Sonia Boyce OBE

From Tarzan to Rambo: English Born ‘Native’ Considers her Relationship to the Constructed/Self Image and her Roots in Reconstruction


Not on display

Sonia Boyce OBE born 1962
Photographs, black and white, on paper, photocopies on paper, acrylic paint , ballpoint pen, crayon and felt-tip pen
Support: 1250 × 3600 mm
Purchased 1987

Display caption

This photo-based work raises questions about the effect of the diaspora of the African peoples - their historical dispersion across the world through slavery and colonisation - on the identity and representation of black people. Boyce is the 'English born Native' of the title. The picture developed from a desire to consider the relationship between her own 'self-image' and the one offered by a predominantly white society through the mass media. The scale of the work and its reference to Hollywood heroes such as Tarzan and Rambo point to the power of film to perpetuate sterotypes. Photobooth portraits of the artist dominate the image. They refer in part to voodooo trance, often parodied in Hollywood films.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

T05021 From Tarzan to Rambo: English Born ‘Native’ Considers her Relationship to the Constructed/Self Image and her Roots in Reconstruction 1987

Acrylic, ball-point pen, crayon and felt-tip pen on photographic paper 1240 × 3590 (49 × 141 1/2)

Purchased from Gimpel Fils (Grant-in-Aid) 1987

Exh: Moral Tales: Reading the 1980s, Tate Gallery Liverpool, March–Dec. 1994 (no cat.)

T05021 is a large black and white photograph on which the artist has drawn and painted. The photograph reproduces a small untitled collage, approximately eighteen inches long, made specifically for T05020. The collage (present whereabouts unknown) was dominated by two sets of six photobooth portraits of the artist. The artist tinted the top row of faces on the right hand side brown. Other elements in the collage included photocopies of African cloth, leaves, cut-out images of ‘golliwogs’ (racist caricatures of Black people popular in the UK in the first half of the twentieth century, often appearing as children’s toys) and a tracing of Black figures among jungle foliage. On the greatly enlarged photograph of the original collage Boyce drew the figure of Tarzan with black felt-tip pen towards the bottom left. She then painted over the drawing with pink and white acrylic paint. She added extensive shading to the portraits using black crayon and black ball-point pen, scoring the paper in places with the pen. She also added red, brown and mauve paint to the patterned border at the bottom of the photograph.

‘From Tarzan to Rambo’ represented a significant change of direction for Boyce, although its purpose was still related to earlier pastel drawings, including ‘Missionary Position II’ (T05020, see previous entry). Before making T05021 Boyce had recently completed a pastel drawing entitled ‘She Ain't Holding Them Up, She's Holding On; Some English Rose’, 1986 (repr. The Other Story, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery 1989, p.103 in col.). In conversation with the compiler on 4 January 1992 the artist explained, ‘when I made that piece, in fact even while making that piece, I realised that it was the last drawing that I could do in that way ... I couldn't go anywhere else with that kind of narrative’. She went on to experiment with other media and methods such as photography and collage. As with the pastels, Boyce's primary aim was to develop a visual language that would correspond to the rich oral tradition of Afro-Caribbean culture. Her work has a strong narrative content which she sees as a visual translation of the story-telling tradition within Black communities.

In pursuit of a new direction Boyce turned to a collection of photocopies culled from comics and magazines she had been assembling since 1982. T05021 is derived from this material. Her decision to produce a large scale photograph was partly related to the nature of these sources. It was also influenced by her involvement from late 1985 to 1988 with the Docklands Community Poster Project, based on the Isle of Dogs. Her job with this project was to help hang large photomurals on hoardings around London (see Sandy Nairne, The State of the Art: Ideas and Images in the 1980s, 1987, pp.182–9). Boyce hoped that her use in T05021 of a photographically reproduced image would help increase the viewer's awareness of the power of the media in constructing identities. The scale of the work evokes the dimensions of a cinema screen as Boyce was particularly keen to underscore the role of films.

T05021 sets out to question the process by which identities and stereotypes are constructed through the consumption of images by an audience. Its main subject is the social and cultural construction of Black stereotypes, which Boyce wanted Black people in particular to recognise and confront. In conversation with the compiler she said:

I was actually thinking about audience, and thinking about ways in which different people will come to this piece. I've not heard any Black person talk about it, mainly because the piece hasn't ... really been seen very much ... I don't know how other Black people respond to seeing these connections put together ... I'm sure it will be quite painful.

