Sonia Boyce

1962 | London, United-Kingdom

British multimedia artist.

Trained at Newham College – East Ham Campus London and then at Stourbridge College, Sonia Boyce launched her career by creating large figurative drawings, a practice soon spotted by Tate Britain, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the Manchester Art Gallery, as well as the Musée National d’Art Moderne – Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. In her pastel quadriptych Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain So Great (1986), she took a new slant on the plant motifs of the Arts and Crafts movement, entwining them with the history of British colonisation and its effects on subjects on both sides of the gender spectrum. She contributed to the development and later to the historicisation of British Black Arts, embodied by art students determined to raise awareness and recognition of the works of black, racialised artists.

The 1990s saw her opting for a plastic oeuvre that would reflect the ‘parasitic economy’, coined by Marcus Verhagen and Jean Fisher: by adopting the codes of a dominant culture she succeeded in imbuing it with an analysis and commentary on the social system. They’re Almost Like Twins (1995) is an installation comprising two identical self-portraits in photographic form, printed on a strikingly contrasted vinyl canvas. The decade was also devoted to an exploration of wallpaper, performance, weaving and drawn texts, paving the way for a study of the fetishism attached to the black body.
Over the years, Sonia Boyce’s oeuvre has veered away from the stance and position of black, racialised individuals in a decolonial context in order to illustrate the power balance at play in all forms of intersubjectivity. For You, Only You (2007) is a video installation featuring a vocal performance of the motet Tu solus qui facis mirabilia (by Josquin Des Prés) in the surroundings of Magdalen College Chapel in Oxford. The Alamire choir, conducted by David Skipper, enters into a dialogue with the singer Mikhail Karikis. This form of disruptive conversation reached its ‘droll’ apotheosis in the video Exquisite Cacophony (2015), shown that same year at the Venice Biennale, an improvised jousting match between performer Andy Bothwell and vocalist Elaine Mitchener before an audience at the V&A. The latter juggles between off-the-wall jokes, cacophonies and vocal games evoking Kurt Schwitter’s Dada poem Ursonate (1932).
The video-installation We Move in Her Way (2016‒2017) is structured in part around a gestural, vocal performance, created in conjunction with E. Mitchener, and in part through movement, given form by choreographer Barbara Gamper and her dancers, who play with hoops decked in ribbons, in the midst of a masked audience, a flashback to Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943).

S. Boyce has forged an approach rooted in collaboration. Her work with singers and dancers of all sexes and gender but also with museum staff members or specific audiences has formed the bedrock for an archive of performative black British female singers, Devotional (1999‒ongoing). Featuring wallpaper and a six-part video, Six Acts (2018) explores the acquisition, mediation and display policies carried out by public museums through the prism of gender, race and sexualities.
Regular brainstorming sessions between the staff of the Manchester Art Gallery and its range of visitors gave rise to a night of filmed performances, featuring among others a mise en scène by Ira Aldridge, a black nineteenth-century actor, as Othello, drag artists responding to the works in the collection, and the removal of the controversial painting, Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) by John William Waterhouse (1849‒1917).
S. Boyce will be representing the United Kingdom at the 2022 Venice Biennale.

Sophie Orlando

Translated from French by Caroline Taylor-Bouché.

A notice produced as part of the TEAM international academic network: Teaching, E-learning, Agency and Mentoring

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