Sonia Boyce first black female to represent Britain at Venice Biennale

The artist Sonia Boyce has been chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale – the first black female to do it. The work of her is going to fill the UK pavilion from May until November next year.

Boyce, who lives as well as works in London, caused controversy 2 years ago when she removed John William Waterhouse’s 1896 painting Hylas and the Nymphs from the wall of the Manchester Art Gallery for a week. She wrote in the Guardian that the action was intended to draw attention to the way decisions are actually made in museums about what’s made visible to the public.

Nevertheless, it sparked a furious backlash, with many accusing Boyce of virtue signalling or perhaps censorship. The artist later said she’d experienced “a level of anger and vitriol that was very unhealthy … the desire to bash females in the public space was strongly felt”.

The artist told the Times the fallout from Brexit would inevitably influence the job of her, as would the idea of nationhood at the event, that is referred to as the Olympics of the art community.

“There is actually this question about nationality and nations and that’s how [the biennale] was set up; to promote the so called best of what was happening any given nation or perhaps country. I do not know whether it’s anachronistic but I still believe it’s critical in the time we’re in to consider what nation means,” she said.

Boyce also hinted that the work of her at the Venice Biennale could involve collaboration. She said she will be “encouraging other individuals to get involved”, adding she wanted the work to be approachable and convivial rather than “completely off the rails”.

“There are serious questions about how folks are able to come together, especially when there might be tensions around differences,” Boyce said. “But through art it’s possible.”

Boyce, who’s fifty eight, came to prominence at the forefront of the black British art scene in the early 1980s. In 1987, she became the first black female to enter the Tate’s collection when it bought her drawing Missionary Position II; twenty nine years later, she became the first black female to be elected a Royal Academician. She was awarded an OBE this year.

Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse, which Boyce removed from the walls of Manchester Art Gallery

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Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse, which Boyce removed from the walls of Manchester Art Gallery. Photograph: SOTK2011/Alamy Stock Photo

Boyce’s work combines media photography, drawing, film and performance, drawing on a range of collaborators to be able to explore the experience of her as a black female in a tradition which has excluded folks like her.

She told the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins: “It was quite clear when I was at art college that I was somehow out of place; the system had not anticipated me, or perhaps anyone like me. Although there were a large amount of pupils that are female, they had been thought about as though they were being trained to become the wives of artists, not artists themselves. As a black person, there was not a narrative at all. Perhaps to be a model.”

Emma Dexter, the chair of the British pavilion selection committee, said: “Boyce’s work raises questions that are important about the nature of creativity, questioning who makes art, how ideas are actually formed, and the nature of authorship. At such a pivotal moment in the UK’s history, the committee has chosen an artist whose work embodies the, experimentation, generosity, and inclusiveness benefits of working together.”

Boyce said: “You could have knocked me down with a feather when I got the call to tell me I’d been chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale 2021 – it was as a bolt from the blue. Clearly, I am extremely honoured, excited – and nervous. I am eager to begin this creative journey, exploring the experience with others who agree to work with me along the way.”

In France, the selection of the first artist of Algerian descent to represent the country at the biennale has caused controversy. Zineb Sedira has faced calls to step down after accusations that she supports Sanctions, Divestment, and the Boycott (BDS) movement, which calls on the Israeli government to grant equality to Palestinian citizens by imposing a cultural boycott.

The French writer and philosopher Bernard Henri Levy was one of the figures calling for the French government to give the honour to another artist, while Sedira denies the link to BDS, calling the accusations “unfounded and slanderous”.

Sonia Boyce:

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Sonia Boyce:’ I am eager to begin this creative journey.’ Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

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