Boyce wanted audiences to participate in the work and comprehend her intentions. She commented to the compiler about the difficulty of trying to achieve this goal, ‘when I was trying to explain it, I had to draw a diagram for myself. It was almost like a map of all the various connections that I was trying to make. In a way it's difficult to know how much of that comes through in a piece’. The complex title of T05021 was formulated as the work was being made. Its form indicates the analytical nature of the image, which Boyce hoped would challenge the viewer on a number of levels. In particular, the placement of ‘Constructed’ over ‘Self’, with both words referring to ‘Image’, refers to a configuration used by the semiotician Roland Barthes to demonstrate his formula for decoding meanings, using the words ‘signifier’, ‘signified’ and ‘sign’ (see Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, 1972, p.115).

Both title and sub-title refer to the question of identity and representation for the Black person in the diaspora, the historical dispersion of African peoples across the world through slavery. Boyce is the ‘English born “Native”’ of the title. The picture developed from her desire to consider the relationship between her own ‘self-image’ and the one constructed for her by society. It also aims to show how one's ‘self-image’ can be reconstructed in a positive way.

Around the time of making T05021 Boyce began to reconsider her exposure to news reports on the television as a child. This led her to analyse her role as a consumer of media images, and its subsequent effect on her sense of self. The media images Boyce felt particularly influenced by were Hollywood movies and comics. The character of Tarzan, which according to his inventor, the novelist Edgar Rice Burrough, means ape-talk for ‘white-skin’, first appeared in ‘Tarzan of the Apes’ published in the All-Story Magazine in 1912. Tarzan's appeal has proved widespread and enduring. Burrough wrote twenty-six Tarzan related novels, which were adapted for screen, radio and television. There have been over forty Tarzan films; the first of which, starring Elmo Lincoln, was released in 1918. Tarzan is a celebration of male prowess and natural law. Although the story takes place in the African jungle, it is Tarzan, the son of white parents, who is master there. The films present Black and white audiences with an exotic and exciting view of Africa, over which the white man ultimately presides.

Boyce remembers being overwhelmed by news reports of the Vietnam War (1954–74). Since the late 1970s a spate of American films, such as ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978, dir. Michael Cimino), ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ (1985, dir. George Pan Cosmatos) and ‘Platoon’ (1986, dir. Oliver Stone), have addressed the effects of the war on American identity and self-respect. Boyce feels that the new white warrior hero, epitomised by Rambo, represents, like Tarzan, a crisis of white identity. To alleviate this crisis the Black person is used as an ‘other’ against which a positive image of white identity can be constructed. All of the films, even the most realistic, such as ‘Platoon’, retell the story from the white man's point of view and neglect the racial aspects of the Vietnam War. The infantry (the ‘grunts’), for example, was comprised largely of Black and Hispanic American soldiers.

Of the Vietnam films ‘Rambo’ has been the most commercially successful. John Rambo (played by actor Sylvester Stallone) is a superhuman veteran sent back to Vietnam in search of those ‘Missing in Action’, believed still to be held in POW camps. Half German, half Native American, Rambo is cast as a ‘noble savage’, a victim with whom the audience can sympathise. In relation to his subhuman Vietnamese enemy, however, he appears white. In fact, it has been argued that Rambo functions as a powerful self-image for the white male, beseiged by the growing claims of minority rights and feminism (see Galyn Studler and David Desser, ‘Never Having to Say You're Sorry: Rambo's Rewriting of the Vietnam War’, From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film, eds. Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud, New Brunswick 1990, p.111).

