Sonia Boyce in Conversation with John Roberts

Sonia Boyce was born in London in 1962. Her parents came from the Caribbean (Barbados / Guyana). She grew up in East London, where she still lives and works. Over the last four years she has exhibited in many group shows including The Thin Block Line (ICA) and From Two Worlds (Whitechapel Gallery). In 1986 she had her first one person exhibition at the Air Gallery, London. Her work has also been seen recently at the Octagon Gallery, Belfast and the Orchard Gallery, Derry.

This interview is reprinted from the new quarterly magazine Third Text. The first issue also contains, notably, From Primitivism to Ethnic Arts by Rasheed Araeen, a critical study of the work of Nancy Spero by Desa Philippi and Anna Howells, and a thirty page account of the work of the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark by Guy Brett. The issues raised by these articles, and the serious quality of the writing, were (we thought) worth bringing to the attention of readers in Ireland and elsewhere.

The neo-colonial aspects of Irish cultural and political life, though diffuse and not always easily identified, are determinants that underly most of our activities. This appears first to be a problem for cultural nationalists: to quote Eduardo Galeano “Can a national culture really be achieved in countries where the material foundations of Power are not national, or depend on foreign centres”. But the attempt to escape the ‘national identity problem’ (which is just as strong in Ireland as its opposite) in­escapably involves one in discussion on the concepts of ‘mainstream’ and ‘marginal’ art activity. The intersection of this critical tradition with that of feminism provides the main arena of argument that Third Text explores. The journal gives as one of its aims. “We hope to develop common platform for those who are positioned as marginal by the dominant culture … (it) represents a historical shift away from the centre of the dominant culture to its periphery, in order to consider the centre critically”. These are concerns that CIRCA shares.

J.R. The emergence of black artists – with a collective and politicised identity – in this country, over the last few years in a way mirrors the emergence of the women’s movement within the art community in the early seventies. Enormous gains have been made in terms of self-organisation, exhibition spaces, consciousness-raising and individual recognition. Coterminous with these advances though have come the familiar problems of ‘tokenism’ and ‘incorporation’ as the liberal establishment expands its forms of curatorial control. If black art was ignored in the seventies, today it is ‘ethnicised’ and ‘exoticised’ as Other. This in a sense can be related to deeper ideological shifts in the Western colonial discourse. The culture of black men and women is no longer perceived – in classic imperialist terms – as ‘primitive’ but different. The result – as with women’s work in the seventies – is that a double bind is put into operation: black art tells bourgeois culture that black art is different and bourgeois culture replies by ghettoising and marginalising this difference. Could you talk about your perception of these issues?

