Sonia Boyce OBE

The Audition

1997, printed 2018

Not on display

Sonia Boyce OBE born 1962
390 photographs, C-prints on paper, face-mounted to acrylic glass
Frame: 301 × 201 × 5 mm
image, each: 299 × 199 mm
object, each: 301 × 201 × 14 mm
Purchased using funds provided by the 2018 Frieze Tate Fund supported by Endeavor to benefit the Tate collection 2020


The Audition 1997 is an installation comprising 394 black and white photographs, each measuring thirty by twenty centimetres, mounted on and cased in aluminium. The photographs are mostly head shots of individuals that fill the whole frame; some images are double portraits and a small number portray three or even four individuals posing together in the same shot. The photographs are installed alongside name plates, usually recording the first name and surname of each individual, apart from two group portraits collectively identified as ‘Cornerhouse staff’ and ‘Cornerhouse technicians’. Up to fifteen photographs of each person are installed together, in rows of three. Some of the photographs show the sitter with his or her natural hair, while in others the same sitter is wearing a synthetic, short curly Afro wig. The installation can take different configurations, spanning seventeen metres across when all 394 photographs are displayed.

The making of The Audition took place in 1997 at Cornerhouse, a centre for the contemporary visual arts in Manchester in the north of England (the venue is now called HOME). The work was realised during Boyce’s tenure as Manchester University’s first artist-in-residence, from January 1997 to April 1998, in collaboration with the Institute of International Visual Arts (inIVA), the Borth West Arts Board and Cornerhouse. The artist placed an advertisement in the Cornerhouse publicity brochure for the months of October and November 1997, of which 30,000 copies were distributed within Manchester and beyond. The advertisement, which invited people to come to Cornerhouse, wear a wig and be photographed, came under the playful banner: ‘Have you ever thought that your face was a work of art? Then read on …’. Over eighty people responded to the advert and over fifty attended on the day. On 18 November 1997 all attendees were invited to wear one of four wigs and were photographed with and without the wig. That day Boyce took over 900 photographic portraits. Out of these, she selected and printed 394 photographs, which comprise the complete installation.

As Boyce has noted, the advert did not state that the artist was black, and she believes that not as many people – who responded to the advert expecting to participate in a creative or unusual event or simply have a laugh – would have come if they had read the event as political (Paul Bayley and Vicky Charnock, ‘From Audition to Performance’, in Crinson 1998, p.42). Instead, Boyce has stated, ‘What was really interesting was that it was during the process of the project that its political dimension became clearer’ (Boyce 2010, p.117).

The Audition brings together a number of complex issues surrounding the construction of identity and the fascination for ‘the Other’ that are connected to assumptions brought to the fore by stereotypical representations. The Afro is both one of the most politicised hairstyles of the century – a statement about self-empowerment, a symbol of the civil rights movement and of the ‘Black is beautiful’ movement – and a carrier of the parody and stereotyping of the black man as clown (Nikos Papastergiadi, ‘The Friendly Eye’, in Crinson 1998, pp.21–2). It also emerged from discussions with the participants that many of them also identified the Afro with the explosion of soul, funk and dance music and fashion in the 1970s. The aim of asking a variety of people to perform by posing with a wig was to introduce an element of supposed ‘otherness’ and thereby open up a space for discussion and the exploration of identity in order to question the stereotypical characterisation of Black identity and its ongoing and changing status. Boyce has stated:

Equally important to the idea of performing identities, particularly for camera, are issues about the dialogic relationship between the portrait sitters and the photographer as well as the underlying questions about photography itself. Using the contact sheets from the 35mm rolls of film as a guide, the piece charts one frame after another, whether they might technically or aesthetically be considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’ photographs the aim was to bypass choosing a decisive photographic moment for each sitter, in stark contrast to the title of the piece.
(Email correspondence with Tate curator Elena Crippa, 12 October 2018.)

In the planning of the shoot, rather than acting as a detached observer, Boyce developed with her subjects what the cultural historian Nikos Papastergiadi has called ‘a critical intimacy’, exploring the constructed nature of representation (Papastergiadi, ‘The Friendly Eye’, in Crinson 1998, p.19). By posing for portraits as well as wearing an Afro wig, Boyce effectively asked the participants in the work to become aware of the dialectical relationship between identity, its construction and its representation.

In the period preceding the making of The Audition, Boyce’s work had explored an approach to photography as emerging from a relationship of trust and complicity with the subject portrayed, as well as an active and self-aware exploration of the performative nature of posing for the camera. More directly, The Audition grew out of an earlier series of works by the artist that focused on bodily hair, in particular hair purchased from African-Caribbean hairstyle shops, ‘to explore how an identifiable fragment of the African Diaspora subject is imagined as a body that contains excessive meanings’ (email correspondence with Tate curator Elena Crippa, 12 October 2018). In her original application statement for the residency post in Manchester, Boyce had stated: ‘Much of my recent work has to go close to the body. Close to those areas of the body that are loaded with cultural significance.’ (Quoted in Crinson 1998, p.40.)

The work was first presented as part of the exhibition Performance at Cornerhouse between November 1997 and February 1998, the culmination of Boyce’s residency in Manchester. On this occasion, Boyce selected a number of images from the photographs she had taken to act as posters that she intended to have flyposted around the streets of Manchester, each poster featuring images of the same subject with and without the wig. In the event, restrictions to the budget and schedule meant that only four of those posters were produced and displayed in the gallery itself rather than across the city.

The version of the work now in Tate’s collection is unique and was fabricated by the artist in 2018 for her solo exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery. The artist has specified that when, for reasons of space, not all the photographs can be displayed, sequences of images of the same sitters should be prioritised in order to represent the different and complex responses to the experience of posing for the camera with and without the wig. When the work was first made, inIVA produced a half-hour video of its making, which features short interviews with the participants, discussing the experience of taking part in the project. This video, which is held in the inIVA archive, can be shown alongside the work.

After a period in the 1980s working with painting, pastel and collage (see, for example, Missionary Position II 1985, Tate T05020), Boyce’s practice underwent a shift during the 1990s leading to work that, while continuing to focus on the history and legacy of Afro-Caribbean culture, aimed to explore the gendered and racialised body in the public rather than private sphere, addressing its fetishization. She began to be work collaboratively in a variety of media, often involving a participating audience. The Audition is a significant early example of these participatory projects.

Further reading
Mark Crinson (ed.), Sonia Boyce: Performance, Annotations 2 series, London 1998.
Sonia Boyce, in Rebecca Fortnum (ed.), Contemporary British Women Artists in their Own Words, London 2010, p.117.
Sophie Orlando (ed.), Sonia Boyce/ Thoughtful Disobedience, Dijon 2017, pp.10–39.

Elena Crippa
October 2018

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