Tarzan and Rambo may be seen as fictional characters upon which a white male audience can project its own image. In conversation with the compiler Boyce explained that with T05021 she hoped to draw attention to the way in which Black people are subjected to a white-dominated mass media in which black role models have been scarce and often negative. The figure of Tarzan, for example, is covered with pink and white acrylic paint in order to emphasise the whiteness of the hero against the Black faces which surround him. Boyce traced and enlarged both Tarzan and the black figures who peer from behind jungle vegetation from a comic (Terrifying Tales, no.14, Sept. 1953), bought at a comic fair in Hackney. Unlike the figure of Tarzan, however, the figures in the jungle are part of the original collage. By using the comic as a source Boyce hoped to illuminate how popular culture contributes to the process of self-identification for Black people, despite the fact that it is often produced for a white audience. In T05021 the white viewer is offered a white male hero as a role model. In contrast, the Black viewer is offered an anonymous group, who are shown to be living in the jungle and adhering to sinister and barbaric pagan practices, possibly including human sacrifice. Their speech bubble reads ‘THE BUZZING BIRD SENDS US A VICTIM’. According to the artist, ‘Buzzing Bird’ loosely refers to cockerels and hens which are the sacrifical animals of voodoo.

The faces which dominate T05021 are a set of six photobooth poses rephotographed to produce two copies. The copy on the right of the image is underexposed and the one on the left is overexposed. The bottom row of faces on the right are worked over with ball-point pen in order to make them look more like the figures from the comic strip. These pen marks also suggest facial hair, a reference, according to the artist, to a white male fantasy about the imagined bestial sexuality of Black women. Dominating the background of the work is a photocopy of one of the artist's African scarves. This was chosen by the artist as a reference to Black women, as they traditionally produce and wear such fabric. When photocopied, the weave of the cloth produced a dense and claustrophobic feel that appealed to the artist.

The comic strip jungle leaves drawn with felt pen on the left contrast with real leaves on the right, which were sewn on to the original collage by Boyce. The photographs of Boyce on the right are underexposed to emphasise the darkness of her skin, and tinted brown to exaggerate the whiteness of her eyes. Her face peers through the leaves. By referring to the jungle, and nature in general, Boyce hoped to confront both Black and white audiences with conventional notions of Africa. She has not been to Africa but knows it does not simply consist of rural societies, although these do still exist. Through the use of real leaves she hoped to raise the issue of authenticity which dominated debates about Africa within the Black community in the 1980s. At this time Boyce became very conscious of the Afrocentricity of many Black people living in Britain and the USA, which led to a revival and celebration of what they considered to be genuinely African, such as a traditional medicine based on herbs and natural healing. Hence, the leaves in T05021 represent the role of nature in redefining a Black identity. At that time Boyce was sympathetic towards this kind of Afrocentricism but has since come to question its appeal to a partly mythical idea of nature. This aspect of the picture was, therefore, intended to confront issues raised by the ideological construction of Africa, as, indeed, the whole work sets out to challenge the construction of myths from reality.

A series of twelve ‘golliwog’ heads frame the left side of T05021. They were taken from a Rupert the Bear comic of the 1920s which Boyce acquired in the early 1980s. Although the heads appear identical at first glance, each one is slightly different. According to the artist, the ‘golly’ portraits are a visual statement about the way in which white people perceive Black people, and her own image is repeated to the same end. In the photographic portraits Boyce appears with Afrolocks tied back in a head-dress, her forehead framed by stray curls, which was how she normally arranged her hair at that time. Using a ball-point pen she exaggerated the curls to parody the historical fascination white people have shown for the quality of Afro-hair, a feature particularly accentuated in the ‘golliwog’.

In 1985 Boyce had seen an installation by her contemporary, Eddie Chambers (born 1960), called The Black Bastard as a Cultural Icon (Pentonville Gallery, September 1985) which explored the social meanings of the ‘golliwog’. His intention was to demonstrate how white society has stripped Black people of their dignity by constantly presenting them as foolish, comic and servile. The installation illustrated the unconscious perpetuation of racism in magazines, children's books and news photographs, and revealed the effects of this conditioning upon the Black self-image. Although Boyce explores similar themes in T05021, her interest in this kind of cultural stereotyping stemmed from her fascination with Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s, which she began to research in the mid-1980s.

When making T05021 Boyce's understanding of film as a powerful medium for the perpetuation of stereotypes was shaped by her reading of Gary Null's book, Black Hollywood: The Black Performer in Motion Pictures (New Jersey 1975). Null writes (pp.7–8):

The depiction of black people on the screen has not only reinforced and sharpened some of the prejudices of the white majority, but it has also to a great extent shaped the often negative images blacks have had of themselves ... In film after film, the same Negro stereotypes appear - the foolish irresponsible citizen, the grinning bellhop or flapjack cook, the hymn-singing churchgoer, the song-and-dance man, the devoted servant or contented slave, the barefoot watermelon eater, the corrupt politician, the hardened criminal, and the African savage. Thus emerge two broad categories into which the Negro can be fitted - the clown and the black brute.

