Sonia Boyce crosses her fingers that the Wi-Fi holds up during our video call. She returns to her house after doing construction work, and the connection is intermittent. There is just over a week left before she represents Great Britain at the Venice Biennale with the exhibition feel his wayand she has a busy schedule of shoots, interviews and last-minute preparations.
The situation is not ideal, but Boyce is extremely calm. “I hadn’t planned it that way, but what happened the way we imagined it would over the last two years?” she said with a smile.
The 60-year-old London-based artist and academic is good at taking a beating. In a career that spans four decades, she has made a name for herself 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 bring a group of people together, you never know what will emerge. It can be exhilarating and risky.
This danger has taken many forms, from improvised dance performances to institutional takeovers. What unites Boyce’s work is his ability to combine the political and the personal. His art can be gruff, witty and inventive, but it’s also tender. She frequently works with marginalized or neglected communities, often in the context of how they navigate the hierarchies of the cultural world.
Born in North London in 1962, Boyce rose 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, while highlighting issues of race and cultural difference.
At 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 represent Britain at the Venice Biennale – the first black artist to do so.
It’s fair to say that the world has changed significantly since that announcement. The Biennale was delayed for a year and Boyce had to incorporate the powerful physical symbols of life in confinement into his exhibit to keep visitors safe. “It was a real challenge,” she admits, “and revealed to me how much I rely on people to help me make my job a success.”
There is also the structure of the 19th century pavilion to contend with. “It’s basically a massive set of living rooms,” Boyce explains, “and there are a lot of restrictions on what you can and can’t do, both inside and outside the building. said, it lends itself to decoration and opulence, and my exhibit is very bling.
feel his way taps into The devotional series, an artwork Boyce has been making for 20 years about the history of black women in the UK music industry. “I had this amazing girl group in mind that I wanted to bring to life,” she says, “so I hired [London’s] Abbey Road Studios for the day.
Her dream band 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 in five rooms, which depicts moments from the Abbey Road session.
Jernberg, who was unable to do the London taping due to Covid restrictions, appears in additional footage filmed at Atlantis Studios in Stockholm. “That’s where ABBA recorded, and I love it,” says Boyce, who created colorful wallpaper for each room in the pavilion inspired by the singers’ personalities.
“Their voices are all very different,” explains the artist. ‘Poppy has this soulful sound, while Jacqui has an incredible range. Tanita Tikaram is sultry – I’m wary of using that word, but it really applies to her – and I’ve wanted to work with Sofia for years; she crosses this bridge between experimental sound and the visual arts.
The rear gallery is the most lavish, containing pop memorabilia the artist has collected over the past six months. The objects rest on plinths inspired by pyrite, or “fool’s gold”, and the walls are decorated with a golden wallpaper made by the artist.
This is in addition to a wealth of gloriously complex and uplifting post-pop visual sampling. “There’s a lot going on,” Boyce concedes. ‘Lots of colors, lots of light and lots of sounds. Music has the ability to move us, and I hope the public will become a congregation for that.
This is not the first time Boyce has exhibited at the Biennale. In 2015, curator Okwui Enwezor invited her to participate in All the futures of the worldan exhibition of almost lyrical proportions, rich in cultural diversity and social issues.
“The size and vision of the art you see at the Biennale is extraordinary, there is nothing quite like it.” It’s completely energizing. I wanna 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 functions as a platform for politics?
“It’s not easy,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. I always think by Hans Haacke Germany [in which the artist dug up the floor of the Nazi-remodelled German pavilion] is iconic. But the size and vision of the art you see at the Biennale is extraordinary, there is nothing quite like it. It’s completely energizing. I want to be in that mix rather than shooting over the top.
What does she think of the exhibition organized this year, The milk of dreamswho is inspired by surrealism and the imaginary?
“That’s perfect,” Boyce said. ‘[Artistic director] Cecilia Alemani asks: “Who do we imagine can imagine for us? and I think that’s exactly what we need right now. It is about imagining a different possibility for ourselves than the one we have now.
Christie’s online magazine brings our best auction features, videos and news to your inbox every week
And what possibilities would she imagine? “A more generous world,” she says. “I find that I am much less critical of the art that I see than before. I wonder if 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 collaboration with the British Council, Christie’s will be the first auction house to support the British pavilion at the 59th Biennale