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Sonia Boyce feeling her way to freedom as the UK’s artist in Venice

The first Black woman to represent the UK at the world’s leading art festival calls us to imagine what freedom looks like

Gilane Tawadros
22 May 2022, 6.00am

Sonia Boyce in front of the British Pavilion in Venice

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Cristiano Corte/British Council. All rights reserved

The singers are tentative at first, letting the sound out softly and gently. There are three of them, headphones on, leaning into microphones in London’s Abbey Road recording studios. They are guided in their efforts by the composer Errollyn Wallen. “Imagine you’re lions,” she tells them. The three Black women vocalists growl into the microphones.

Sitting on crystal-shaped golden blocks in the first, largest room of Sonia Boyce’s installation, the art-world audience in the British pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale has never witnessed a spectacle like this. As the three singers – Poppy Ajudha, Jacqui Dankworth and Tanita Tikaram – build to a climax on their video screens, the audience has unwittingly become part of the performance: protagonists on the stage that the artist has set, enveloped in glistening, tessellated wallpaper she has designed and surrounded with more of the crystal-like gold blocks, some arranged as seats, others cascading from above.

Sonia Boyce's installation 'Feeling Her Way' at the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2022, featuring four performers - Errollyn Wallen, Tanita Tikaram, Poppy Ajudha, Jacqui Dankworth

The first room of Sonia Boyce's installation, featuring Errollyn Wallen, Tanita Tikaram, Poppy Ajudha and Jacqui Dankworth

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Cristiano Corte/British Council. All rights reserved

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Much has been said about Boyce’s selection as the first Black woman to represent the UK at the world’s leading international art festival in its 113-year history – so much that it has threatened to eclipse discussion of her work as one of the most important artists working in the UK today. That status is still higher since she became the first British artist to be awarded the Golden Lion for the best national contribution to the festival since Bridget Riley won the accolade in 1968.

Building on themes that have preoccupied her over a number of years, Boyce’s installation for the British pavilion in Venice raises questions about how we understand Britishness; who is included or excluded from our national stories; and how, in the wake of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, we negotiate difference and what we understand by freedom?

At the inauguration of her exhibition, Boyce was making a speech to the crowd assembled at the foot of the pavilion’s steps when she paused momentarily and said: “I am looking out at all these amazing Black British women artists. They should be standing here. Let’s make sure they are.”

This year’s Venice Biennale makes that seem possible. Of the 200 artists who the curator Cecilia Alemani is showing in the main exhibition, the vast majority are women. For the first 100 years of the main exhibition, only about 10% of artists were women, not rising to about 50% until 2019. Alemani’s show is approximately 90% women.

Next door to the British pavilion, the French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira, a close friend of Boyce, is representing France – although she could equally have represented the UK, having studied at art school in Britain, lived in Brixton, south London, for a number of decades and been an active and important part of the community of Black women artists in the UK.

A short walk away, Switzerland is represented by the Moroccan-French artist Latifa Echakhch, while the US is represented by the African-American artist Simone Leigh. The four women have created very different but profoundly political works which have not shied away from tackling significant questions of our time: the legacies of slavery and colonialism; the climate crisis; the meaning of freedom.

The exceptional diversity of this year’s Venice Biennale when compared with previous editions is not coincidental. Cultural institutions around the world have faced heightened critique of their past choices, which have consistently excluded or marginalised women and people of colour, and are now seeking to redress the imbalance. The question, as Boyce articulated at the inauguration of the British pavilion, is whether this year’s festival is a temporary adjustment to business as usual or a long-term structural change that would make her selection as Britain’s representative at the Venice Biennale an ordinary rather than an exceptional event.

It was 1909 when the UK opened its own national pavilion in the Giardini district, where Venice’s international contemporary art exhibition takes place every two years. Formerly a cafe-restaurant, the main alteration to the neo-classical building was the mounting of a large marble tablet above the entrance with the words ‘GRAN BRETAGNA’ (‘Great Britain’) inscribed in gigantic lettering.

