Continuing our series on the career development of well-established artists, writer Roy Exley meets Sonia Boyce to discuss how she has steered her career from British Home Stores shop assistant to celebrated artist.
Sonia Boyce, a career artist whose self-perception, curiously, resists this description, has over the past eighteen years built up a significant canon of work engaging with identity, difference and black culture. The effect of her work has been to re-orientate and re-negotiate the position of Black or Afro-Caribbean art within the cultural mainstream. That this area of work is an integral part of our cultural mainstream and not an add-on is gradually being taken on board thanks to the commitment of such artists as Yinka Shonibare, Chris Ofili, Steve McQueen, Faisal Abdu' Allah, Zarina Bhimji and Sonia Boyce herself.
Conceptually based, Boyce's work was given its initial impetus whilst she was on the foundation course at East Ham College in London. There she was introduced to the work of Margaret Harrison from Phoenix the Feminist Art Collective. Further study at Stourbridge College of Art in the West Midlands cemented Boyce's interest in conceptual practice. Despite the inspiration gained here, when she graduated, she came out of Stourbridge with zero aspirations, unable to envisage a serious career path as an artist in her own words: "I was floundering about, seriously considering going back to work at British Home Stores".
In 1982 she attended the first National Convention of Black Artists at Wolverhampton College of Art where she was amazed to find so many black artists seriously engaged with their work. This was a major turning point for Boyce strengthening her conviction that she was on the right career path. Out of the ferment of this convention came the first opportunity to exhibit her work. Through the artist and curator Lubaina Himid, Boyce participated in a group show called 'Five Black Women' at the Africa Centre in London (1983) and consequently her work was reviewed in Time Out by Sarah Kent, which proved to be a real breakthrough. Following this, with the recommendation of Susan Hiller, the London gallery Gimpel Fils expressed an interest in her work and subsequently included Boyce's drawings in the group exhibition 'Strip Language', held there in 1984. Boyce registers surprise that so commercial a gallery was sympathetic towards her work and so amenable. She realised then that the path of the artist is essentially fortuitous, open to the whims of chance and luck, to chance meetings, incidental conversations, or unforeseen connections.
In the 1980s she made her mark through the medium of drawing but has since diversified into photography, mixed media and installation (specifically engaged with text) and it would seem Boyce is returning to drawing again in her recent works. Referring to her work with hair and hairstyles in the early 1990s Boyce comments "my art became more intuitive, more at the mercy of process, and the consequent changes that arise there".
Since the mid 1980s, Boyce has participated in several exhibitions both in Britain and abroad. Along the way there have been some seminal collections of work such as Black female hairstyles (1995), One afro, twenty-five people (1996), The audition curtain (1998) which grew out of a residency at the University of Manchester and Choral 1 and 2 (2000/01). Boyce now successfully juggles the dual roles of creative practitioner and Co-Director of Aavaa the African and Asian Visual Artists Archive but it's not always easy. Recently returning from a six-month residency at Duke University in North Carolina, Boyce comments that "residencies are quite energy sapping and can interrupt the continuity and flow of work". However she adds, "you do gain some great insights and recent collaborations have lead to some interesting projects like The audition curtain at Manchester". Nevertheless, she thinks she will give residencies a break for a while in an attempt to be more "insular" in her practice. Despite all the ups and downs and breaks in continuity, Sonia Boyce's work continues to go from strength to strength.
First published: a-n Magazine November 2001 as 'Identity check'
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