Who gets to decide what goes on the walls of our museums? That quiet but revolutionary question has nagged at Sonia Boyce ever since she first visited London galleries in her teens. Her 40-year inquiry into it, as an artist and academic, culminated in outraged tabloid headlines in 2018 when, as part of an exhibition of her work at Manchester Art Gallery, she temporarily removed a painting from the gallery’s “permanent” collection – JW Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs – and replaced it with an empty space in which visitors could leave Post-it notes recording their thoughts about the depiction of women in the gallery.
For some male commentators, this was a blood-pressure elevating act of cancel-culture vandalism on a level with toppling statues of slave traders into the drink. Boyce had a point, though. While only 8.5% of the paintings then chosen to be on display in Manchester were by female artists, there were 44 paintings by men, including Waterhouse’s Victorian Greek fantasy of a bathing pool full of virginal, flame-haired girls, depicting women naked or semi-clothed. Why?
Boyce will have another playful crack at that history of curation in her forthcoming show as Britain’s representative at this year’s Venice Biennale. She is the first black woman to have been chosen by the British Council for the national pavilion, at the 59th Venice event. Turning 60 this year, Boyce is used to ground-breaking. She was also the first black British female artist to have a painting purchased by the Tate, in 1987, and the first to be elected to the Royal Academy, in 2016. Her biennale show – the full details of which are under wraps, to be announced later this week – will be a development of Devotional, her long-term project dedicated to the often hidden or forgotten history of black British female musicians and singers.
When I go to see Boyce at her Brixton studio, she is in between visits to Venice to install the exhibition – and if that were not anxiety enough, also moving house the following day. If she is stressed, she doesn’t show it; compact and spirited, she talks with the vocational ease of someone who has been turning over the ideas behind her work all of her life. Her studio is a single small room in a block just down the high street from Electric Avenue. Stacked against one wall are some of her latest artist’s materials: boxes and crates of vinyl singles and LPs.
The temporary nature of those crates is appropriate. Boyce thinks of herself as “an artist with a suitcase”, on the road all the time. The Devotional music project began in 1999 when she was invited to work with a charity, the Liverpool Black Sisters, in Toxteth. “The plan was to do a six-month project and create an artwork,” she recalls. It being Liverpool, she thought: music. “In the very first session we all sat around in a circle and I said: ‘Can someone name me a black British female singer they love?’ There was lots of umming and ahhing, and then silence.” It took the group about 10 minutes before anyone could name anybody – Shirley Bassey – at which point, they all got up and sang Big Spender. And then they sat down again and thought some more.
“The group were really embarrassed about their silence,” Boyce says. “They went home and asked friends and family for suggestions and by the end of that six-month period, we had gathered 46 names.” The list ran from Bassey to Joan Armatrading to Poly Styrene (of X-Ray Spex) to Sade and Pepsi from Pepsi and Shirlie and Cleo Laine. With the help of the group, Boyce made an exhibition involving sound and collages and placards and her trademark wallpaper devoted to the performers and their stories. She thought that was the end of it, but it was only the start. People kept sending her more records, and the Devotional list for Venice now runs to 350 names, dating back to the mid-19th century.
For Boyce, some of the interest is in how the names and their music provide a sort of alternative history, often buried, of the crisscrossing currents of female culture between the Caribbean and Britain, and America and Africa over the past century and more. It provoked memories of how, growing up in east London, she would go to record shops to get under-the-counter vinyl imports with lyrical news from elsewhere, torch songs and pop songs and fresh rhythms and styles, “and then, how when you walked down the street or went in any shop, some of that became the background to our lives”.
She uses her handmade wallpaper as a kind of visual motif for that memory. “As a child – like many, I’m sure – I often imagined that wallpaper had a life of its own, that it was like entering a folk-like narrative world. I still get that sensation.”
The background soundtrack of her childhood came partly from her parents, who were part of the Windrush generation from Barbados. Her dad came over in the early 50s, and was working as a projectionist in a cinema in Camden Town when he met Boyce’s mother, who had arrived in London a few years later to work in the NHS as a nurse. To help make ends meet she also worked part-time as a seamstress in one of the clothing factories in Whitechapel; Brick Lane was Boyce’s playground as a child.
At home, Boyce has suggested, the wallpaper itself was a dizzying reminder of Caribbean pattern and colour, and the record collection no less disorienting. The cowboy crooner Jim Reeves was a family favourite. But then also lots of reggae, ska, calypso. To this she added acts from The Old Grey Whistle Test and John Peel.
By the early 1980s musicians – in Rock Against Racism and later Red Wedge – appeared to provide a model for addressing racial and sexual politics in art. There were plenty of women involved in that vanguard but, Boyce observes, 20 years later when the women of Liverpool tried to recall them, it was as if they had been written out of the story.
For Venice, she has worked at Abbey Road studios and with the sound artist Ain Bailey to explore some of that forgetting. “I wanted to activate the Devotional collection somewhat,” she says. One of the artists they have resurrected in film is Adelaide Hall, who brought the Harlem renaissance to London in the 1930s, setting up a nightclub in Mayfair. Hall was among the first women to be recorded singing jazz scat with Duke Ellington. Her fame, and its erasure, is mirrored in the story of the pianist Winifred Atwell, who brought honky tonk piano from Trinidad in the 1940s, or the great soul singer PP Arnold, employed as a backing voice by every white rock’n’roll band to provide the authentic sound of the 60s.
