Sonia Boyce’s Fantasy Girl Band

With an installation in the British Pavillion centering five Black female musicians singing at Abbey Road Studios, the 59th Venice Art Biennale Golden Lion winner merges their vocalisations into a rare choral hymn of freedom.

by Johanne Affricot and S. Himasha Weerappulige - Published on 17/05/2022
Sonia Boyce, Feeling her way. British Pavilion, 59th Venice Art Biennale. Photo: Johanne Affricot

At the end of a long cobblestone pavement decorated by trees, a small white building on top of a hill recalls a house in theEnglish countryside. Located at the Giardini della Biennale in Venice and built in 1909, the British Pavilion reflects preWWI dynamics by its position between the French and the German Pavilions. Artist Sonya Boyce stands at the top of the steps, behind a red ribbon waiting to be cut. A sizable audience below looks on. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. This project could not be possible without a herculean effort by many who made this possible. The reason why I started to cry when I climbed up that step was… there are many women artists in this crowd who should be in here.”

Music from her installation Feeling her way seeps out of the heavy doors, subverting the early 20th century linearities signalled by the buildings. The main installation consists of a room filled with gold rocks, sounds, and a tesselated wallpaper that recalls colorful Caribbean patterns. Harmony and dissonance intertwine in the cavernous space. Four screens placed side by side on the wall project a vocal exercise of improvisation, imagination and transformation by singers Poppy Ajudha, Jacqui Dankworth MBE and Tanita Tikaram—featured in colour-filtered videos—led by composer Errollyn Wallen. We then find them individually in the side galleries, or as a duet— as in the case of Sofia Jenberg and Jacqui Dankworth—invited to sing freely and explore aspects of their distinctive voices. Boyce is documenting and celebrating the transnational contribution made by Black British female musicians.

The golden rocks referencing pyrite or “fool’s gold” are arranged in clusters on the ceiling and on the floor, allowing the public to freely roam the room, and rest on them if needed. “The fellows that look after the exhibition take care of the space by promoting its accessibility. If someone doesn’t quite know what to do with the rocky sculptures, [the artistic facilitators] will go and sit on them. That will give them an indication. In some ways they are hopefully a gentle guide to what is possible in that space,” Boyce tells us.

Installation view. Sonia Boyce, Feeling her way. Room 1: Jacqui, Errollyn, Poppy, Tanita, 2022. British Pavilion at the 59th Venice Art Biennale. Photo: Johanne Affricot

Boyce recounts that during the 60s and 70s, there was a strong emphasis within conceptual art to give instructions, and during her artistic upbringing at art school she received what she calls a very  “formalist training” about how to think and pursue art. “I have been practising for nearly 40 years, and in that process, I have been trying to investigate and explore how to make work where you don’t just go with a conceptual framework. I realised that I’m interested in the ‘excess’. That is what leaks out of such frameworks. I know there is a lot going on in this show and it doesn’t automatically explain itself. Some people can be curious, other people will think it’s too much, so they will walk around trying to figure it out, some might find it not too emotional, but the singing is extraordinary, and of course that connects immediately. Music, singing always does that. I want people, even if they can’t figure it out, to have the possibility to be there and feel. Which also explains why I chose music as a vehicle for emotion.” The perception of music is accessible to most on a personal level. “There was a dear friend and art critic, Jean Fisher she had written something about one of my works fifteen years ago which involved singing. She reminded me, she reminds us, that the first sounds we hear are of our mothers. Her voice. Because we are in her body. The female voice has such a fundamental psychological connection, whether we embrace it is another thing. But its fundamental to all human beings,” she says.

Installation view. Sonia Boyce, Feeling her way: Sofia And Jacqui, Room 3, 2022. British Pavilion at the 59th Venice Art Biennale. Photo: Johanne Affricot

In a sense, the iridescent harmony that one hears in the room reflects Boyce’s disruptive practice of finding “gold” in what happens outside of circumscribed frameworks and linearities. Her art challenges such linearities and structures: she challenges notions of Britishness, deconstructs what it means to be diasporic, and questions what it means to be part of a family and challenge systemic racism via storytelling. The Biennale’s Jury stressed that “Sonia Boyce proposes, consequently, another reading of histories through the sonic. In working collaboratively with other Black women, she unpacks a plenitude of silenced stories.”

In school, a teacher noticed her interest and talent in art and wrote a letter to her mom suggesting that she join art school. “It was a very lonely time though.” Despite not being the only Black person in art class, it was an extremely isolated period of her life, partly because the few people of colour that lived in her area could not visibly hang out together.  “The National Front was very strong and the racist attacks were regular. I went to school with kids whose families were in the National Fronts. Having to live in that situation, where we knew that things were precarious, it was automatically apparent that racism was everyday life.” Being together in public attracted attention. The alienation was exacerbated by the lack of Black, Brown and other minorities’ representation within Britain’s wider artistic landscape. Her early art reflects more elements of self-portraiture than the current one. Not having Black bodies to inspire her work, she became her own muse.

