From Montserrat to the Turner Prize

By Craig Brewin, Head of Research

With the 2023 Turner Prize shortlist recently announced it is a good time to remind ourselves on the current prizeholder. Last December, sculptor, Veronica Ryan became the first person from a British Overseas Territory to win it. Born in Montserrat in the 1950’s, Ryan has also become the oldest person to win, and only the second black person. She was first individual to win the award outright since 2018. 

Ryan studied 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, and her work first appeared in exhibitions curated by the black curator, Lubaina Himid. She now has works in The Henry Moore Collection and the permanent collections of the Arts Council, and the Tate. 

Ryan’s award covers several of her works, but her most famous is the commemoration of the Windrush generation located in Narrow Way Square in Hackney. The permanent installation, which was placed in the square in 2021, consists of giant bronze and marble replicas of three Caribbean fruits. These are entitled “Custard Apple (Annonaceae),” “Breadfruit (Moraceae),” and “Soursop (Annonaceae)”.

On a video created for her nomination, Ryan said: “I chose those particular fruit and veg because they’re what my mum ate when she was pregnant with me. I like the idea that there’s this whole side of nurture and healing and mother-daughter relationships and intergenerational information being passed on”. Ryan has also spoken of the importance of Ridley Road market to the Caribbean community in the 1960s. 

Although new to street art Ryan has often and has often used organic materials in her art, including seeds, herbs, seeds and peels. There is a lot of crochet, sticking and staking. This has always been a theme of hers, and has said that during her childhood she was inspired by the repurposing of materials to create art, using materials that she gathers herself and transforms.  Her inspirations include her mother’s quilt making from old church dresses, and a Christmas tree project involving thread reels. She draws on both her Caribbean heritage and her experience of growing up in the UK. 

The notes to her exhibition at Spike Island in Bristol read: “Fruits, seeds, plants and vegetables are recurring motifs in Ryan’s sculpture – they function metaphorically for the artist’s own sense of dislocation and, more widely, they allude to a history of trading across the globe. In Ryan’s work, personal experience is often conditioned by a sense of location. An important focus of her research is on the history of Montserrat and trying to identify its early culture prior to the arrival of the Europeans. As such, the exhibition presents large groups of soursop skins and cocoa pods cast in clay and glazed with volcanic ash from Alliouagana, the name by which the native Caribs called the island of Montserrat.”

Ryan received the trophy from former Frankie Goes To Hollywood frontman Holly Johnson at Liverpool's St George's Hall. “Power! Visibility!” she shouted after the award was announced, and afterwards told the BBC afterwards; “better late than never”.