LONDON — Sonia Boyce is used to breaking down walls.
Last month she became the first black artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale, the world’s oldest international art exhibition. The work she presented in the British pavilion won the top prize, the Golden Lion. Six years prior, she had been the first black British woman to be elected to the country’s prestigious Royal Academy of Arts.
Yet Boyce’s career path has been anything but a straight line. Past breakthroughs were followed by years of oblivion, such as when she became the first black British woman to enter the collections of the Tate museum in 1987 and then faded from the spotlight. She has made invisibility and cultural amnesia the center of her art. Her Venice pavilion – an installation of sound, video and memory – is dedicated to erasing black British female singers from the past.
Even his Golden Lion is part of his practice. It is a reminder of the invisibility suffered by generations of artists who were neither white nor male and went unrecognized.
So, as she said in a recent interview, she greets the trophy with a mixture of gratitude and circumspection.
“It seems almost ridiculous that you have to step into the 21st century for a black British artist to be asked to do Venice,” Boyce said, sitting in her sunny south London studio. The studio bore traces of its winning installation: glitter, plywood, wallpaper and cut-price vinyl records of black female singers.
“Being first suggests there was no place for someone like me before,” she said, adding that she hoped her victory in Venice wasn’t just “sort of blip” and that “the door stays open for more passage.”
“Feeling Her Way”, the work presented in Venice (until November 27), is a tribute to forgotten British singers of African, Caribbean and Asian origin. A cacophony of sound wafts through the pavilion as four singers sing, whistle, hum and moan on video screens. Screens hang in rooms lined with mosaic wallpaper; Arranged throughout the pavilion are golden geometric objects based on the shape of pyrite, a mineral also known by the colonial era term “fool’s gold”. In one gallery, black British singers of the past are remembered through a display of album covers (with reduced price tags), cassettes and memorabilia.
“Different voices trying to negotiate the space they’re in,” Boyce said, “That’s the essence of my practice.”
Boyce recalled that “Feeling Her Way” grew out of a 1999 project in Liverpool, England, in which artists co-produced work with members of the local community. She joined the Liverpool Black Sisters, a women’s center in Toxteth, an area of Liverpool that was the scene of race riots in the 1980s. Boyce asked the women to compile a list of black British female singers whose music they had grown up with. But in the first session, “it was very, very awkward,” Boyce said, “because it literally took about 10 minutes before anyone could think of anybody.”
“That’s what I mean by collective and structural amnesia,” she added. The women were embarrassed and, after consulting family and friends, came back with 46 names which became the basis for the exhibit Boyce organized. Boyce continued to work on the project herself, expanding it to include over 300 artists.
Boyce was born in London to parents of Caribbean descent and grew up in a house covered in patterned wallpaper and fabrics. Her father was a tailor and her mother a nurse and seamstress. As a girl, Boyce was fascinated by wallpaper patterns, which seemed to come to life at night, she said.
She started studying art at 15 and went to college near Birmingham, England. A visit to the 1981 “Black Art an’ Done” exhibition at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery was a revelation, she said, as she discovered that “there were these young black artists ‘doing’ very political work.
Inspired by Frida Kahlo, she began to imagine herself in rich oil pastels, wearing patterned dresses and gazing out at the viewer. In a four-part play – ‘Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain So Great’ (1986) – she sketched herself unsmiling against a backdrop of Victorian-era wallpaper with empire emblems and British colonies.
Her pastels brought her to notice and collection by the Tate and made her one of the pioneers of the black British artistic movement, which focused on race and cultural difference at a time of discrimination, riots and police violence.
Still, for Boyce, the self-portraits became a “dead end,” she said. She didn’t feel comfortable working with herself at the center, she said, and moved on to portraying “multiple identities: a social practice where I challenge others to say who they are and what they do”.
For his contemporaries, this decision made sense.
“I’m a big fan of his early works,” said Isaac Julien, the Black British filmmaker and installation artist, “but I also recognize that you want autonomy and a certain freedom.” Boyce “was a star early on,” he added, “and his practice evolved to follow his own sense of experimentation.”
Beginning in the early 1990s, Boyce began working as a “social practice” artist, involving members of marginalized communities – whether based on race, class or gender – in crafting from his work. The purpose of the art of social practice is to “illuminate and recover people’s experiences and stories from oblivion, because they have not been archived or because they have been neglected” , said Anna Colin, lecturer in conservation at Goldsmiths, University. from London.
Boyce’s new work was confusing and unpleasant to the mainstream art world in Britain at the time. (Times are changing: Last year, all of the nominees for the nation’s most prestigious art award, the Turner Prize, were socially engaged collectives.) art and dominated the attention of media, museums and the market in Britain for decades.
Still, Boyce continued to do what she was doing.
Relationships and collaboration have been “really the hallmark of everything she has done”, said Alex Farquharson, director of Tate Britain and co-curator of ‘Life Between Islands’, a recent survey of the art of British Caribbean which included works by Boyce. “She pursued a practice marked by generosity and real experimentation,” he added.
Boyce’s friend, French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira, said the two bonded through another collaboration: a study group of black women artists, which they co-founded in London at the start. 1990s. It met monthly to discuss an artist’s work.
The two artists were neighbors for years in the South London district of Brixton; their children were playing together in the park. By a twist of fate, they were also neighbors at the Venice Biennale this year, where Sedira represents France in the pavilion next to that of Great Britain. Sedira won a special mention for her film installation.
The Venice Biennale was a game-changer for Boyce long before his Golden Lion. She was invited in 2015 to show a performance in the main exhibition of the Biennale, organized that year by Okwui Enwezor. This put her back on the art world’s radar and she was elected to the Royal Academy the following year.
In 2018 an investigation into his work was opened at the Manchester Art Gallery. In the year leading up to the exhibition, Boyce engaged museum staff in discussions of the collection, which includes John William Waterhouse’s 1896 painting of bathing nudes, “Hylas and the Nymphs”.
After female staff members spoke of being sexually harassed near the painting, compared to nymphs and approached by male visitors, Boyce temporarily removed the Waterhouse during a performance and replaced it with lyrics she had recorded in the group discussions, such as: presents the female body either as a “passive decorative form” or as a “femme fatale”. Let’s challenge this Victorian fantasy!
This performance embodies Boyce’s type of social art practice, said Grant Kester, professor of art history at the University of California, San Diego. She engaged with staff members, visitors and others to “bring that dialogue into the project,” Kester said. It was all in the belief, he added, “that individuals outside the institutional art world have legitimate opinions, views and ideas to offer”.
Yet Boyce’s attempt to involve more people in the curatorial process was also seen as censorship of a beloved Pre-Raphaelite painting and sparked national outrage. Writing in The Guardian, art critic Jonathan Jones said Boyce made “a rude gesture that will end up on the wrong side of history”.
Looking back on the episode, Boyce said the uproar was because the performance involved “nineteenth-century painting, that is, art proper, by a white man, recognized as a true artist”.
Boyce herself now enjoys similar recognition — and still getting used to it.
She recalled standing on the steps of the British Pavilion on the opening day of the Biennale and spotting female artists in the crowd who also deserved to have their work displayed inside. “You should be here,” she remembered thinking to herself. “Why hasn’t this happened yet?” »
It was a moment of realization that she had put off until then, she said. “I suddenly felt the weight of history.”