Veronica Ryan: personal and poetic

As Bristol-based sculptor Veronica Ryan wins Britain’s most prestigious art award, the Turner Prize, in recognition of her major exhibition at Spike Island, we take a closer look at her life’s work…

Sculptor Veronica Ryan – who splits her time between Bristol, where she has a home in Spike Island, and New York – recently won this year’s prestigious Turner Prize for both her major exhibition at Spike Island art gallery and her Hackney Windrush Art Commission.

The Turner Prize 2022 was announced at a ceremony at St George’s Hall in Liverpool in December. The prize, which comes with a monetary award of £25,000, was presented by musician Holly Johnson during a live broadcast on the BBC. After Ryan’s name was announced, the hall filled with rigorous applause and Ryan began her acceptance speech with the words: “Power! Visibility! We are visible people”, as the cheers rang out.

Stepping on to the stage wearing her father’s hat, Ryan paid tribute to her family, including her three late siblings, whom she made a point of naming – Patricia, Josephine and David. “They were fantastic people and I think they’re looking at us right now, and they’re proud,” she said.

The British-Caribbean artist ­– who received an OBE in June 2021 – is well-known for creating installations using containers, compartments, and combinations of natural and fabricated forms to reference displacement, fragmentation and alienation. Her exhibition, Along a Spectrum, at Spike Island, which was supported by Freelands Foundation, examined these themes through works that included cast forms in clay and bronze; sewn and tea-stained fabrics; and crocheted fishing line pouches filled with a variety of seeds, fruit stones and skins.

Above: Along a Spectrum at Spike Island (2021). Photography by Max McClure. Courtesy Spike Island, Bristol, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York and Alison Jacques, London

A month after the exhibition finished in September 2021, Ryan unveiled the UK’s first permanent public artwork to honour the Windrush generation, placing giant sculptures of three large Caribbean fruits – a custard apple, breadfruit and a soursop made of bronze and marble – on a street in Hackney in east London. Ryan hoped her artwork would foster a sense of ownership among the local community and provide a vital public space to celebrate their cultural heritage, which captured the attention of this year’s jury.

The Turner Prize aims to promote public debate around new developments in contemporary British art. Named after the English painter J. M. W. Turner, who is regarded as Britain’s greatest and most prolific painters, the prize has become one of the best-known awards for visual arts in the world.

Between 1991 and 2016, only artists under the age of 50 were eligible for the Turner Prize. The restriction, however, was removed for the 2017 award. As a result, Ryan, 66, has become the oldest winner in the award’s 38-year history.

Above: Veronica Ryan standing by Hackney Windrush Art Commission | Photo: © Holly Falconer

This year, the Bristol-based sculptor was nominated alongside Heather Phillipson, Ingrid Pollard and Sin Wai Kin, all of whom received a £10,000 prize for reaching the final stages of the process. During the ceremony, the jury congratulated all four nominated artists for their strong and varied presentations which have offered visitors to Tate Liverpool – where the Turner Prize 2022 exhibition will be presented until 19 March 2023 – a rich sensory experience. They believed that all had pushed the boundaries of material exploration through unravelling the complexities of body, nature and identity, but awarded the prize to Ryan for the personal and poetic way she extends the language of sculpture. Her recent practice combines found and usually forgotten objects and crafted materials, underpinned by interconnecting themes such as healing and loss. They praised the noticeable shift in her use of space, colour and scale both in gallery and civic spaces.

Ryan moved from Montserrat in the Caribbean to the UK as a toddler. She studied at Bath Academy of Art before moving to London and attending The Slade School of Fine Art and later The School of Oriental and African Studies. In her acceptance speech, Ryan thanked people “who’ve looked out for me when I wasn’t visible and I was making work from rubbish”, adding: “But actually some of the rubbish [works] are some of the most important works, I think.” Over the years, Ryan has spoken at great length about how her love for repurposing old and outgrown materials, skills that her mother passed down to her as a child.

Although the Bristol-based sculptor had a promising start to her career, she told the BBC that it has been “an incredible struggle” at times, explaining that “there were 20 years, almost, when no-one was paying attention to my work.”

Above: Turner Prize 2022: Veronica Ryan Installation View at Tate Liverpool 2022 | Photo: © Tate (Matt Greenwood)

The repetition of the word ‘visible’ in Ryan’s acceptance speech seems all the more poignant when you look back at certain points in her life – times when she was “being made invisible”, as she has stated in previous interviews. In July 1995, a volcano in Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills, which had laid dormant for centuries, erupted and buried the island’s capital of Plymouth, where Ryan was born. The eruption covered the city in more than 39ft of mud and rendered the southern part of the island, now termed the exclusion zone, uninhabitable. What’s more, less than 10 years later, Ryan lost a huge amount of work in the 2004 Momart fire, which destroyed an art storage warehouse in London and turned more than 100 works by some of Britain’s leading contemporary artists to ash. The media reported on the great loss felt by many artists such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst but left out any mention of Ryan’s heartache.

Ryan has described those years as living in “the art world’s shadows”, but through it all she persevered regardless, and etched her name into the history books.

Speaking about Ryan’s exhibition in Bristol, the director of Spike Island, Robert Leckie, said: “Veronica Ryan’s Spike Island exhibition was supported by the Freelands Award, designed for mid-career female artists whose work has not yet received the recognition it deserves. This enabled us to commission and produce significant new work, invite Veronica to join our studio community as a resident artist, and publish an extensive monographic publication.

“It is a joy to see her outstanding contribution to British art finally acknowledged with the Turner Prize.”

An exhibition of the four shortlisted artists is at Tate Liverpool until 19 March 2023. This year Turner Prize is held at Tate Liverpool to mark 15 years since the prize was first held in the city. Tate Liverpool was the first gallery outside London to host the prize in 2007 when it helped launch the city’s year as European Capital of Culture.