From Venice to Margit: International artist Sonia Boyce brings her superlative collection to the seaside | art

wchicken Sonya Boyce It was in elementary school that she won a book. “It was really my first, not just having it at home or from the school library,” she says. The book was about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and she was particularly fascinated by the Willy Wonka wallpaper covered in animals, and the square candies that looked round. It was a lightening moment, involving “this mystery, a perceptual thing I couldn’t fathom.”

As a little girl, she found wallpaper terrifying, she explains. “It definitely fed my nightmares. I would wake up convinced the wallpaper was moving and I actually thought there was something about it like getting into a story or anecdote, even though that thing is supposed to sit in the background, quietly, and hold space.” parents in London with the glitzy designs that were popular in the 1960s and 1970s; She says her current home has nothing but shelves of books on the walls — not even pictures. She has loads but they are all piled on the floor.

We’re at Margate’s Turner Contemporary which is where Boyce is Re Feeling Her Way, her Golden Lion-winning entry to last year’s Venice Biennale. Yet scaffolding and heavy lifting equipment dominate the echoing white spaces, apart from one wall covered in gleaming gold wallpaper, intricately patterned with geometric shapes.

Swaying heavily against the biting sea wind, Boyce cuts a diminutive figure with a great sense of humor. Looking at a large statue based on the crystal structure of iron pyrite (fool’s gold) that is suspended from the ceiling, she imagines herself a Wicked Witch from the East, from the Wizard of Oz, with only her legs sticking out, kidding. As far as her work is concerned, her prestige is beyond doubt: not only is she the first black woman to represent Britain in Venice, but she was the first woman to be assembled by the Tate, and elected as a Royal Academician.

Tribute to Black British Divas... Boyce Devotional Group.
A tribute to British divas… Boyce Devotional Collection. Photo: Cristiano Curti/British Council

What does this latest achievement mean for her? This, she replied, gave her the luxury, for the first time in a 40-year career, to develop a long-term vision rather than adapt her artistic work to art college teaching. Because her practice is social, and involves bringing together groups of people, these time constraints have forced her to become iterative—”working with one group and then moving on to working with another. But now I’m actually thinking, well, what are my five-year and ten-year plans?” I’ve been in this position before, so it was a really big transition.”

By the time Margate’s show opens, the gold wall will be full of memorabilia—vintage album covers, posters, cassette cases—pilumed over five months between 2021 and 2022, as part of her long-running “devotional project.” Some were donated, others collected by herself. “I’m always going in and out of charity shops, looking for LPs and cassettes. I have my regular shop in Brixton. They say, ‘Hey, she’s back. ‘”

The devotional group began in Toxteth in the late 1990s, as a tribute to all the black female British singers that no one could even name in Beatles town. In Feeling Her Way, she corresponds to the videos of four singers – Jackie DankworthAnd Agoda poppiesAnd Sophia Gerenberg And Tanita Tikaram Improvising solo and jointly in London and Sweden under the direction of composer Errollyn Wallen.

The installation, which is arranged over five rooms, carries DNA from his formative period, not only in the obstacles overcome (Covid restrictions meant Jernberg had to collaborate from Stockholm), but in the solutions he offers: that mattered, as To structure it so that it keeps the audience flowing through the space in a socially distanced manner, says Boyce. In Venice, not speaking Italian, she bonded with a technician who spoke no English but communicated through his love of the Spice Girls. “Every day he would sing a Spice Girls song to me. It was really cool.”

Fool's gold... iron work tinged with pyrite.
Fool’s gold… iron work tinged with pyrite. Photo: Cristiano Curti/British Council

A discerning fan of Tikaram was one of the benefactors of memorabilia to be posted around the Golden Wall. “Thank you—it’s in the catalog,” Boyce said, straight to my voice recorder, as if addressing the donor. It’s a sassy moment, but it also reflects her respect for the memorabilia’s role, as a shrine to “the musicians the people loved.” She says the devotional project as a whole “is about recognizing that music occupies a subterranean realm in our lives. For some reason, we attach very important moments to certain music. People will tell me really intimate things about the role music has played in their lives.”

When offered fitted, devotional, at the National Portrait Gallery in 2007, an elderly couple confided that their children had been conceived by Joan Armatring. “And I’m thinking, well, maybe a lot of information, but also thinking: Oh, that’s kind of nice.”

Boyce was born in London to parents who arrived estranged from Barbados as part of the Windrush generation. When they met, her father was working as a movie projectionist and her mother was nursing, supplementing her earnings as a seamstress in the East End. They were ambitious for their children, investing their hard-earned money in piano, and music lessons, which she managed to get away with undetected until a neighbor spotted her lounging in a local park, much to her mother’s continued irritation. The family’s musical hopes are finally dashed by a humiliating recital of Louis and her sister on a bontempi at their local church.

Her talent for painting was more spontaneous and promising, and she graduated from The School in London to Stourbridge College in the West Midlands, and emerged to become part of a pioneering wave of black women artists that also included a Turner Prize winner Libana Hamid. When, at the age of 25 in 1987, she sold a drawing to the Tate, her course as a star in British art seemed ready. But then she moved into a difficult social practice, with the result that after announcing her choice of Venice, she was taken for the first time by a commercial fair.

On my way to the interview, I warn she was tired of being asked what it was like to be the first black British woman to win the gun. It’s not that she shies away from making political statements: In 2018, she caused a public uproar by removing John William Waterhouse’s 1896 painting Hellas and the Nymphs from the wall of the Manchester Art Gallery in an attempt to protect her. to draw attention Museum policy on what is visible to the public.

Icons ... Another image from the Boyce British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Icons … Another image from the Boyce British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Photograph: David Levine/The Guardian

When I finally asked her, she cited a phrase coined by art historian Cobina Mercer in a 1990 article titled Black Art and the Burden of Representation. The idea of ​​standing there as an actor [of a minority] It’s something that’s projected on me, and it’s always been shown to me, and to many other people who are in a similar situation, whether it’s gender, race or sexuality,” she says.

Whether this is a moment of breakthrough for women in general, after a year of thin Successes, she lets out a sigh. As a teacher (currently at the University of the Arts London), she is acutely aware of the disparity between the proportion of female art students and the numbers that have been able to make it a career. “At least since the beginning of the 20th century, 50% of the students in most art schools in this country have been female, yet we are still considered to be doing well if 30% of any show includes women.

“Things seem to come in cycles and waves. I wish they didn’t. I wish it was more permanent. I don’t know why it takes so long for us to realize that women have skills, are creative, and work, or why the question of value becomes a battlefield. If it is Something that affects you affects you; if you feel that something is valuable, value it.

The pyrite-based structures in the show, which include benches for the audience to sit on while they watch videos, and wall sconces holding memorabilia, embody this hard-won wisdom in a distinctive, life-affirming way. Fool’s Gold is “a fraud, an imitation, of little value”; But she’s also a glam rock star: “Just a little joke I’ve been having with myself,” she says.

  • Sonya Boyce: Feeling her way is Contemporary TurnerMargate, 4 February to 8 May, and at Leeds Art Gallery, 25 May to 5 November.

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