The common thread among these performers is the way they never quite make it to the main stage of historical narrative. The project struck a chord with Boyce, partly because it paralleled a three-year Arts and Humanities Research Council project she led, Black Artists and Modernism, which culminated in her Manchester Art Gallery show. For that programme, with the help of Art UK, the charity which has done the extraordinary work of cataloguing all paintings in public ownership in Britain and making them available to the public, she went excavating in the underground store rooms and vaults of 30 museums and galleries. What she found astonished her. The project discovered 2,000 works by black and Asian British artists that had been purchased in the past century but never displayed, literally kept underground in cold storage.
The recent reappraisal of gallery and museum collections in light of revisionist histories of empire and the Black Lives Matter movement has partly been set in train by Boyce’s work. Some of the findings formed the basis of Tate Britain’s wonderful recent Life Between Islands exhibition, which was curated by Boyce’s partner and father of her two daughters, David A Bailey. The exhibition was described by Laura Cumming in this paper as “exhilarating, mighty, radical, tender, as disturbing as it is beautiful”. Maria Balshaw, director of the Tate, suggests to me that Boyce’s Black Artists and Modernism project has been the “catalyst” to a fuller recognition of “the vital contribution of black British artists to shaping the visual culture of the UK today. This rich contribution is what made Life Between Islands such a critical and popular success and Sonia’s own work rightly formed a critical anchor to telling that story.”
For Boyce, that exhibition provided a very long-overdue affirmative answer to the question that those institutions and curators seemed to have had such a struggle with for so many years: “Is there any such thing as a black British artist?” It was a question that, when she started out, she wouldn’t have known how to answer. As a child she was in the habit of drawing on any surface, “the margins of books, tables, walls… on anything I could find”. A teacher, Mrs Franklin, told her: “You have to go to art school.” She hadn’t really known such an option existed.
She got a place at Stourbridge College of Art in the West Midlands. One day she was in the library and saw a little poster for a show called Black Art at Wolverhampton Art gallery, organised by artist Keith Piper. “It completely stopped me in my tracks,” Boyce remembers now. “I was born in London, grew up in London, and went to art school from about the age of 15, but I was totally unaware until that show that there were artists of African or Asian descent working in the UK at all. I went to a Wolverhampton conference for black artists in 1982, which was the year after the Wolverhampton show. And people came from all over the UK, maybe 200 young black artists and students. It was funny, we were all in art colleges up and down the country, but feeling like we were the only one…” From that conference the groundbreaking BLK Art Group was formed.
Among the women Boyce met at that conference was Lubaina Himid, who went on to win the Turner prize in 2017 and who was a few years older than her. Himid remembers how “Sonia was already making beautifully drawn autobiographical observations, thoughtful meditations on what it was to be young female and black… She was [also] very sure of where she wanted to exhibit; showing work in places that were open to the people who meant the most to her.”
Himid insisted that Boyce send some slides of her paintings to see if they would work in a show Himid was curating at the Africa Centre in London. “After the conference I was filled with lots of energy,” Boyce recalls. She had been threatened with expulsion from college at Stourbridge because she refused to go along with the pervasive insistence on making abstract art. Her work was overtly political, full of collages depicting black women in the media, partly inspired by the music she was listening to. “I went back to the studio at college, and I remember thinking: I’m just going to go for it.” She sent Himid some images and within a few months her work was in the exhibition. That had never been part of the plan. “Before I’d gone to Stourbridge,” she says, “I’d worked part time at British Home Stores. And I just kind of thought that afterwards maybe they would take me back. Or maybe I could upgrade and get a job at John Lewis…”
Boyce had recently seen a Frida Kahlo exhibition – Kahlo was then still relatively unknown – at the Whitechapel gallery. Boyce carried a book of Kahlo’s paintings around with her all the time and made some wonderful pastel works that foregrounded her own life in a comparable way. One depicted her as the second-generation daughter of her Windrush family, in a strikingly ambiguous image of dependency and support: She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose); another, Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain So Great, saw her rolling her eyes at a triptych of gravestones emerging from intricate William Morris-style painted wallpaper. The crosses were marked with the shadows of supremacist empire: Cape Colony, India, Australia. One of a series of paintings, Missionary Position, which takes on sexual relations with her as the frustrated lead, was bought by the Tate – and put in cold storage.
Still, it seemed, like the singers whose lives Boyce has chronicled, that she and her fellow BLK Art Group pioneers might be on a roll, might be accepted as important British artists without any qualifying asterisk pointing to their “exotic” heritage. The high point of that possibility was a major show at the Hayward gallery in 1989 that showcased their work, entitled The Other Story.