S.B. The ‘collective and politicised identity’ you talk about is not only necessary for our own survival but has also emerged from many sources: the civil rights movement in America during the sixties, the political upheavals and liberation struggles around the world, the women’s movement, the racial cultural consciousness raising taken on by the Rastafarian movement, and the racial tensions in this country. All this in a way is a backdrop to the developments we now see amongst many black artists. I would say that much of the work is different because we are presented with the problems of forging, or one could say, synthesizing the varying elements of identity, not only in terms of an artistic language but also because we have to address ourselves to a historical context within a politicised community. There are parallels with the women’s movement but there are also huge differences. In 1982 I went to the ‘Women in Art Education’ conference that was held at Battersea Arts Centre. Amongst the three hundred or so people there, there were four other black women and two black men. The atmosphere was very peculiar. I got the feeling from some of the white women that not only were they surprised that we should be interested in such a conference but that we should have been in the canteen serving behind the counter instead! Throughout the two days there was one workshop on black visual art that was taken by a very nice but patronising English woman who had lived in Africa for several years, and one equally bad workshop on working class women and art. At the plenary there was a discussion on a draft document to be put before the CNAA saying that there should be proportional representation of women in art colleges. I stood up and said that there should be proportional representation full stop. There was a huge argument about this. I was accused of being emotive. Then Trevor Mathison (who is now a member of the Black Audio Film Collective), got up to say something in support. and another woman stood up and said. “I can’t deal with him as a black man.” Well, all hell broke loose. Trevor walked out followed by the remaining black women. I stayed to argue it out, which was stupid because they kept me there trying to explain their own view. I thought we were there to campaign for change in art education, production and consumption – however, it turned out that we were there to further the careers of the middle class white women there. They failed to see their own racism. For the first time, it occurred to me that there was a chasm between the struggles of the women’s movement and the struggles of black people. Nevertheless, having said that, I don’t think we as black artists have resolved yet where we want to go. In many ways it is easy to be damning about the outcome of some of the initiatives of those involved in the promotion of black visual culture and the motives of those main-stream institutions who have opened up possibilities for black artists. What is required is to distinguish the constructive elements from those areas which maintain a kind of tokenistic, grant related liberal (guilt ridden) inclusionism. Many of these problems came up in relation to the show ‘The Thin Black Line’ at the ICA in November 1985 selected by Lubatna Himid – who made it quite clear in the title how contemptuous the ICA’s (Institute of Contemporary Art, London) offer of the corridor was for the show. However, the exhibition ‘From Two Worlds’ at the Whitechapel Gallery in July 1986, represented a kind of ‘breakthrough’ for black art within the mainstream. I received a letter in connection with the show in December 1985 outlining a proposal for a Caribbean show and asking whether I would be interested in discussing the idea. Veronica Ryan was sent a similar letter. We arranged a meeting at which we discussed the current range of work and how difficult it was to distinguish the work of young African artists from young Caribbean artists working in Britain. We suggested another meeting where we would invite Eddie Chambers, Lubaina Himid, and Gavin Jantjes. After a few meetings Eddie and Lubaina decided that they could no longer continue. Both contributed quite significantly to the discussion. Eddie suggested that the Whitechapel should seriously consider programming several one or two person shows in their annual schedule. Instead of a large show Lubaina gave us a viable structure to work with. The final panel was Gavin, Veronica and myself with Rachel Kirby, Jenni Lomax and Nick Serota of the gallery. For weeks we argued and debated over the question whether this was to be a black art exhibition or not. We wanted to include the work of African, Asian (North and South), Caribbean, Middle Eastern and South American artists working in Britain. None of us knew of any indigenous artists from Australia or New Zealand working in Britain. Gavin outlined an idea that he had been thinking about for some time, an exhibition that crossed and synthesised different cultural traditions.

What was originally intended as a working title, ‘From Two Worlds’, stuck although we tried to grapple with variations. Given the amount of time we had it was felt that an open submission would be too much for us to handle, and so working loosely with Lubaina’s structure we drew up a list of names. We saw the work of almost fifty artists and then started to make our selection. We were quite adamant about keeping to our brief although there were so many people (given the chance to select another show) that we would have liked to include. I later found out that the Whitechapel sent out letters to the artists who weren’t selected, suggesting that their work was not of a high enough standard! Some of the artists we invited to submit work were not able to take part for various reasons. A few had problems with being in such a show, in terms of whether the context would restrict how their work could be viewed. They were worried that they would be classed as ‘black artists’ insofar as the word ‘black’, they said, is associated with the derivative and provincial, lacking credibility or status. That whole period was very, very depressing. For me the most important reason for working on this exhibition was to set up a platform to discuss the actual work in relation to an ongoing international contribution to modern practice. Many of those who were selected and many who weren’t deserved consideration for a major representation of their work. The mainstream institutions, whether funding bodies on galleries, now need to look critically and seriously at work currently being done so as to encourage an atmosphere of constructive development and self-criticism. With regard to those venues that are established to represent the work of black artists, I see a need for them to engage in a lengthy dialogue with artists about the range of work available and how artists want to be represented.

Do you think the GLC (Greater London Council) promotion of ‘positive discrimination’ was a hindrance or a help in this area?

