This year, Sonia Boyce OBE RA is representing Great Britain at the 59th Venice Biennale and has won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation for her work.
Elected to become a member of the Royal Academy of Arts 2016 and awarded an OBE in 2019, Boyce is currently the Chair of Black Art and Design at University of the Arts in London. Here, we reflect on Boyce’s life, work and achievements leading up to this point and understand how she has continued to redefine the art historical narrative throughout her career.
The Early Years
Boyce was born in 1962 to Barbadian parents of the Windrush generation (Adams, 2022). Raised in Islington, she was a creative as a child who was always drawing however, she never considered art as a career until prompted one day by a teacher to study art at college (Tate, 2018). Subsequently, Boyce gained a place at Stourbridge College of Art, graduating in 1983 where she aimed to ‘deconstruct or reconstruct images around the Black female body’ (Ibid.). It was here that a poster for a Black art convention was hung up in the college library, one which would allow Boyce to find her position as an artist, and operate alongside a framework that was not ready to accept her or her contemporaries.
This meeting was the start of Boyce’s involvement with the Blk Arts Group, a collective of young artists including Keith Piper, Claudette Johnson, Donald Rodney, Lubaina Himid, Rasheed Araeen, Eddie Chambers, David A. Bailey, among others who focused on highlighting the ‘raised questions about what Black art was, its identity and what it could become in the future’ (Tate Kids, n.d.; Tate, n.d.).* For Boyce, the discovery of artists who shared her drive to address the discrimination they faced every day: ‘honestly it was like some sort of fractural thing that had kind of gone through my brain’(BBC4, 2018).
Not only was this a platform for the group to voice their experiences and viewpoints, but it also focused on looking at the particular significance of female Black art (Art UK, n.d.). Through this early work, Boyce invited audiences to question their own prejudices, primarily around race and gender stereotypes (BBC4, 2018). Works such as ‘Missionary Position II’ and ‘Big Women’s Talk’ are emblematic of this. ‘She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose)’ shows Boyce herself, holding her family up in the air on both hands, physically strong and unfazed as she gazes out at the viewer (Tawadros, 1997). According to Gilane Tawadros (1997), founding Director of International Institute of Visual Arts (INIVA), ‘caught between past and present, between England and the Caribbean, this work demarcates an in-between space where competing narratives collide, become entangled but are not necessarily resolved’.
The artist’s Caribbean heritage, particularly her mother’s house décor which was full of patterns and colour, informs the bold colour and form in her early work which were mainly done in chalk and pastels (Tawadros, 1997). Taking inspiration from artists such as Frida Kahlo, Boyce often included herself in her work as well as members of her family to raise questions of identity and cultural overlaps (Yussuf, 2022). Later inspirations came from artists such as Sophie Calle, David Medalla, Lygia Clark and Suzanne Lacy (Higgie, 2018).
Another interesting aspect of Boyce’s art, especially considering the Whitworth’s collections, is the way she re-thought wallpaper as a medium. Wallpaper is anything but a domestic backdrop, as explored in the Whitworth’s exhibition ‘Bodies of Colour’ in 2018/2019. In the detail of its design or manufacture often lies a wealth of information about society at the time of its creation. For example, at the time of writing this blog, there is a piece by Boyce titled ‘Clapping’ in the ‘Exchanges’ exhibition at the Whitworth. Using the format of wallpaper, Boyce displays a repeating image of two hands clapping as the title suggests. As the viewer, seeing hands clapping in front of you is intended to suggest the idea of ‘surveillance’- that you are on display, being judged in your own home (V&A, n.d.). Boyce has used wallpaper repeatedly over the years to tell stories and raise questions around identity, race and gender (Tawadros, 1997).
The 90s Onwards
During the 1990s, the artist decided to reach beyond her own experiences and take a more participatory, collaborative approach. Moving away from drawings in which Boyce sometimes included herself, this phase involved using photography and audio-visual elements. Through expanding the themes of her work into a dynamic space, Boyce could then focus on including the viewer (UAL, n.d.).
‘People do often want to mothball me in that 1980s moment but I of course have continued to make work and other questions have emerged. In more recent years I have tried to let go of the idea of there being a message per se but a way of working.’- Sonia Boyce(Tate, 2018)
In the 1995 exhibition ‘Peep’ held at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery for example, Boyce obscured the view of objects within display cases using coloured paper and creating a narrower field of vision for the viewer (BURU, n.d.). Through making the viewer ‘peep’ through the gaps, Boyce highlighted ‘the element of voyeurism in the museum’s presentation of ‘other’’ (BURU, 2018).
More recently in 2018, Manchester Art Gallery hosted a retrospective of Boyce’s work which displayed earlier work alongside newer, post-1990s work. In addition, performance artists were invited one evening to respond to the art (Higgie, 2022). During this time, Boyce requested that the Painting ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ by JW Waterhouse be removed and in its place for visitors to write their thoughts on the female portrayal within the art gallery on post-it notes. What was intended to stimulate debate around the perception of women, resulted in an emotional backlash against curators at the gallery and the artist themselves (Ibid.).
