BY Imani Mason Jordan in Opinion | 22 APR 22
Featured in
Issue 226

Sonia Boyce’s Performances Defy Easy Categorization

Imani Mason Jordan speaks to the artist about how the pandemic has affected her work and what her plans are for Venice

BY Imani Mason Jordan in Opinion | 22 APR 22

The first time I met Sonia Boyce, I was awed by her stature, her broad voice, her nonchalant chain-smoking. My partner and I were interviewing her about ‘We move in her way’, her 2017 show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. ‘We’re interested in the relationship between the Black artist and the white institution,’ I declared proudly. Boyce’s response startled us, defying our bright-eyed expectations of willingness and celebration: ‘I’m not! We were having that conversation back in the ’80s. What else can we ask each other?’

Though somewhat crushed at the time by Boyce’s refusal to engage with my statement, I did let her response teach me to be more precise, 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 talk – via Zoom, on an unusually sunny afternoon in January – I am excited. ‘Don’t worry Sonia, I won’t ask you how it feels to be the first Black woman to represent the British Pavilion [commissioned by the British Council for this year’s Venice Biennale]. I just want to hear about your work!’ Five years on from our first encounter, I have 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; photograph: George Torode

For many years, Boyce’s practice has involved working closely with other people through improvisation and experimental practice. I ask how recent events have impacted her ability to create new work: ‘It’s been about trying to bring people together and keep us all safe at the same time – and, eventually, to choreograph a situation that I hope is interesting. It’s a curious conundrum in terms of making art, to be having to say, I want people to be in touch, but they can’t touch.’

I like that combination of ‘curious’ (from the Latin curiosus, one meaning of which is ‘careful’) and ‘conundrum’ (conandrum, the Latin word for ‘a thing to be attempted’): a careful thing to be attempted. I am struck by its clarity of meaning, and the practised wisdom in Boyce’s use of words.

‘My work has two stages,’ Boyce tells me. ‘The first is about bringing things and people together. It’s performance. It’s “OK, we’ve got this time, we’ve got this space, what can we do here? How do we negotiate each other?”’ Her process requires a kind of anthropological observation: open permission to get stuck in, to get things wrong, to play. ‘If I’m trying to direct what’s happening, I’m missing all sorts of things. I prefer to be in the situation itself, as it’s unfolding.’

Sonia Boyce, In the Castle of My Skin, 2020, Eastside Projects, Birmingham. Courtesy: © Sonia Boyce/DACS, London, and Eastside Projects, Birmingham; photograph: Stuart Whipps

This preference for being ‘in the midst of it all’ ought to be read as an attentiveness to the politics of social change, as well as the artist’s own creative process. Boyce’s work pays due attention to the context within which it is generated, be that feminist debates on gendered representations of the body, or the British Black Arts Movement of the 1980s, or more contemporary explorations. Her 2020 exhibition at Eastside Projects in Birmingham, ‘In the Castle of My Skin’, borrowed its title from the acclaimed novel by Bajan writer George Lamming, a study of colonial revolt in 1930s Barbados. Co-curated by Boyce, and featuring the work of six other invited artists, the exhibition took shape in the form of a large sculptural installation housing numerous works that were loosely arranged beside, against and on top of each other. To encounter Boyce’s work is to witness a playful serendipity and the revelation of her insistence on polyvocality, on reinventing and negotiating each other 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 immures us to the wilful uncertainty of play. Contemporary life is structured intricately by binaries, a condition that is entrenched by the carceral continuum of surveillance, policing and prisons. If 2020 taught us anything, it is that we need new strategies. In our daily, conflict-ridden lives, when there’s so much at stake, the status quo necessitates our fear of being wrong, of being punished, of being ‘matter out of place’. 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 now is about just that, the unfixing of certainties that are no longer feeding us well enough.’ Playfulness necessitates creativity, and creativity opens space for new ways of being in relation.

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

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

‘I want to play with representation, rather than feel that I have to fix it,’ Boyce says. Having moved beyond ‘the deconstructive stage of this equals that’, she is interested in performances that defy easy categorization, the legacies of which are constantly being played out in her process. ‘We are so caught up with being right,’ she exclaims, ‘but that logic is utterly against the grain of making art.’

Sonia Boyce’s solo exhibition is on view at the British Pavilion of the 59th Venice Biennale from 23 April to 27 November 2022.

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

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


Imani Mason Jordan is an interdisciplinary writer, artist, editor and curator.