement were announced over a month ago, received their awards at the same ceremony.

Editor’s note 4/25/22 10pm EDT: A previous version of this article cited Boyce and Leigh as the first Black women to win the Golden Lion. Adrian Piper was awarded the prize in 2015. The article has been corrected.

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.