Whilst Boyce was focusing on what was being displayed in gallery spaces, she also looked at works that were not being exhibited often or at all. As part of a research project called ‘Black Arts and Modernism’, Boyce investigated the stores of selected galleries in the UK for works by Black and British Asian artists (UAL, n.d.). She uncovered thousands of their works that had not been exhibited (Adams, 2022). Through highlighting the lack of visibility of these works, Boyce shows that their significance has been left unrecognised over decades, and questions why this is the case.
The elements of Boyce’s practice have culminated over years to form the work exhibited at the 2022 Venice Biennale, where Boyce was chosen to represent Great Britain. The pavilion called ‘Feeling Her Way’ celebrated Black British female singers and has been two decades in the making. The idea came about 1999 in Liverpool where a simple question posed to a group- to name female Black British singers- lead to a delayed response (Naveri, 2022). This motivated Boyce to start building an archive of female Black artists in a project called ‘Devotional’ which developed over years as Boyce built up a collection of memorabilia (Ibid.). This project formed the basis of ‘Feeling Her Way’ (Tate, 2018; Adams, 2022).
One room of the pavilion is filled with the performer-related items that Boyce has collected over the years from posters to CDs (Adesina, 2022). Another showcases the voices of five female musicians- Jacqui Dankworth, Tanita Tikaram, Poppy Ajudha, Errollyn Wallen and Sofia Jernberg- whom she had invited to perform for the exhibitions (Connett, 2022). Naturally, wallpaper was a key element of the work as Boyce explained, “Wallpaper is seen as this thing that sits in the background, and, for me, singers are also expected to operate in that way…they become just the background of our lives and not in the foreground. So for me, there’s an important relationship between those” (Adesina, 2022).
Boyce has been awarded the Golden Lion for her work.
* If you’re interested in reading more about this moment and its subsequent impact, search for the book ‘Shades of Black’ edited by Sonia Boyce and David A. Bailey.
Adams, T. 2022. Artist Sonia Boyce: ‘Paintings are not born on walls’. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2022/apr/17/artist-sonia-boyce-paintings-are-not-born-on-walls. [Accessed: 15 June 2022].
Adesina, P. 2022. Inside a Prize-Winning Ode to Black Women in Music at the Venice Biennale. Available from: https://gal-dem.com/sonia-boyce-venice-biennale/. [Accessed 19 June 2022].
Art UK. n.d. Sonia Boyce. Available from: https://artuk.org/discover/artists/boyce-sonia-b-1962. [Accessed 18 June 2022].
BBC4. 2018. Whoever Heard of a Black Artist. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=goCpVgEaKig. [Accessed: 17 June 2022].
Ben Uri Research Unit (BURU). n.d. Sonia Boyce. Available from: https://www.buru.org.uk/record.php?id=772. [Accessed 18 June 2022].
Connett, D. 2022. British artist Sonia Boyce wins Golden Lion at Venice Biennale. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2022/apr/23/british-artist-sonia-boyce-wins-golden-lion-at-venice-biennale. [Accessed 19 June 2022].
Higgie, J. 2018. Sonia Boyce: 30 Years of Art and Activism. Available from: https://www.frieze.com/article/sonia-boyce-30-years-art-and-activism. [Accessed 19 June 2022].
Naveri, F., 2022. Fighting Forgetting, with a Venice Biennale Win. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/13/arts/design/sonia-boyce-venice-biennale.html?smid=url-share. [Accessed 18 June 2022].
Tate. 2018. Sonia Boyce – ‘Gathering a History of Black Women’ TateShots. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRB6H06UpJ4&t=11s. [Accessed: 15 June 2022].
TATE KIDS. n.d. Who is Sonia Boyce? Available from: https://www.tate.org.uk/kids/explore/who-is/who-sonia-boyce. [Accessed: 15 June 2022].
Tate. n.d. The Blk Art Group. Available from: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/blk-art-group. [Accessed: 18 June 2022].
Tawadros, G. 1997. Sonia Boyce, Speaking in Tongues. London, Kala Press.
University of Arts London (UAL), n.d. Professor Sonia Boyce. Available from: https://www.arts.ac.uk/research/ual-staff-researchers/sonia-boyce. [Accessed 18 June 2022].
Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). n.d. Clapping. Available from: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O205915/clapping-wallpaper-boyce-sonia/. [Accessed 18 June 2022].
Yussuf, A. 2022. Five Minutes with Sonia Boyce. Available from: https://www.google.com/search?q=sonia+boyce+frida+kahlo&rlz=1C1JZAP_enGB864GB864&oq=sonia+boyce+frida+&aqs=chrome.1.69i57j33i160l3.6530j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8. [Accessed 19 June 2022].