Art, similarly to many of the creative worlds, is an industry that has been historically dominated by men. Times have changed yet so many of the artists we first think of are still male. With this in mind, it’s so incredibly important to celebrate the powerful female talents in the art world, from the famous to the lesser known. This International Women’s Month, the team at Brixton Art Prize focus on two brilliant and current female artists. Sonia Boyce and Zineb Sedira are both making history at the all female 2022 Venice Biennale. We introduce their craft and inspirations below.
Our first artist is Sonia Boyce OBE. Boyce is an influential artist of British Afro-Caribbean heritage, coming to prominence in the 1980s and addressing issues of race and gender in her work. She became a key figure in the Black Arts Movement of this time, creating pastel drawings of figures and collages. Boyce’s aim is to shift notions of race which have persisted since the abolition of slavery. Her work has shifted in terms of medium, incorporating photography, films, prints and sound as her career has progressed.
‘Missionary Position II’ (1985)
Boyce’s work of 1985 ‘Missionary Position II’ is a perfect example of her use of pastels and self portrait. The artwork displays two figures, both Boyce, and reflects her growing antipathy towards her Christian upbringing. One figure prays in passive acceptance, whilst the other extends her arm, appearing to break free from tradition. The title, too, is subversive and suggestive. It hints to both sexuality and a metaphor for the role of Christian missionaries in imposing colonial rule and oppression.
‘Six Acts’ (2018)
Boyce is known for innovative and experimental approaches to art. Her work moved from an exploration of herself as a Black British woman to a focus on collaborative creation. Since 1990 Boyce has been working closely with other artists, inviting a wide variety of participants — not just artists — to come together and speak, sing or move. She is fascinated by the idea of ‘what people do when they come together’. This fascination prompted the creation of her artwork ‘Six Acts’.
Boyce took over a space in Manchester Art Gallery to create ‘Six Acts’. She began by questioning the prominence of race, gender, sexuality and class in the 19th century paintings displayed in the gallery, exploring how these could be reconsidered today. Boyce invited artists to come in and demonstrate performative art in response to the paintings in the gallery. Drag artists were invited to perform including Lasana Shabbaz, the artist and writer, who presented her response to this question. One of the six performative acts was to temporarily remove John William Waterhouse’s ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ (1869).
Visitors to the gallery were invited to covered the walls with notes responding in turn to the removal of Waterhouse’s painting. The acts were filmed and displayed as a work of art linking the past and the present, the modern and the archaic. This year, Boyce was selected to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale. She will be the first Black woman to do so.
Our second artist is the Franco-Algerian photographer and video artist, Zineb Sedira. Sedira was born in Paris to Algerian parents. Her heritage and youth has inspired much of her work. Sedira is prolific and influential in her field, taking part in group exhibitions across Europe. Commenting on colonialism and the human relationship to ones surroundings and geographical location. Her earlier creations focused on images of women in the Muslim world, specifically her mother and daughter.
Watching her mother wear the haik, a type of full body veil worn traditionally by Muslim women in the Magrehb region, had a significant impact on Sedira. She recalls, ‘[my mother] would change into it. She would become it.’ A reflection on how the young Sedira saw this act and interpreted the haik as an important and powerful item with the ability to transform its wearer. Sedira describes seeing her mother blend with the haik. Influencing her perception of culture and location as her mother changes from the Parisian to Algerian version of herself, almost, through a child’s eyes.
‘Mother Tongue’ (2002)
Sedira’s work ‘Mother Tongue’ explores the theme of cultural identity and location. The art work is made up of 3 videos placed side by side. It depicts Sedira, her daughter and mother attempting to converse and exchange memories in each of their native languages — Algerian, French and English. As Sedira moved to England to study art, and gave birth to her daughter here, Sedira’s mother and daughter do not have a language in common. The art therefore depicts Sedira acting as a translator between the family members. The artwork has an element of pathos, highlighting the difficulty in maintaining a shared heritage across both national and linguistic divides.
‘Standing Here Wondering Which Way To Go’ (2019)
Sedira’s most recent exhibition in Arizona is similarly autobiographical and focuses on her Algerian heritage. The exhibition is a new iteration of her 2019 project, ‘Standing Here Wondering Which Way To Go’. The installation features four scenes and was inspired by the 1969 Pan-African Cultural Festival of Algiers, where resistance to colonialism took the form of creative expression. ‘Way of Life’ is one of four exciting installations, showing a replica of the artist’s living room. Taking us back to the ’60’s, the room is filled with objects associated with the counter-culture such as vinyl records and books. The colour and vibrancy of the installation gives us a glimpse of the optimism and creative energy which blossomed following Algeria’s fight for independence from 1954–62. This year, Zenib Sedira will become the first artist of African descent to represent France at the Venice Biennale.