As a child of six or seven years old Boyce had been terrified by a ‘King Kong’ movie seen on television (USA 1933, dir. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack). For years thereafter she had nightmares in which she was pursued by the monstrous gorilla, ‘these dreams progressed, became almost like a serial dream ... progressing to various states. I'm not quite sure what got me thinking about film at this particular time, but I remembered the influence that this film had on me. It completely terrified me’. During the mid-1980s she read King Kong Story (Marcelle de Lesseps and René Chateau, Paris 1976) which argued that ‘King Kong’ represented a white construction of Black male sexuality.

Boyce had identified herself with the white heroine of the film, Ann Darrow, who became King Kong's victim. The film has the quality of a nightmare. Critics have suggested that it depicts the subconsciously repressed sexual desires of the principal protagonist, abducted by a black or ‘white man's sick fantasy of the Negro's lust to ravish white women’ (Danny Peary, Cult Movies: The Classics, The Sleepers, The Weird and the Wonderful, New York 1981, p.180). When Boyce became aware of this reading of the film, she felt that in her childhood she had been participating in a white person's fear of her own race.

In the period preceding the making of T05021 Boyce began to watch as many old Hollywood films as possible. Reading about these films encouraged her to analyse her feelings of self-doubt and anger which their representation of Black people often engendered. As well as Black Hollywood, she read Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film 1900–1942 by Thomas Cripps (New York 1977). As a result Boyce became increasingly perturbed by the images of Black people in cinema. She noticed that black actors used exaggerated gestures to compensate in some way for perceived deficiencies in their mastery of language, which was always presented as inadequate, implying that Blacks were stupid or uncivilised. She was especially struck by the prevalence of a wide-eyed expression, clearly visible in the stills of Black faces displayed on the cover of Black Hollywood. This reminded her that, when she was a child, white school friends had remarked on her colour, with such comments as, ‘I can see your eyes in the dark’, ‘I can see your teeth in the dark’ and ‘because you have black skin, your eyes and teeth look brighter’. Experiences such as these made Boyce feel ashamed of being Black. Research into ethnicity and childhood has shown that the majority of Black children tend to misidentify themselves as white, since white role models are both more dominant and appealing (see Anthony Giddens, Sociology, Cambridge 1990, p.250).

One old film, ‘I Walked With a Zombie’ (USA 1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur), particularly interested Boyce and contributed greatly to the making of T05021. The film is a fantasy/horror film set in Haiti. The white protagonists appeal to science and common sense in order to explain the ‘zombie’ (living dead) state of the plantation owner's wife. In contrast, the Black inhabitants, formerly enslaved, rely on the irrational forces of voodoo. Although the film is not entirely unsympathetic towards the Haitians, their practice of voodoo is exploited as a source of terror throughout the film. A tall Black Zombie appears as a leitmotif to suggest the presence of danger or death, his eyes unblinking, wide and threatening.

On seeing this film, it occurred to Boyce that the wide-eyed expression so frequently used by Black actors was a perversion of an aspect of Black religious practice. She told the compiler:

I had been doing a lot of reading around religion and African influences in Christianity and there's a ceremonial aspect to Black church which is about ‘getting the spirit’ and talking in tongues ... at church you can get into a particular state where your eyes roll because you get into another level. I realised that what was going on in those films was a parody of what was going on in the church ... That's only part of it. I started to think about this whole thing about Black people being an audience to a media reconstruction of that, and internalising, and having to find other alternatives.

