Sonia Boyce’s Explorations of Identity, Britishness and Race

Until July 22nd 2018, Manchester Art Gallery presents the long overdue and first retrospective exhibition of the Black British artist Sonia Boyce and indeed through its thoughtful curation, it is worth the much-anticipated wait. From the early art of Boyce, to work commissioned solely for the exhibition, the curation of the show achieves a narrative that celebrates the artist’s material and conceptual shift, whilst maintaining the importance of certain themes and concerns that have been fundamental to Boyce’s practise. Namely; the notion of the other, the lived experience of Black women within British culture and Colonial legacies that still haunt societal structures. The exhibition may come as a surprise to those more acquainted with Boyce’s early Pastel pieces, as her recent exploration of sound, performance and social interaction almost portrays a new practice. And it is through Boyce’s exciting current direction of art that is so brilliantly available within the exhibition, that one may place her as perhaps one of the most interesting and socially-experimental artists within the current British art world.

The show opens by celebrating Boyce’s long-standing relationship with Manchester and its people, with her early work, ‘The audition’ (1977). The work consists of Boyce photographing people selected through an open call wearing an afro. The gallery depicts 400 black and white photographs from the piece, printed especially for the exhibition, indeed depicting each participant with and without an afro. A video documenting the process also accompanies the series, allowing some insight into how Boyce interacted with her subjects, and what it meant to her and them to be able to remove a characteristic associated with the identity of a Black man. The photographs feel all the more powerful in light of the film, as we see the participants interviewed regarding what exactly they think is going on. One of the models, a white middle-aged woman, for example, most prominently acknowledges that people would treat her differently if she were to wear an afro every single day, with another White woman describing the experience of putting on an identity and taking it off as ‘exciting’. The participants, without realising, vocalise the very notions Boyce is exploring, of what it means to wear an attribute so heavily associated with an oppressed group, as one woman acknowledges people would treat her differently. Through the piece, Boyce invites her subjects and her viewership to consider this notion of the other in relation to their own identity, subtly playing around with an encounter with the other.

This notion of the other also plays out in the video, For You, Only You, (2007), in which the sound artist Mikhail Karikis disrupts a choir singing Josquin Desprez’s You Alone can do wonders, through noises and sounds that are suggested in the exhibition to allude to Jazz-Scat and Dada performance art. Boyce’s curation of this intervention between Karukis and the choir incredibly portrays an encounter with the other, as Kiriktis, disrupts their norm, through a musical genre rooted in African-American slave communities. Slaves would use ‘jazz-cat’ whilst working on planation’s to sustain morale. However, what is perhaps most moving about this piece is that, while Kikritis poses as an ultimate outsider, his articulation of sound flows beautifully with the music sung by the choir, thus their obvious differences play out in an exciting harmony. This suggests their differences to perhaps be only upon the surface.

Across the Hall, Boyce’s film Crop Over (2007) dominates the entire room, making it impossible to not immediately fixate upon the screen when entering. The film entwines elements of the Barbadian Crop Over festival, an event originating within sugar cane plantations with the opulent architecture of the Harewood House. The film opens with two characters from the festival dressed in bright colours on stilts, cautiously exploring the grounds. The characters dance around as though in the festival in Barbados, however, they are restricted within the grounds of the house, whose original owners, the Lascelles family, made their fortune through the exploitation of African slaves. As the film cuts between the festival taking place in Barbados, to the characters lost and out of place at Harewood House, there is a clear reminder on Boyce’s part of the legacies of colonialism that resonate the very building occupied by the set of performers. The fixed gaze of one of the dancers suggests that despite his satirical costume and joyous dancing, his sullen, confused and angered expression hints at the inhumane acts that made the families wealth possible.

The exhibition brilliantly portrays Boyce’s explorations of various exciting mediums of art to raise questions concerning issues related to identity within British culture, and as quoted in the show, she is fascinated by ‘what people do when they come together’. Therefore, indeed, Boyce’s socially-engaging and thought-provoking work are truly not to be missed, but rather, to be respected and remembered.

Hannah Marsh

(Image courtesy of Hannah Marsh)