For much of Veronica Ryans career, the sculptor struggled to gain recognition. She sometimes was not really making enough money to pay the rent, she told The Guardian last year, and had to use any materials on hand to make new works.
Now, Ryans position in the art world has changed dramatically. On Wednesday, the artist whose enigmatic, small sculptures, including of seeds and fruit, were seen at this years Whitney Biennial won the Turner Prize, the biggest award in British art.
The announcement was made at a ceremony at St. Georges Hall in Liverpool. The city is hosting an exhibition of works by the four artists nominated for this years prize.
Alex Farquharson, director of Tate Britain and the co-chair of the prizes jury, said in an interview that Ryan, 66, won for work that lends new poetry to materials that are usually overlooked and usually thrown away. Her work, he said, might be the quietest and slowest burn of any recent winner of the prize.
Ryan was finding a new stage in her practice in her 60s with pieces touching on issues including migration, survival, healing and motherhood, he said, adding, These breakthroughs dont always happen young in an artists career.
Ryan, a New York-based artist, received 25,000 British pounds, about $30,000, for besting three other nominees: Ingrid Pollard, a pioneering Black female photographer; Heather Phillipson, an environmentally conscious artist behind several high-profile public artworks; and Sin Wai Kin, a nonbinary artist known for films that sometimes include elements of traditional Chinese opera and drag.
The Turner Prize, which was first awarded in 1984, has long been one of the art worlds major events; numerous winners, including Anish Kapoor and Steve McQueen, have gone on to become major stars. But in recent years it has become more known for stirring controversy in Britains art world, with newspaper critics complaining that the nominees were more activists than artists.
Last year, the prize was awarded to Array Collective, a group best known for attending political protests in Northern Ireland while holding funny props and banners.
This years event was seen as something of a return to form. Alastair Sooke, writing in The Daily Telegraph, said the award was once again doing what it was supposed to: showcasing excellence in contemporary British art.
There are no architecture collectives, artist-led charities, or community projects, he added. Instead (how quaint!), the judges have picked four individuals who actually identify as artists.
Several major critics predicted that Phillipson would win but most praised Ryans work too. Writing in The Sunday Times before the announcement, Waldemar Januszczak, a critic who has often been disdainful of the prize, said that Ryan was the real deal; a thoughtful, secretive, poetic artist.
Born in the Caribbean island of Montserrat in 1956, Ryan migrated to Britain with her family as a child. She had some early breakthroughs she was the only Black artist in a Tate showcase of emerging sculptors in 1984 but has come to widespread public attention only in the last few years.
In addition to the Whitney Biennial, last year she unveiled a major sculptural commission in London of a soursop, a breadfruit and a custard apple three fruits meant to represent the childhood salves of Caribbean immigrants to Britain.
Farquharson said that Ryan was very different from other recent winners, whose work focused on activism, but that it did not mark a shift in Britains art world. Prize juries change every year, he said. I dont think art changes too much.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times