Boyce refers here to the state of trance, a practice central to voodoo, which has been absorbed by the Christian spiritualist tradition to which her family belongs (see previous entry on T05020). In voodoo when a person goes into trance, it is a sign that his or her god, an aspect of the great universal spirit, has entered the body, enabling the spirit to become momentarily human and the human momentarily supernatural. The ability to move from the material world into that of the metaphysical provided black communities with a sense of self-assurance. The essence of voodoo trance is described in a book belonging to the artist:

From the onset of his first trance man becomes possessed by his god. He is not possessed like a slave but rather like a servant, who may retain his identity at his master's side. With the ability to fall into a trance the believer becomes a member of a community which through worship and prayer provides its gods with power and importance. In turn it becomes exposed to the positive influence of divine forces that make it strong and raise it above the common and the ordinary. Trance is, however, not only a means for reaching the gods; it also provides man with one of the most powerful and impressive feelings he is able to experience. Trance itself raises the faithful into an undreamt-of sphere of consciousness, in which he can materialize a completely new access to everyday things.
(Gert Chesi, Voodoo-Africa's Secret Power, Wörgl, Austria 1980, p.243)

In the photobooth portraits Boyce rolls her eyes and imitates the wide-eyed expression derived from Black people in the state of trance, her face signifying in voodoo terms an awakening from death, or the awakening of self-realisation. In conversation with a compiler on 15 July 1991, the artist explained that the left side of T05021 represents the way in which Black people are constructed in white popular culture. Here Boyce's trance-like face is placed in the context of white dominated Hollywood movies and comics. In contrast, the right side of the picture confronts both Black and white viewers with the same trance-like faces in the context of Black culture.

The use of photobooth photographs and the suggestion of trance or dream state was partly influenced by a photographic montage in the French Surrealist magazine, La Révolution surréaliste (Paris, no.12, 15 Dec. 1929), seen by the artist in some other source. In this a painting by René Magritte featuring a nude (‘je ne vois pas la [femme] cachée dans la forêt’, 1929, repr. André Breton: La Beauté convulsive, exh. cat., Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1991, p.193) is framed by photographic portraits of members of the Surrrealist group with closed eyes. The image testifies to the significance which the Surrealists attached to the world of the unconscious, experienced through dreams and trance. Boyce had already developed an interest in Surrealism through her admiration of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (see previous entry on T05020). In T05021 she used this Surrealist reference to reinforce the idea that the unconscious plays an important role in ‘the perpetuation of mythic stereotypes’.

Boyce used the motif of a sleeping or dreaming head in two earlier works, ‘Sitting on the Mantelpiece’ and ‘From Someone Else's Fear: Fantasy to Metamorphosis’ (repr. The Impossible Self, exh. cat., Winnipeg Art Gallery 1988, pp.33, 36). These two works immediately preceded ‘From Tarzan to Rambo’, and elements from both of them are used in this work. They were approximately the same size as the collage used in making T05021. In conversation with the compiler on 19 April 1994, Boyce said that ‘Sitting on the Mantelpiece’ relates to the issues raised in ‘Missionary Position I’ and II. It illustrates the duality that she discovered in the Black Christian church, which combined African religious beliefs and practices in the Christian tradition. Against a patterned wallpaper objects are placed as if on a mantlepiece. These include a drawing of a Catholic Madonna with a burning sacred heart, four portrait photographs of Boyce with eyes closed, very similar to those used in T05021, and the outline of a small figurine of a Black woman, fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s. The photographs are divided horizontally by a twig with leaves, encouraging the viewer to think of the African jungle, as does the figurine. The title, ‘Sitting on the Mantelpiece’, was designed to suggest sitting ‘between’ voodoo and Christianity. On another level, it alludes to Boyce's ambivalent position as a Black Briton.

‘From Someone Else's Fear: Fantasy to Metamorphosis’ uses the same four portrait heads against a pastel background suggestive of the jungle. A superimposed photograph of King Kong leaps from one of the heads; another head is offered a bowl of fruit by a cartoon ‘golly’; next to another appears a black rose, a motif often used by Boyce as a comment on her particular relationship to the ideal of the ‘English Rose’. Placed on the neck of the fourth dreaming head is a butterfly, suggesting the possibility of metamorphosis from the racial stereotypes that have burdened the artist in the other three sections. This piece was an important preliminary to the larger and more complex ‘From Tarzan to Rambo’.

The original artwork for T05021 was made at the artist's home in Stepney and enlarged by Sky Photographics. She did not have access to a studio at that time, although this did not restrict the scale of the original collage, as she normally produces small-scale preparatory work. T05021 has ringed holes at the top, bottom and middle enabling it to be fixed to a wall. Boyce does not usually consider a frame as part of a work and either allows other people to decide on how this should be done or, as in this instance, has requested that the work should not be framed.

The artist has approved this entry.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996


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