Room 2 in Sonia Boyce' installation 'Feeling Her Way' in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2022, featuring performer Jacqui Dankworth

Jacqui Dankworth singing about her mother's words

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Cristiano Corte/British Council. All rights reserved

Boyce’s installation ‘Feeling Her Way’ occupies all six rooms of the pavilion and belies any hesitancy implied in its title. Moving from one space to another, the viewer encounters one exceptional musician after another. Next to the main room, Jacqui Dankworth sings ‘Reach Out’, her richly resonant vocals blending jazz and folk with rhythm and blues. The song’s title refers to the answer Dankworth’s mother – Cleo Laine, one of the world’s leading jazz singers – gave when her daughter asked her what the secret of her radiant energy was: “You’ve got to imagine there’s this light… It’s always there and you’ve got to reach towards it.”

In the next room, Dankworth sings again, this time in a duet across two screens with the Ethiopian-born Swedish composer and soloist Sofia Jernberg, who intersperses her pitch-perfect vocals with abstract sound.

Room 4 in Sonia Boyce's installation 'Feeling Her Way' in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2022, featuring the Devotional Collection

The Devotional Collection

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Cristiano Corte/British Council. All rights reserved

The fourth room is the centre of the journey around the installation, a long, rectangular space where Boyce has installed a selection from her ever-growing archive ‘Devotional Collection’. In the late 1990s, Boyce began collecting the names of Black women singers following a workshop in which she brought together a group of women to sing and recall the first record they had ever bought. At the end of the workshop, she asked the group to name a Black British female singer. They could only name one: Shirley Bassey. Boyce then set about accumulating the names and dates of vocalists over several years through conversations with different people about their favourite Black female singers.

The collection has become the source of a series of drawings and art works including ‘Devotional II’ (2005), a site-specific work owned by the UK’s Government Art Collection and installed on permanent loan in the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. Nine metres high on an internal column that extends over three floors, it lists the names and dates of Black British women vocalists who are frequently undervalued and overlooked – a monument at the heart of European policy-making.

In the British pavilion, Boyce presents a selection of items from her archive collected over six months in 2021: album covers, CDs and cassette tapes, all bearing the names and portraits of Black female musicians and displayed against the backdrop of the artist’s gold wallpaper, held up between outcrops of golden blocks. Addressing the absences and omissions that exist not only in the nation’s archive but also in our collective memories, the ‘Devotional Collection’ and its related artworks point to the work that we all have to do to ensure that we remember and reinstate those who have been forgotten or elided from history.

Room 6 of Sonia Boyce's installation 'Feeling Her Way' in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2022, featuring performer Tanita Tikaram

Tanita Tikaram improvising

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Cristiano Corte/British Council. All rights reserved

In Room 5, Poppy Ajudha performs her blues-infused acappella song ‘Demons’, while in Room 6 the award-winning singer-songwriter Tanita Tikaram improvises ‘Feeling Her Way’. After recording the song, Tikaram recalled the sense of liberation she found in the vocal improvisation process in which “the only limit is your imagination”.

Imagining what it means (and how it feels) to be free lies at the heart of Sonia Boyce’s project for the Venice Biennale. On one level, this refers to the tentative steps we are all making in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic lockdowns, when breathing freely close to others and singing together uninhibitedly in public spaces became proscribed activities.

On another level, the question of whose breath and whose life is valued and warrants protection acquired renewed meaning and significance in the wake of the death of George Floyd in May 2020, after millions of people witnessed the murder of this innocent Black man by a police officer in Minneapolis. Floyd’s dying words “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry, giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement and demonstrations across the globe.

Standing in front of a screen in Boyce’s installation, watching and listening to one of the singers perform, the viewer becomes aware of the sound of another, spilling over from an adjoining space. The music bleeds from room to room. The voices mingle and interact, uncontained. The freedom they enjoy as musicians, improvising and experimenting with sound cannot be confined to the architecture of a separate space. Performing alone or rehearsing together, Adjudha, Dankworth, Tikaram and Jernberg are intertwined with each other.

