The Caribbean-British artist Veronica Ryan, whose sculptural objects and assemblages reflect poetically on the organic world, has won the 2022 Turner Prize, awarded annually by Tate Britain to an artist born in or based in the United Kingdom. She was initially on the shortlist with three others: Heather Phillipson, Ingrid Pollard, and Sin Wai Kin.
Ryan, who is 66 years old, is the second Black woman and the oldest artist to ever win the prize, which comes with a monetary award of £25,000 (~$30,594). But for many, the artist may not be a household name. “There was a whole period when people wouldn’t show my work and wouldn’t even reply when I sent them images,” Ryan said in an interview. Born in the Caribbean island and British territory of Montserrat, Ryan emigrated to England with her parents during her early childhood. She and her family were part of the Windrush generation made up of thousands of Caribbean citizens enlisted to help rebuild the nation after World War II — a move that permanently shifted the demographic of the UK.
Ryan’s 2021 solo exhibition Along a Spectrum at Spike Island art center in Bristol, featuring cast soursop skins and cocoa pods pushing through the gaps of crocheted net bags, tea-stained fabrics with sewn swells, and misleadingly hardened piles of pillows, catapulted her into the shortlist for the prize.
Ryan has cited her mother’s quilt works made of old church dresses and a small Christmas tree project involving a used thread reel as artistic inspirations that deeply impacted her during childhood. “I was just really excited by the idea that you can make something so simply,” she mused in an interview with the Art House UK during her Change Maker Artist residency in 2017, spawning her interest in her family’s and culture’s historic use and reuse of objects and organic matter.
After studying at the Hertfordshire College of Art and Design, Bath Academy of Art, Slade School of Fine Art, the University College London, and the School for Oriental and African Studies, Ryan made her career debut in the mid-1980s. She was aided by the guidance and support of Black British artist and curator Lubaina Himid, who included Ryan in her shows Five Black Women Artists at the Africa Centre in London in 1983 and The Thin Black Line at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in 1985.
Ryan’s practice delves into the experiences of generational migration, contradictions, and paradoxes. It’s also sometimes informed by cultural foods and raw ingredients; things that make their own journeys from farm to supermarket to table. One of Ryan’s most celebrated works is her memorial to the Windrush Generation on Narrow Way Square in Hackney, London, consisting of enlarged, life-like sculpted Caribbean fruits. The cast-bronze and marble pieces, titled “Custard Apple (Annonaceae),” “Breadfruit (Moraceae),” and “Soursop (Annonaceae)” (all 2021) sit permanently in celebration of the borough that hosts a large portion of the Windrush generation community.
Ryan’s organic fascinations also extend to the manner in which produce and other ingredients are packaged, transported, and presented at a market. She’s a fond collector of stackable trays and netted bags, using them in her work the same way her mother would repurpose old and outgrown materials for her sewing projects.
“Stacking is how to make sense of one’s reality in terms of the environment one’s in,” Ryan said in her Art House UK interview. “Stacking is a way to kind of establish an order.”
And yet, Ryan’s practice has long existed completely outside the box, and often against the interests and trends of the commercial art sphere. In an interview with the Guardian, she spoke about instances in which she worried she wouldn’t be able to pay her rent after years of “working in the art world’s shadows.” With the odds already stacked against Black and women artists, loads of Ryan’s sculptures were destroyed during the 2004 Momart storage fire in London. Ryan likened the experience of losing her artwork to “cutting off a limb.”
Despite these hardships, Ryan was finally celebrated through the Freelands Award in 2018, dedicated to supporting mid-career woman artists through a solo exhibition. Three years later, Along a Spectrum brought her into art world stardom. Ryan’s installation “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” (2022), made up of dozens of assorted objects occupying shelving units and bags, was included in the 2022 Whitney Biennial.
Her latest installation, as well as the works of the other three shortlisted Turner Prize artists, is currently on view at the Tate Liverpool through March 2023.