Many know Sonia Boyce as a key figure in the emergence of modes of Black British art in the 1980s, through paintings and drawings that addressed her identity as a black British woman. Her current exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery addresses a shift in the artist’s practice towards collaboration and participatory performance. These works are rooted in conceptually oriented performance works of the 1970s, yet the way Boyce brings together different groups of people in productive acts – acts that destabilise categorisations of race, gender, sexuality and class – is relational in orientation. The final presentation of these works takes the form of documentary images and edited footage of performances by Boyce’s collaborators. The effect across the exhibition is to produce a play of identities that shake up the different ways in which we, as a society, categorise different people.
‘The Audition’ (1997) was the result of an invitation sent out by Boyce for people to come and have their photographs taken wearing afro-wigs at Manchester’s Cornerhouse. Boyce presents these photographs as a monumental photo-series, accompanied by a film in which participants reflect on the experience. The photographs reveal the power of the wigs to frame and re-contextualise the faces of non-black participants. Some of these participants said that the experience allowed them to momentarily engage with their own appearance in a different manner, throwing up thoughts about how they have previously responded to people of Afro-Caribbean heritage.
The two films that form the centrepiece of the exhibition expand this approach using carnivalesque performances to disrupt how forms of social inclusion/exclusion are structured within different architectural settings. The two-channel video installation ‘Crop Over’ (2007) documents the annual Crop Over harvest festival in Barbados. Boyce couples documentary footage of the festivities with performances by folk characters from the festival (such as Donkeyman and Stilt Walker) in the grounds of both Barbados plantations and Harewood House in Leeds – a stately home built on profits from slavery. The characters’ jubilant actions are conspicuously out of place in these contexts; the film also shows them interrogating their surroundings in a more circumspect manner.
‘Six Acts’ (2018) re-contextualises a gallery of Pre-Raphaelite art within Manchester Art Gallery through the addition of four drag performances for a one-off event. The gallery in which the performances took place is called ‘In the Pursuit of Beauty’, and it has historically functioned as a static presentation of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, which, in turn, predominantly represent women as the artist’s muse. The intervention explored the politics of such an articulation of femininity through raucous drag performances, one of which, Lasana Shabazz, reframed Camptown Races as a football chant. Boyce’s work here allegorises femininity as a faceted phenomenon not necessarily rooted in the female body. The work also addresses the authority of museum displays and their capacity to convey a mode of representation as ‘the way things are’. In fact, displays always change over time, albeit through discussions that tend to be inaudible to art audiences. The strength of Boyce’s work is its capacity to make these conversations public. It is notable that the act of removing Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) by JW Waterhouse heightened the public visibility of this work as an object of public discourse rather than one of silent contemplation.
The exhibition’s overall statement is that playfulness can be an attitude of serious enquiry, and can generate alternate subject positions through which we can view both our relationship to ourselves and to others, and distributions of power within institutions.
Andy Broadey is an artist based in Manchester and lecturer in Contemporary Art, History and Theory at University of Central Lancashire.