[Sonia Boyce] I have a studio in East London part of a multi-creative arts complex. I don't really use a studio in the kind of traditional sense of the studio this is. This not a place of making it's more a place of thinking and rummaging.
I started visiting galleries and museums when I was quite young. Once we'd gone on school trips I would then go on my own and just go walking around Whitechapel. I was part of a feminist art group that was at college and we were always seen as kind of the embattled group.
I'd gone there with the intention of trying to deconstruct or reconstruct images around the Black female body There were a very very limited range of images of African diasporic women either being hypersexual i.e. A prostitute or a mammy kind of figure of service somehow.
For me this was in stark contrast to the glut of images around white femininity. I've started to be very much part of what became known as the Black Art Movement in the 1980s, trying to highlight questions around race and cultural difference that became another tense area but it's been the terrain in which I've worked from the very early age.
I started making works with hair that I bought from shops, Afro-Caribbean hair shops and I started making these very strange objects. This particular installation that I've made was called 'Do You Want to Touch?' People of African descent people often want to touch their hair.
Usually it can be a stranger coming up to someone wanting to touch their hair. It harks back to a very long memory of the African body being public property. The point about these works is that they were made to be handled by the audience. By these objects being removed from the body there's something quite violent but they become kind of disgusting. Even though we think of hair and intimacy as something quite lovely the moment that there is no longer a body there. It's like why has that been divorced from a body?
Much of the stuff that's here relates to a project I've been doing It's called 'The Devotional Series' or 'Devotional Project' so this project has been going on since about 1999 where I've been gathering a kind of history of black women that might be across a range of ethnic groups who've worked in the music industry. It consists, at the moment, of a wallpaper where there are 200 names.
I wanted us to just name some Black British female singers that people knew, and it took about 10 minutes before anyone could think of anybody and, actually, the very first person that was remembered was Shirley Bassey. Eventually people started to, actually, send me objects like records. These are all 45s. This project has not only been about naming these performers but also kind of remembering their music and collecting their music.
I was part of what was called the Black Art Movement. People often do want to kind of mothball me in that 1980s moment, but I of course have continued to make work and other questions have emerged.
In more recent years I've tried to let go of the idea of there being a message per se but a way of working. Increasingly that involves people and improvising and being really spontaneous in the moment and that gets captured.
'Exquisite Cacophony' is a half an hour video that I made working with an artist called ‘Astronautalis’ and Elaine Mitchener with an invited audience and it was filmed at the Victorian Albert Museum.
I usually invite people that I find what they're doing is interesting I don't tell people what they are going to do going to do.
Astronautalis is actually working with the legacies of jazz scat in terms of rap music and Elaine Mitchener is working with the legacies of Dada and concrete poetry and sound voice noise.
I brought them together, they had never met before knowing that they both kind of work with improvisation. I'm trying desperately not to tell people what to think versus what I think the early works were because that was all these things that I had to say.
I've been invited back to where I've done my foundation to do some teaching. There's increasingly a diverse range of students who go to art school who need a diverse range of reference points, starting points, thinking points so I've continued to be teaching for 35 years now.
It is a space that I love but if there was anything that I would say to anyone emerging just whatever you've got to do just do it anyway and do it because you're thinking it or feeling it and it's got to be expressed so just get on with it and do it.
Highlighting questions around race and cultural difference, Sonia Boyce conveys political messages focusing on black representation and perceptions of the Black body through her art.
The British Afro-Caribbean artist gained prominence as part of the Black Arts Movement in the 1980s. Using drawing, print, photography, performance and installation, Boyce aims to shift notions of race that have pervaded since the abolition of slavery.
We visited the London based artist in her studio to discover how she is reconstructing and gathering a history of Black women who have been forgotten in a white society.
See the artist's work in our Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s - Now exhibition at Tate Britain, 1 December 2021 – 3 April 2022