In fact, as Boyce remarks, that show “marked the end of the BLK Art Group”. The Other Story, was, she suggests, “universally condemned”. Tim Hilton, writing in the Guardian at the time, noted that the exhibition seemed principally “a record of frustration and disappointment. It seems,” he said, somewhat put off by the overtly political message of the work, “that scarcely one black artist in Britain has had the benefits of an extended professional career: a dealer, regular exhibitions, interested critics, sales and the support of one’s peers”. That was the most encouraging of the responses. “It was really dispiriting,” Boyce says. “It was the British art establishment saying, ‘OK, we’ve had enough now, you’ve done it, whatever that is.’ It had taken [exhibition organiser and artist] Rasheed Araeen 11 years of campaigning to get that exhibition on at all, and it was as if that chapter had closed. That story tells you so much about the systemic racism there was.”
One indirect result of that experience was that Boyce stopped drawing for good. “I thought: I want to step out of being the protagonist in the work,” she says. “I knew, you could say instinctively, I couldn’t take it any further. I’d done my Frida Kahlo thing and I needed to find another way of making the work.”
She tried a few new strategies. “I’d learned to do life drawing from an early age, and I’d realised by the point of She’s Holding On… that those skills of observation could only get me so far. I had a particular kind of style of making work. Should I just keep repeating that? I always felt trapped by my drawing skill. I’m left-handed. I started thinking: Well, maybe if I start trying to do it with my right hand?” That didn’t last long.
She doesn’t quite express it in these terms, but it is as if the bruising experience of the Hayward show had proved to her that there were obstacles to black British artists at that point that would not be overcome simply by doing the same thing over and over for diminishing rewards. She needed the strength of more numbers than the traditional model of being an artist alone in the studio. She was at the time living in shared housing in Brixton, with photographers and filmmakers: “We had a dark room in the house and we’d do lots of work together for fun. Living in that collective really did feed how I was able to get out of my cul-de-sac…”
She was also working as a lecturer at Goldsmiths College in London and at Glasgow School of Art (she has always taught; these days she is professor of black art and design at the University of the Arts). She ran a first-year fine art programme at Goldsmiths for some of the students – including Gillian Wearing – who went on to be part of the Young British Artist phenomenon. Just as she encouraged them to collaborate and get out into the world, so she adopted that principle for herself. One of her earliest expressions of this new spirit was a piece called Do You Want to Touch, in which she utilised hair extensions from Afro Caribbean hair shops, and later filmed members of the public trying on Afro wigs.
She liked the idea that art could be more of a team sport. I wonder if she always had a sense that the earlier work of her 1980s generation, from The Other Story, would always have a rebirth, eventually come out of the vaults and cold storage? She suggests that the initial response of shock and disdain was always likely to have been reassessed – “no show in recent British history has been more studied by students than that one”. But also that “while I don’t in any way want to deny the work of that period, I also don’t want to be just defined by that moment.”
She is too modest to admit it, but she is no doubt hugely gratified and vindicated by the recognition of her work in recent years (as well as the Biennale exhibition, she has a collaborative show that recently opened at the Serpentine, a moving film exploring ideas around the mental health legacy of abuse). She continues to explore collective models of creativity.
It was that kind of project that led her into controversy at the Manchester Art Gallery. She still winces a bit when I mention the furore that flowed from her taking down the Waterhouse painting. “It introduced me in a really big way to the extremes of social media,” she says. “I think I was operating in kind of 20th-century mode up until that point.” She was subjected to all kinds of trolling and abuse from those keyboard warriors who saw her as – as she says with a laugh – “another boring, angry feminist” trying to tell them what to look at. An Oxford professor of German, Katrin Kohl, wrote to the Guardian to suggest that “Nazi curators, too, challenged us by removing art from public view because it conflicted with their political aims and puritanical taste”.
Boyce responded with an op-ed piece explaining how she had been invited by the gallery to reflect on its permanent display and make a new artwork. As part of that reflection she initiated conversations with everyone who worked in the gallery – including security staff, technicians and cleaners – about “what goes on or comes off the walls and why”. The conversation, she tells me now, “kept returning to a lot of female members of staff interacting with people who visited the museum, being sexually harassed. And how a lot of that seemed to happen near this one [Waterhouse] painting.”
Some staff dismissed this as an overreaction or hysteria. Their minds were changed, she says, when “on the very last group discussion session, there were about 30 of us in a circle in the middle of the gallery, in the middle of the day. While we’re sitting talking about this, a middle-aged man comes into the gallery with an iPad and he is filming the various works of naked women in the gallery, and actually making this kind of guttural commentary: ‘Ooh, that’s lovely’ and ‘Oh look at those tits!’ I don’t know if that was a performance for us, or for his video. I didn’t say anything. But everyone agreed after that: that painting is coming down.”
Looking back at the controversy that followed, she suggests that she is “most interested now in what raw nerve did that touch? It was as if by taking this one painting down for a week, we’d trashed everything that they hold dear.” As she well knows from her own experience, “paintings are not born on walls”; what to put on display and what to keep in cold storage is always a choice. “In the past, we might have convinced ourselves that the [biases] of those choices were subconscious,” she says. It is, as Boyce’s work insists, only when you discuss them that they become conscious. Then, another question arises, one that defines the culture wars and which will not go away: who gets to decide what goes up and what comes down – and why?