Ways Of Voicing: Sonia Boyce Is Devoted To These Singers

In a remarkable collaboration with Tanita Tikaram, Errollyn Wallen, Poppy Ajudha, Tanita Tikaram, Sofia Jernberg and Jacqui Dankworth, Golden Lion winner and Royal Academician Sonia Boyce celebrates the voices of women of colour

Feeling Her Way at the British Pavilion featuring the Devotional Collection -2022 – © British Council

When Sonia Boyce was awarded the Golden Lion at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022, it was greeted with a huge positive response – not only because of the power of the work but because of Boyce’s tremendous contribution to the British art scene. Giving Boyce her due put her in the position she deserved to be in career-wise and it offered representation to other artists, women and people of colour and her success has been an inspiration to many. Exhibitions at the Venice Biennale are usually seen by a select view but in honour of the resonance of Feeling Her Way and Boyce’s win it will tour the UK, starting with Margate’s Turner Contemporary before travelling to Leeds Art Gallery in May.

Boyce is an artist and professor of Black Art and Design at the University of the Arts London. She is a trailblazer in Black British arts and was made the first Black female Royal Academician in 2016. Her practice includes photography, sound, drawing, print and film. Typically immersive, Feeling Her Way uses all aspects of the space through installation and sound.

Filmed and recorded at Abbey Road Studios, Feeling Her Way looks at female creativity and expression. We see four musicians, guided by composer Errollyn Wallen, start to experiment collectively before each performing individually. Singer Jacqui Dankworth, contemporary musician Poppy Ajudha, experimental musician Sofia Jernberg and singer-songwriter Tanita Tikaram are led by Wallen through a series of improvisational exercises, and we see the results captured on film in a hypnotic and awe-inspiring display of creativity and spontaneous music-making. Following prompts to breath or channel feelings and phrases including ‘I am queen’ the musicians take their individual styles and weave them together in real time. At some points one will fall back and one will take a solo but they always re-join together into a kind of unified improvisation.

“My whole thing was about them just trying things out and doing what they felt they wanted to do in that space,” Boyce explained at the opening. “So, we have three galleries where they produce something for themselves.”

In the first room we see the moment Dankworth, Ajudha, Tikarim and Wallen came together (Jernberg was not present due to Covid-19 travel restrictions but responded to the recording from Sweden in a separate film).

Portrait of Sonia Boyce courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery. Photo_ Parisa Taghizadeh

“There are three things happening in that gallery, but it’s really meant to be how a conversation can happen in a very kind of experimental way,” Boyce explained.

The three musicians in the room find their way to a sense of music-making through a series of instructions from Wallen and as time progresses, they begin to sing together. These experiments echo between the rooms of the exhibition and mingle with the performances we see in the other rooms.

“You’ll get a sense of all the sounds that are merging and that’s really all part of the experience of the whole project,” Boyce said. “This is different voices and different ways of voicing which merge and are also quite distinct. I really love that overall soundscape of the project.”

This is an uplifting exhibition experience; you are invited to watch, to participate and to stay and the experience is one which extends beyond the walls of the Turner.

The work is a part of a decades-long project, Devotional, in which Boyce celebrates female musicians. Through the centre of the exhibition, between the three individual spaces, is a series of icons dedicated to them. As you walk through it you can hear music from all sides, one song fading out as another becomes clearer. The walls of each of these spaces are decorated with wallpaper and gold sculpture that appears to be growing over the space in a crystalline manner. It acts as a kind of portrait, celebrating each musician using a different palette and lexicon of visual references for each. There are also portraits of each singer, sometimes wallpapered like fly posters and also screen-printed. There is even gold seating – you can spend a long time in these spaces and are encouraged to do so.

Feeling Her Way featuring four performers – Errollyn Wallen, Tanita Tikaram, Poppy Ajudha, Jacqui Dankworth – 2022 – © British Council

The devotional aspect of Feeling Her Way is expressed through the wallpaper that decorates each room, surrounding icons of Black female musicians from the Spice Girls to Echobelly and Shirley Bassey that adorn the walls, held aloft in gold, like treasure. This devotional space offers us an interlude to consider the context that gave us these performers, those who paved the way who they share the cultural landscape with, as we hear their music throughout the space.

“Each one of the singers was invited to do something that they wanted to do themselves,” Boyce explained. These are temples to these women, who are elevated as goddesses of creativity. Spending time in these rooms, surrounded by an aura of sound and visuals, we can really absorb their talent and consider their creative force.

A huge part of this work is the visibility it gives to Black female creativity. British pop music has seen some women of colour thrive, but too rarely is that creative work presented as it is shown in Feeling Her Way. The work here bathes you in the confidence and mystique of these women, in that sense of questing that comes from improvisation. Boyce elevates her collaborators – and her viewers, too, creating a lasting impression of joy that will follow you out of the gallery.

Sonia Boyce, Feeling Her Way, is at Turner Contemporary until 8 May 2023

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