Gradually, her visual storytelling reflected an increasing number of voices and realities, acquiring a more choral practice. Her artistic practice also extended to archival research and academia. Boyce taught for several years and participated in numerous workshops across the UK. She also coordinated a three-year archival project titled Black Artists and Modernism, which culminated in a show at the Manchester Art Gallery. For the latter program, she catalogued over 2,000 works by Black and Asian artists in the UK that had never been displayed to the public.

Installation view, Sonia Boyce, Feeling her way, Room 4: Devotional, 2022. British Pavilion, 59th Venice Art Biennale. Photo: Johanne Affricot

“It’s crazy when you realise that you are not the first, and especially, you are not alone”, she reasons in a documentary titled “Britain’s Hidden Art History” (2018).  Sonia Boyce adopts a historically British understanding of the umbrella term Black that gained considerable traction during the 1980s as a collective voice amongst African, South Asian, and Caribbean diasporic cultural and political activists. For Boyce, it is a term that recognises the ongoing impact of Britain’s imperial and colonial past through common experiences of racialisation and discrimination.

Asked where she would locate her artistic awakening, she says 1981, which was a time for civil unrest in Britain. One day she noticed a poster in her school’s library advertising an event called “Black Art An Done’, organised by the Blk Art Group whose members were mainly of Caribbean descent. The event took place at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery in the industrial landscapes of the West Midlands. “I went into that room and I was speechless. Over 200 Black people. Where had they all been all that time? How did I not know? I have been calling and nobody has been picking up!” she says jokingly.

I had been struggling at art school, so going to that conference at that point, making connections, made me realise that I didn’t care what art school thought of me, it gave me an enormous amount of confidence, and I understood I was part of something bigger than art school. And then I became very interested in the womens liberation, and then feminist movements.Her art gradually acquired a more political tone. In 1999, she started doing workshops and through various gallery programs was paired with the Liverpool Black Sisters (LBS), based in Toxteth.

As part of LBS she wanted to build a list of Black female singers and then create an artwork out of it. “In the very first session we all sat around in a circle and I said: ‘Can someone name me a Black British female singer they appreciate? There was a lot of silence, briefly interrupted by confused noises. It took us a good 15 minutes to find a name, and it was Shirley Bassey.” The silence made her realise how, despite there being plenty of female Black artists in the UK, who had some of the most incredible careers, their voices were silenced within the public sphere. Such realisation was the beginning of a long project aimed at collecting the vernacular culture of Black British women in the music industry, fighting the structural amnesia reinforced by a country where being Black meant being only visible as a threat.

Sonia Boyce, Room 4 feauturing the Devotional Collection, 2022. Photo: Cristiano Corte © British Council

After that first meeting, people started asking family, friends and colleagues to suggest names—“the project extended across time, and that was the beginning of the Devotional Project: that consisted in a musical mosaic of records, correspondences, books, CDs, videos, testimonials. Even when it finished, people continued to send us names through informal systems. People came with bags of vinyl records.” She had to do some research on the material she received herself, realising the depths of the prevailing cultural amnesia.

Installation view, Sonia Boyce, Feeling her way, Room 4: Devotional, 2022. British Pavilion, 59th Venice Art Biennale. Photo: Johanne Affricot

Boyce recounts that the project was a collective effort in reconstruction, and now includes over 350 names of Black female artists in the British music industry dating back to the mid 20th century [including names such as Adelaide Hall, who brought the Harlem Renaissance to Mayfair in London in the 1930s]. Devotional Collection (1999-2022), which emerged from the Devotional project, synthesises twenty years of research into singular voices, which through art, are reinvested into an idea of community and the collective into a single, multifaceted artwork. “This is my fantasy girl band.”

Sonia Boyce’s ‘Feeling her way’ at the 59th Venice Art Biennale runs until November 27, 2022

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Johanne Affricot
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Visual and performing arts, culture and music, traveling: I could just live on this. Graduated in International Cooperation and Development, I am an indipendent Culture Curator and Producer, and Artistic Director of GRIOTmag and Spazio GRIOT.

S. Himasha Weerappulige
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Opero nel cinema, tra casting, sviluppo, ricerca archiviale e programmazione nell’ambiente festival. Il mio background è però legale, e mi ha permesso di sviluppare un metodo di analisi decoloniale che mi porto appresso nell'audiovisivo e nelle arti. Curo diverse piattaforme diasporiche, e per GRIOT sono una contributor.