“What does freedom look like?” is a question Boyce is implicitly asking through the work. Boyce’s project for the Venice Biennale poses a profoundly political question about what freedom means beyond the narrow definition of individual freedom: a freedom that needs to take account of our relationship to others and is expressed as part of a collective endeavour.

Boyce’s interest in this question goes back decades. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, she became fascinated by the work of the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark and how she moved from making art objects which could be bought and sold to making experiential and participatory works of art which were taken up in a clinical setting: “Through working in an exploratory way with people she was helping them deal with traumatic experiences,” observed Boyce in an unpublished interview with curator Katherine Stout in 2005.

“[Lygia Clark] was exploring how we can make ourselves freer. Of course it raises a political question about the agency we take up as individuals and collectively, rather than always feeling we’re being circumscribed by a situation or a system. Or what do we want to do with that situation and how can we push the boundaries of that.”

Clark’s example propelled Boyce to move away from her early large-scale pastel and mixed-media works to making work which revolved around interaction, participation and improvisation. Singing, speech and the human voice took an increasingly central role in her practice as she explored the different ways in which we communicate and connect with each other as well as the barriers to communication.

This is also important in relation to the history of Black diasporan people, for whom singing and speaking out have frequently been political and performative acts of resistance.

For you, only you (installation view), 2007. Three-channel video installation. 14 mins 35 secs © Sonia Boyce

'For You, Only You'

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Mike Pollard/DACS/Artimage 2020. All rights reserved

The agonising struggle to communicate without speech comes to the fore in Boyce’s three-screen installation ‘For You, Only You’ (2007), commissioned by Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, University of Oxford, for which she orchestrated a collaboration between a choir that sings medieval and early modern European music, and the contemporary sound and voice artist Mikhail Karikis.

The musical starting point for the work was a piece of sacred music from the 15th century, Josquin Desprez’s ‘Tu solus qui facis mirabilia’ (‘Only you work miracles’, c.1470). The choir starts to sing ‘Tu solus’ but Karikis interrupts them, clearing his throat, coughing, stuttering and issuing noisy, guttural, animal-like sounds. Despresz’s serene chords are interrupted by Karikis’ animal-like sounds until eventually Desprez’s sound world is, Boyce said, “warped” and made “crooked” by Karikis’ manipulation of the score, fragments of which have been altered in pitch and tempo.

As the piece develops, the vocal incursions of the stranger who confronts the choir renders the music of ‘Tu solus’ dissonant and unfamiliar. Where Desprez’s music strives for intelligibility and familiarity, Karikis’ intervention unravels the score, only to reconstitute it as something new. Slowly, as the work progresses, you become aware of a dialogue, an exchange between the choir and Karikis in which they gradually come closer together.

In ‘For You, Only You’, Boyce interrogates a host group’s response to a stranger in their midst. This work embeds the politics of difference in its very structure and execution. It’s one example of how the question of nationhood and who belongs or doesn’t belong to the nation has been a continuing theme in Boyce’s artistic practice – and her project for the British pavilion inevitably touches on this question.

Established in the late 19th century, the Venice Biennale emerged at a time when debates about nationhood and nationalism were at their zenith in Europe and elsewhere. The architecture of the Giardini, arranged around a configuration of national pavilions, reflects this. By coincidence, this year marks the 140th anniversary of ‘What is a nation?’, a speech by the French theorist Ernest Renan to the Sorbonne university in Paris in 1882. One hundred and forty years later, Boyce’s question to the audiences visiting the British pavilion is: “Who do we imagine constitutes the nation?”

As the rehearsal by Poppy Ajudha, Jacqui Dankworth and Tanita Tikaram in the first room of Sonia Boyce’s installation reaches its climax, Errollyn Wallen instructs the musicians to sing three words: “I am queen”. “Really think ‘queen’,” Wallen urges them. One after another, their voices rising and overlapping, they sing out: “I am queen”. ‘Feeling their Way’ is a clarion call to all of us, inviting us to realise our potential. As Tikaram says of the improvisation process: “The only limit is your imagination.”

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