It was a big hindrance, but it was also a help. What the GLC did was give communities the resources to mobilise on a different scale. They made it seem possible that a local government could provide opportunities for black people. Unfortunately the GLC’s policy decisions really did confuse and blur the edges of what was tokenistic and what wasn’t. The notion of ‘positive discrimination’ headed us down a complex, and in my view, wrong road.

Did they expect a certain kind of artist, and a certain kind of work?

Many artists were asked to produce murals, rather than continue with what they were already doing, which meant they were obliged to fit into the role of accessible public ‘popular’ artist. I think the commissioning of black artists to pro­duce murals was an attempt to redress the lack of support for art in public spaces. Public accountability and bureaucratic control are not always sympathetic to the concerns an artist may address in the work. This is a problem I’m sure some community arts projects have had to face. It’s a difficult course to take, and not often successful.

What were the resources available for your own development in the early eighties?

In 1981 I saw Keith Piper and Eddie Chambers work at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery. Theirs was the first contemporary black visual art I had seen. Before that I had seen various Caribbean village paintings and Rastafarian inspired drawings and prints. So to see Keith and Eddie’s work was a big shock. And in a sense you could say they set a precedent for our generation. It was about what is happening in Britain now. It was agitational. Then at the first National Conference of Black Artists in Wolverhampton in 1982, I met with the other members of the then Pan African Connection (Claudette Johnson, Wends Lesley, Donald Rodney and Marlene Smith) which later became the BLK Art Group.

Did their work change your outlook drastically then?

Not really. Before going to college at Stourbridge I had very definite ideas about myself and what I understood of politics. After two and a half long years though I became very doubtful about what I was doing. When I said that Keith and Eddie’s work was a shock, it wasn’t because of what it was saying, but how they were dealing with such ideas visually. Both on foundation and at Stourbridge I spent a lot of time in the library trying to track down some information on contemporary black visual artists. However, although I found books on traditional African and Indian art, and so-called ‘primitive’ art, and two books on Afro-American art, which has a long history dating back to the 1700’s, there was nothing on contemporary black art in Britain. The sense of relief and exhilaration when I walked into that first conference, seeing so many black artists there! It’s very easy to orientate yourself towards the eurocentnc distortions of art history at college, particularly when there was no visible alternative. Consequently, it was difficult for me to understand where I stood. How could I start to work with the ideas I had? How was I to start? The Pan African Connection offered a glimpse of what was possible, but I wasn’t able to work in that way, although Claudette’s work was closer to what I was looking for. What often happened at college was that if you were working in a certain area, dealing with social issues, you were per­suaded to work with photography and text regardless of whether the style or the content was sympathetic to that kind of format. Many people were sent down to the photography department and never seen again. I decided that I was not going to do that.

Eddie Chambers has cited Rasheed Araeen’s writing and art as centrally important for his own development as an artist beyond the ideological confines of ‘ethnicity’. Was Araeen’s work a point of critical contact for you as a student?

No. I wasn’t aware of his work or the issues surrounding ‘ethnicity’ until I left college. I was more involved at college with the work of women artists, the most influential and critical reference point being Frida Kahlo, looking at her work now, in the present climate, Kahlo’s work might well be labelled ‘ethnic’. Anyway, before I went to college I wasn’t aware that any contemporary black artists existed. My school education only went as far as El Greco, Van Gogh, Picasso and a brief glimpse at the Bauhaus, a completely different world and time. What was happening in black music, dance and theatre was a more primary source of inspiration for me.

This process of development is a very familiar one. The cultural roots and allegiances of black kids tend to be predominantly in music and dance. Do you think this is changing at all?

