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Sonia Boyce: Wallpapering the British Pavilion by Madeleine Jordan

13 May 2022


This article accompanies an interview on the Courtauld's Bloomberg Connects app profile with Courtauld Alumna and British Pavilion Development Officer Agata Eltman on Golden Lion award-winner Sonia Boyce’s powerful sound installation of Black female voices.


Illustration by Olivia Keable

As a child… I often imagined that wallpaper had a life of its own, that it was like entering a folk-like narrative world...’ - Sonia Boyce British born, to a Guyanese Father and Barbadian Mother, Sonia Boyce lives life between an “Anglicised background and a West Indian foreground.” Or, as she puts it another way, somewhere between, “but look at my trials nah” and “gaw blimey.” She is an artist whose had a long career of ‘firsts’: the first Black British woman to have a painting purchased by Tate (1987), the first Black British woman elected to the Royal Academy (2016), and now the first Black British woman to represent Britain at this year’s Venice Biennale (2022). The accolades are “undercut,” says Boyce, by the “sense that somehow I’m out of place,” that “actually what is being said underneath is ‘oh, we weren’t expecting you.’” The British Pavilion represents a contemporary presentation of Britishness, not just in terms of art, but in terms of national identity. For her installation, Boyce wants us to ask ourselves these questions: “who do you expect to be British?” and “how do we negotiate difference in our day-to-day lives, let alone in terms of making artworks?” In 1982, Boyce and around 200 Black artists and students attended the Keith Piper ‘Black Art’ show conference at Wolverhampton Art Gallery. From this meeting, the British Black Arts Movement was formed. Boyce’s involvement in group shows like Lubaina Himid’s ‘Five Black Women’ (1983), ‘Black Woman Time Now’ (1983), and Rasheed Araeen’s ‘The Other Story’ (1989), solidified her practice in the contemporary art scene and politically radical race and gender discourse. Her 1986 work Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain so Great, demonstrates both the oppression Boyce felt as a Black woman and the colonial cruelty the idea of Britishness is built upon. Referencing the Victorian sexual instructional phrase “lay back and think of England.” Boyce draws together colonial and domestic legacies of subjugation. Like graves, the three crucifixes in Lay Back remember the loss of life and liberty for indigenous peoples dominated by colonial rule. The final panel is dominated by a self-portrait of Boyce. Her face stands proud against the wallpaper backdrop and flat memories of black and white murders. Her portrait calls forth a hopeful yet reflective impulse to liberate Black women from the histories of religious and colonial violence. The ensnaring wallpaper pattern with black English roses, thorny tendrils and green leaves speaks to Boyce’s conceptual visualisation of intersecting modes of oppression. Boyce’s wallpaper literally overlays colonial and women's history onto the white walls. Gifted to Queen Victoria on her golden jubilee as Empress of the British Empire, William Morris made a commemorative wallpaper which depicted four conquered continents. As Boyce recalls, “I looked at William Morris wallpapers and some of his philosophies and these two elements anchored how I articulated my experience of growing up in the UK.” For Boyce, “Black skin is always visible. I was thinking of the paper in these terms, that the wall’s skin is paper.” Her contemporary work has been driven by investigating curatorial and archival processes as a means of rediscovering and reanimating long forgotten artistic contributions by Black and Asian British artists. The walls of an institution are covered in layers of history, and she wants us to ask, “Whose Power is on Display?” Boyce led the Arts and Humanities Research Council Project, ‘Black Artists and Modernism,’ which uncovered 2000 works by Black and Asian British artists stored, but never displayed, in British institutions. Through her research, Boyce uncovered the pointedly anonymised identity of Ira Aldridge, the subject of James Northcote’s portrait Othello Moor of Venice. In 2018, Boyce worked with the Manchester Art Gallery, where the painting is hung, to recontextualise and reassert Black and queer histories on the walls. As Boyce discovered – through conversation with gallery goers, staff, and the curation team – representations of women, queer, and non-white subjects were denied agency within the gallery. The 18th and 19th century collections on display had remained unchanged since their installation in 2002. “There seemed to be two roles played by women: femme fatales, driving men to their deaths, or figures of beauty in quiet contemplation, but without being active agents…” Boyce acted as a catalyst and collaborated with five performance artists, some from the local Drag family Gorgeous, to perform interventions challenging binary notions of gender, sexuality, and race. In Six Acts, those people representationally unempowered were invited to insert themselves into the space. Lasana Shabazz performed Act One As… Ira Aldridge… God Save the Queen Abolitionist version as Whiteface Minstrel as… Football Hooligan. The lengthy title denotes the phases of said performance; Aldridge was one of the first Black actors to play a white role on stage and Shabazz dons make-up to become a white-faced character too. Shabazz sings Stephen Foster’s 1850 song Camptown Races which was intended to mock the speech pattern of African Americans. The staff noted that the Pre-Raphaelite depiction of Hylas’ doom seemed to attract a predatory subculture of grooming and harassment around the painting. The John Waterhouse work depicts pale prepubescent nymphs coquettishly luring Hylas into a lily-pad lake. Boyce facilitated relationships between people from every professional area of the Manchester Art Gallery culminating in the removal of Waterhouse’s painting for a short period. The audience were invited to write down their thoughts and layer paper notes onto the wall where the painting had been hung. The project was far from being the act of “censorship” akin to that of “book-burning” that some mainstream media dubbed it as. Instead, the takeover revealed and made visible the usually hidden institutional machinery shielded to the public. For the British Pavilion, Boyce is returning to Devotional, a series revealing and celebrating the forgotten history of Black British women musicians and singers. The series started as a six-month project in 1999 with Liverpool Black Sisters and was a collaborative process of discovery and naming Black women musical artists. The 46 names were drawn from family, friends and the group and spanned from Shirley Bassey to Sade. The resulting artwork was a multi-media display of sound, collage and placards set against Boyce wallpaper. The list of names has expanded over the years and now numbers 350. The names and narratives are woven together much like musical harmonies and are repeated in reverberations to create a rippling wallpaper. Devotional celebrates the rich and influential musical tradition produced across the African Diaspora which still plays in our homes and continues to contribute enormously to contemporary British culture. This work is the culmination of an artistic practice which interweaves domestic and national memories through interior spaces, sound, and history. Sonically and historically, Sonia Boyce’s installation in the British Pavilion will echo on.

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