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Feeling Her Way: Sonia Boyce in Venice

By Patricia Allmer, 12.05.2022
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Sonia Boyce, artist commissioned by the British Council for the British Pavilion 2022 – Image credit – Cristiano Corte © British Council.

Sonia Boyce’s exhibition Feeling Her Way at the British Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, curated by Emma Ridgway, is groundbreaking. Boyce is the first black woman both to represent the United Kingdom at the Biennale and to win the prestigious Golden Lion award for Best National Participation.

The exhibition creates a synaesthetic environment of sound, sight, and feeling, in which echoes and reflections circulate and resonate, fusing and creating discord in their conceptualising, voicing, and visualising the repressed and oppressed histories of Black performers. The voices are uncontainable, audible from outside the pavilion, a cacophonic maelstrom of cries and whispers spilling out of its allotted space.

The exhibition focusses on five international Black women musicians from different generations - Jacqui Dankworth, Sofia Jernberg, Poppy Ajudha, Tanita Tikaram, and the composer Errolyn Wallen. The central video installation shows the collaborative improvisation Boyce proposed to the musicians, “an opportunity for free expression”. Four videos of Ajudha, Dankworth, Tikaram, and Wallen lead us into play, experimentation, and vocal dexterity. Jernberg’s absence from this video due to Covid inserts a poignant contemporary marker and a genuine moment of necessary improvisation into the work. The musicians’ sounds and voices ebb and flow through the other exhibition spaces, clashing and combining, anticipating and overlaying the longer, pre-prepared and improvised works in other rooms by each performer.

Room 3 in the British Pavilion featuring performers Jacqui Dankworth and Sofia Jernberg – 2022 – Image Credit – Cristiano Corte © British Council

The recordings were made at Abbey Road Studios, London, a space recomposed throughout the exhibition by the colourful tessellated wallpapers, which collage fragmented images of the Studio’s herringbone floors, painted walls, and music equipment. The golden geometric objects sprouting from floors and walls (referencing iron pyrites, or ‘fool’s gold’, and its colonial history) echo the wooden shapes of the studio and intervene in the circulation of sounds, suggesting the complex, distorting acoustics of colonial history.

The exhibition evokes a kaleidoscope of historically significant meanings. The wallpaper patterns, reminiscent of stained-glass windows in churches, fuse with the repetitive chants of the musical pieces, suggesting the importance of black voices in Christian history, a connotation amplified in Room 4, titled ‘Devotional’. Here Boyce displays a selection of musical media – CDs, records, cassettes – she collected over six months in 2021. They are part of her Devotional Collection (est. 1999), a proliferating archive (from which Feeling Her Way originates) documenting the extensive contribution of Black British women musicians to international culture. Their continued undervaluation is suggested by the price labels remaining on some of the objects.

Throughout the exhibition we glimpse ourselves reflected in the golden surfaces of the ‘fool’s gold’. We are not passive consumers of, but active participants in, the histories addressed by Boyce’s hypnotic exhibition.

Feeling Her Way by Sonia Boyce is exhibited at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia in 2022 until 27th November 2022.

Room 4 in the British Pavilion featuring the Devotional Collection - 2022 - Image Credit – Cristiano Corte © British Council