Sonia Boyce’s performance defies easy categorization

When I first met Sonia Boyce, I marveled at her stature, her wide voice, her nonchalant chain smoking. My partner and I were interviewing him about ‘We move in her way’, his 2017 show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. “We are interested in the relationship between the black artist and the white institution,” I said proudly. Boyce’s response surprised us, defying our expectations of goodwill and celebration: “I’m not!” We had this conversation in the 80s. What else can we ask ourselves?

Although somewhat crushed at the time by Boyce’s refusal to respond to my statement, I let his response teach me to be more specific, to find the question that can only be asked right now, to focus on lines of inquiry that are unique to my particular context. This time, when we speak — via Zoom, on an unusually sunny afternoon in January — I’m excited. ‘Don’t worry Sonia, I won’t ask you how it feels to be the first black woman to represent the British flag [commissioned by the British Council for this year’s Venice Biennale]. I just want to hear about your work! Five years after we first met, I’ve developed a stubborn commitment to nuance, a sort of Boyce-like specificity. ‘Oh good. That’s what I want to talk about too,” Boyce replies. (phew!)

Sonia Boyce, ‘We move in her way’, 2017, Institute of Contemporary Art, London. Courtesy: © Sonia Boyce/DACS, London, and Institute of Contemporary Art, London; photography: George Torode

For many years, Boyce’s practice involved working closely with other people through improvisation and experimental practice. I ask what impact recent events have had on his ability to create new work: “It was about trying to bring people together and protect us all at the same time – and ultimately choreographing a situation that I hopefully interesting.” It’s a curious conundrum in terms of artistic creation, to have to say, I want people to be in touch, but they can’t touch.

I like this combination of “curious” (from the Latin curiousone of the meanings of which is ‘attention’) and ‘riddle’ (conanderthe Latin word for ‘a thing to try’): a prudent thing to try. I am struck by the clarity of its meaning and the wisdom practiced in Boyce’s use of words.

“My work has two stages,” Boyce tells me. “The first is to bring things and people together. It’s performance. It’s “OK, we have this time, we have this space, what can we do here? How do we negotiate with each other? His approach requires a kind of anthropological observation: open permission to get bogged down, to make mistakes, to play. “If I’m trying to direct what’s going on, I miss all kinds of things. I prefer to be in the situation itself, as it unfolds.

Sonia Boyce, In the castle of my skin, 2020, Eastside Projects, Birmingham. Courtesy: © Sonia Boyce/DACS, London, and Eastside Projects, Birmingham; photo: Stuart Whipps

This preference for being “in the middle of it all” should be read as an attention to the politics of social change, as well as to the artist’s own creative process. Boyce’s work pays close attention to the context in which it is generated, be it feminist debates over gendered representations of the body, or the British Black Arts Movement of the 1980s, or more contemporary explorations. His 2020 exhibition at Eastside Projects in Birmingham, “In the Castle of My Skin”, borrowed its title from Bajan writer George Lamming’s acclaimed novel, a study of colonial revolt in 1930s Barbados. Co-curated by Boyce and featuring the work of six other guest artists, the exhibition took the form of a large sculptural installation housing numerous works freely arranged next to each other, against each other and on top of each other. . To encounter Boyce’s work is to witness a playful serendipity and the revelation of his insistence on polyvocality, on reinvention and negotiation through creativity.

Boyce asserts that, for adults, play is “…too often seen as a vulnerability, rather than a space in which we can reinvent.” Indeed, binary thinking locks us into the willful uncertainty of play. Contemporary life is complexly structured by binaries, a condition rooted in the carceral continuum of surveillance, policing, and prisons. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we need new strategies. In our daily and conflicted lives, when so much is at stake, the status quo necessitates our fear of being wrong, of being punished, of being “irrelevant”. But in Boyce’s world, play is seen as an essential space in which to explore boundaries, to test and enjoy, to be surprised by things: “Our time is about that, the detachment from certainties that no longer nourish us enough good. .’ Playfulness requires creativity, and creativity opens up space for new ways of relating.

Portrait of Sonia Boyce, 2021. Courtesy of the British Council; photography: Sarah Weal

The second step in Boyce’s process requires the deft distance of an editor: “It’s about sculpting what I call the remnants into something new. Working with what people have given me. This subtlety was arguably lost in translation in 2018, when the first retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work, “Six Acts”, at the Manchester Art Gallery, was somewhat overshadowed by the furor created by its reception. public. The removal of John William Waterhouse’s controversial oil painting Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) at a performance event – ​​one of various outcomes of an ongoing collective dialogue with a range of museum visitors and staff about how work in the galleries is selected, exhibited and interpreted – was met with repeated death threats and hateful vitriol as the artist and his collaborators were accused of fascist censorship and reporting Puritan virtue.

“I want to play with the representation, rather than feel like I have to fix it,” Boyce says. Having passed “the deconstructive stage of this equals that”, she is interested in performances that defy easy categorization, the legacies of which constantly play out in her process. “We’re so caught up in being right,” she exclaims, “but that logic is completely against the grain of artistic creation.”

Sonia Boyce’s solo exhibition is presented at the British pavilion of the 59th Venice Biennale from April 23 to November 27, 2022.

This article first appeared in curly number 226 with the title ‘Defying Power’. For additional coverage of the 59th Venice Biennale, see here.

Main picture: Workers kidnap John William Waterhouse Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) in Sonia Boyce’s ‘Six Acts’ retrospective at Manchester Art Gallery in 2018. Courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery; photography: Andrew Brooks

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