Sonia Boyce is keeping her fingers crossed the Wi-Fi will hold out during our video call. She is moving back into her house after having building work done, and the connection is intermittent. There is just over a week to go before she represents Britain at the Venice Biennale with the exhibition Feeling Her Way, and she has a packed schedule of filming, interviews and last-minute preparations to attend to.
The situation is not ideal, but Boyce is supremely composed. ‘I didn’t plan it this way, but then what has gone the way we imagined over the past two years?’ she says with a smile.
Rolling with the punches is something the 60-year-old, London-based artist and academic is good at. In a career that spans four decades, she has made her name creating immersive works that involve the participation of others, often with unexpected results.
‘My art is a social practice,’ she says. ‘I provide a framework, but when you put a group of people together, you never know what is going to emerge. It can be exhilarating and risky.’
That jeopardy has taken many forms, from improvised dance performances to institutional takeovers. What unites Boyce’s work is her ability to combine the political with the personal. Her art can be raucous, witty and inventive, but it is also tender. She frequently works with marginalised or overlooked communities, often in the context of how they navigate the hierarchies of the cultural world.
Born in north London in 1962, Boyce came to prominence in the 1980s as part of the British Black Arts movement. Her early works were incisive pastel drawings and photographic collages that satirically deconstructed images of the black female body, at the same time as highlighting questions of race and cultural difference.
At the age of 25, she became one of the youngest artists to enter the Tate collection when the gallery bought her drawing, Missionary Position II, a response to black female stereotypes. In 2016 she was the first black woman to be elected to the Royal Academy. Then, in 2020, the British Council announced that she would be representing Britain at the Venice Biennale — the first black female artist to do so.
It is fair to say that the world has changed considerably since that announcement. The Biennale has been delayed by a year, and Boyce has had to accommodate the potent physical symbols of lockdown life into her exhibition to keep visitors safe. ‘It has been a real challenge,’ she admits, ‘and has revealed to me just how much I rely on people to help make my work a success.’
There is also the structure of the 19th-century pavilion to contend with. ‘It’s basically a massive set of drawing rooms,’ says Boyce, ‘and there are a lot of restrictions on what you can and can’t do, both inside and outside the building. That said, it lends itself to decoration and opulence, and my exhibition is very bling.’
Feeling Her Way draws on The Devotional Series, an ongoing artwork Boyce has been making for 20 years about the history of black women in the British music industry. ‘I have this fantasy girl band in my head which I wanted to make a reality,’ she says, ‘so I hired [London’s] Abbey Road Studios for the day.’
Her dream group consists of jazz legend Jacqui Dankworth, soul singers Tanita Tikaram and Poppy Ajudha, experimental sound artist Sofia Jernberg and avant-garde composer Errollyn Wallen. The resulting work is a rhapsodic multi-screen video installation across five rooms, which depicts moments from the Abbey Road session.
Jernberg, who couldn’t make the London recording because of Covid restrictions, appears in added footage filmed at Atlantis Studios in Stockholm. ‘It’s where ABBA recorded, and I love that,’ says Boyce, who created coloured wallpaper for each room in the pavilion inspired by the singers’ personalities.
‘Their voices are all very different,’ says the artist. ‘Poppy has this soulful sound, while Jacqui has amazing range. Tanita Tikaram is sultry — I’m wary about using that word, but it really applies to her — and I’ve been wanting to work with Sofia for years; she crosses that bridge between experimental sound and the visual arts.’
The back gallery is the most lavish, containing pop memorabilia the artist has collected over the past six months. The objects sit on plinths inspired by pyrite, or ‘fool’s gold’, and the walls are decorated with gold wallpaper made by the artist.
It adds up to a welter of post-pop visual sampling, gloriously complex and uplifting. ‘There is a lot going on,’ Boyce concedes. ‘A lot of colour, a lot of light and a lot of sound. Music has the capacity to move us, and I hope the audience becomes a congregation for that.’
This is not the first time Boyce has exhibited at the Biennale. In 2015 the curator Okwui Enwezor invited her to participate in All the World’s Futures, an exhibition of almost operatic proportions, rich in cultural diversity and social issues.
‘The sheer size and vision of the art you see at the Biennale is extraordinary, there is nothing like it. It is completely energising. I want to be in that mix’ — Sonia Boyce
As an artist who has made art about racial and gender barriers in the past, does she feel that the Biennale works as a platform for politics?
‘It is not easy,’ she says, ‘but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I still think Hans Haacke’s Germania [in which the artist dug up the floor of the Nazi-remodelled German pavilion] is iconic. But the sheer size and vision of the art you see at the Biennale is extraordinary, there is nothing like it. It is completely energising. I want to be in that mix rather than shooting above it.’
What are her thoughts on this year’s curated exhibition, The Milk of Dreams, which takes its inspiration from Surrealism and the imagination?
‘It’s spot on,’ says Boyce. ‘[Artistic director] Cecilia Alemani is asking: “Who do we imagine can imagine for us?” and I think this is just what we need right now. It is about imagining a different possibility for ourselves than the one we currently have.’
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And what possibilities would she imagine? ‘A more generous world,’ she says. ‘I find I am much less critical of the art I see than I used to be. I wonder whether the immediate experience of the pandemic has allowed us to be less cynical and more generous. I want to give something its due and its space. I hope this is the end of cynicism.’
In conjunction with the British Council, Christie’s will be the first auction house to support the British Pavilion at the 59th Biennale