LONDON – Sonia Boyce is used to breaking down walls.
Last month, she became the first black female 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 earlier, she was the first black British woman to be elected to the country’s prestigious Royal Academy of Arts.
Still, Boyce’s career path has been anything but a straight line. Past breakthroughs were followed by years of obscurity, such as when she became the first black British woman to enter the Tate Museum’s collections in 1987 and then fade from the spotlight. She has made invisibility and cultural amnesia a focus of her art. Her Venice pavilion – an installation of sound, video and memorabilia – is all about erasing black British singers of the past.
Even her Golden Lion fits into her practice. It is a reminder of the invisibility endured by generations of artists who were not white and male and went unrecognized.
So, as she said in a recent interview, she greets the trophy with a mix of gratitude and caution.
“It seems almost ridiculous that it takes until the 21st century for a black British female artist to be invited to visit Venice,” said Boyce, sitting in her sun-filled studio in south London. The studio carried traces of her winning installation: glitter, plywood, wallpaper and discounted vinyl records of black singers.
“Being the first suggests there wasn’t room for someone like me before,” she said, adding that she hoped her Venice win wasn’t just “some kind of blip” and that “the door remains open for more get through.”
‘Feeling Her Way’, the work on display in Venice (until 27 November), is a tribute to forgotten British singers of African, Caribbean and Asian descent. A cacophony of sounds floats through the pavilion as four female vocalists each sing, whistle, hum and wail on video screens. The screens hang in rooms lined with mosaic wallpaper; scattered throughout the pavilion are gilded geometric objects based on the shape of pyrite, a mineral also known by the colonial term “fool’s gold.” In one gallery, black British vocalists of the past are commemorated through a display of album covers (with discounted price tags), cassettes and memorabilia.
“Different voices trying to negotiate the space they’re in,” Boyce said, “This is 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 worked with the Liverpool Black Sisters, a women’s center in Toxteth, a Liverpool neighborhood where race riots took place in the 1980s. Boyce asked the women to make a list of black British singers whose music they had grown up with. But in the first session “it was very, very uncomfortable,” Boyce said, “because it literally took about 10 minutes for someone to think about someone.”
“This is what I mean about collective and structural amnesia,” she added. The women were ashamed and after consultation with family and friends came back with 46 names that became the basis for the exhibition Boyce organized. Boyce continued to work on the project himself, expanding it to include more than 300 artists.
Boyce was born in London to parents of Caribbean descent and grew up in a household 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 the wallpaper motifs, which seemed to come alive at night, she said.
She started studying art when she was 15 and attended university near Birmingham, England. Visiting 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” who were doing “very political work.”
Inspired by Frida Kahlo, she began picturing herself in rich oil pastels, dressed in patterned dresses and staring at the viewer. In a four-part piece – “Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain So Great” (1986) – she drew her unsmiling self against the backdrop of Victorian-era wallpaper depicting emblems of the Empire and of the British Colonies .
Her pastels ensured she was noticed and collected by the Tate and made her one of the pioneers of the Black British art movement, which focused on race and cultural differences at a time of discrimination, riots and police brutality.
But for Boyce, the self-portraits became a dead end, she said. She didn’t feel comfortable working with herself in the center, she said, and switched to representing “multiple identities: a social practice where I give other people the opportunity to say who they are and what they do.”
For her contemporaries, that decision made sense.
“I’m a big fan of her early works,” says Isaac Julien, the black British filmmaker and installation artist, “but I also recognize that you want autonomy and a certain amount of freedom.” Boyce “was a star very early on,” he added, “and her practice evolved in a way that followed her 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 shaping her work. The purpose of social practice art is to “shed light and bring people’s experiences and stories out of obscurity because they have not been archived or because they have been overlooked,” said Anna Colin, curatorial lecturer at Goldsmiths, University from London.
Boyce’s new work was baffling and distasteful to the mainstream art world in Britain at the time. (Times are changing: Last year, all the nominees for the country’s most prominent art award, the Turner Prize, were socially engaged collectives.) Boyce and other black British artists were further sidelined by the rise of the Young British Artists, who were fixated on conceptual art and dominated media, museum and market attention in Britain for decades.
Still, Boyce kept doing what she was doing.
Relationships and collaboration have “truly been the hallmark of everything she’s done,” says Alex Farquharson, the director of Tate Britain and co-curator of “Life Between Islands,” a recent study of British Caribbean art featuring works by Boyce. “She has followed a practice marked by generosity and real experimentation,” he added.
Boyce’s friend, French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira, said the two had bonded through yet another collaboration: a study group for black women, which they co-founded in London in the early 1990s. It met monthly to discuss an artist’s work.
The two artists were neighbors in the Brixton area of south London for many years; their children played together in the park. By a twist of fate, they were also neighbors at this year’s Venice Biennale, where Sedira represents France in the pavilion next to that of Great Britain. Sedira won a special mention there for her film installation.
The Venice Biennale was a game changer for Boyce long before her Golden Lion. She was invited in 2015 to show a performance work in the main exhibition of the Biennale, curated by Okwui Enwezor. It put her back on the radar of the art world and the following year she was elected a member of the Royal Academy.
In 2018 an overview of her work was opened at the Manchester Art Gallery. In the year leading up to the show, Boyce engages museum staff in discussions about the collection, including John William Waterhouse’s 1896 painting of bathing nudes, “Hylas and the Nymphs.”
After female staff members spoke of sexual harassment near the painting, compared to the nymphs and approached by male visitors, Boyce temporarily removed the Waterhouse in a performance and replaced it with lyrics she included in the group discussions, such as: “This gallery presents the female body as either a ‘passive decorative form’ or a ‘femme fatale’ Let’s challenge this Victorian fantasy!”
This performance epitomized Boyce’s type of social art practice, said Grant Kester, a professor of art history at the University of California, San Diego. She engaged with employees, visitors and others to “make that dialogue part of the project,” Kester said. It was all in the belief, he added, “that individuals outside the institutional art world have legitimate opinions and views and insights to offer.”
But Boyce’s attempt to involve more people in the curatorial process was also seen as censorship of a much-loved Pre-Raphaelite painting and sparked national outrage. In The Guardian, art critic Jonathan Jones writes that Boyce made “a rude gesture that will end up on the wrong side of history”.
Looking back at the episode, Boyce said it was uproar because the performance involved “a 19th century painting, i.e. real art, by a white man, recognized as a real artist.”
Boyce himself now enjoys the same recognition – and still has to get used to it.
She recalled standing on the steps of the British Pavilion on the opening day of the Biennale, seeing female artists in the crowd who also deserved to display their work indoors. “You should be here,” she remembered thinking to herself. “Why hasn’t that happened yet?”
It was a moment of reckoning she’d put off until then, she said. “I suddenly felt the weight of history.”