Yes, it’s changing, there are a growing number of black students in art college. That was a result of the struggle of the black community. A whole new generation has grown up in this hostile society and therefore there is need to create and develop a new visual culture. When people talk about black artists disappearing I don’t feel that can happen so easily now because a real awareness has developed in the communities. We are making a solid base, and so now we have to go back and rediscover all those artists who came before us, artists such as Uzo Egono who came to Britain in 1949, and Jessica Huntley, who along with Ron Moody and Aubrey Williams were members of the Caribbean Artists’ Movement. These people are of great importance. My knowledge of a continuous history of work and initiatives by black artists in this country is very sketchy. This ‘not knowing’ acts as a stumbling block to an analysis of the work and achievements to date. There have been attempts to address this gap. I was told that there was a major exhibition during the sixties of contemporary African artists at the ICA and that they still have the proofs for the unpublished catalogue. The ICA must be challenged on this issue and persuaded to publish this kind of information. Documentation is a serious problem. As such there is a lot of work to be done.

Your work is part of the recent emergence of a radical black art, but its tone and range of reference is clearly non-agitational. The analytical and deconstructive, the normative functions of most political practice, is absent or downplayed in your work. Your drawings / paintings are closer to notions of ‘celebration’, there is a strong narrative element to the work: the retelling of scenes from black working-class experience. Do you see this absence from the agitational as a quest for another form of ‘truth-telling’? I’m thinking in particular of Big Women’s Talk (1984), where there is a conscious evocation of black female solidarity across generations.

I don’t know how to define agitational. Yes, some of the work is celebratory but that is not all. In Big Women’s Talk, I am discussing many things, not only the bond between women over generations but also the power relations / powerful relationship between mother and child. In the Missionary Positions (1985) series I am dealing with how ideology is received at home and school, the influence of religion – in particular Christianity – and its links with the whole ideological / economic / political structure. All this is implicit in the work. I suppose I appear to fall easily into the category of being a woman artist: men take on the world and women deal with the personal. I try to deal with the personal as explicitly political. I became very frightened by the way my work was being discussed as ‘domestic’, ‘sensual’, and ‘decorative’. I tried to deny that this was a prominent aspect of the work. I was more preoccupied with the issues mentioned earlier. As for the notion of this being a quest for another form of ‘truth telling’, my work has not been critical of other practices, rather it has been a question of understanding my own limitations. For three years I argued that drawing was not only there as a preparation for painting but had its own merits as a form of expression. I am now very adamant, despite the fact that my drawings look like paintings, that I am not a painter. It’s a way of resisting the idea of painting as all-important and drawing as subsidiary.

However, the drawings do draw on painting conventions. Many of the works with their patterned surfaces and high colour contrast point towards a personal negotiation of Western painting conventions. Is this a deliberate strategy?

My use of pattern owes a lot to my mother’s house: your eyes can’t stop blinking for all the patterns in the house. When you go in the living room there are patterns everywhere, on the carpet, on the curtains, on the wallpaper, on the ceiling. They have their own co-ordination. When I started doing drawings about my childhood, I found a book on fifties design, and I began to use some of the designs as background. It was at this point that I real­ised I was including my mother’s influence, or rather a West Indian sense of decora­tion. The patterns though aren’t simply there to decorate, but are there to give clues to the picture. Many of the images I produce are reminiscent of strip cartoons, snapshots, etc., in that the image focuses, is edited down, to the essential information required. Rather than allowing the viewer into a pictorial / mirrored space, the created space is flattened, denying entry, yet often the figures depicted do invite entry. These contradictions between invitatation, surface barrier and the sensuality of pastels and crayons is only something I have realised recently.

How do you view the notion of the ‘positive image’ in relation to black experience, a category which has had a high critical profile in discussions of black art, particularly photography. Homi Bhabha has criticised the unidirectionality of the positive black image as being just as oppressive. as the negative stereotypes. He calls it an arrested and fetishised mode. I say this because you adopt in the portraits of female friends and family what would appear to be stereotypes. You celebrate what is the received impression of women within urban black culture, that they are strong, independent, cheerful, etc., etc. Your work seems to be playing with and against the black stereotype as the same time.

In one sense I am celebrating the strength of black women; however I try not to glorify that strength because I’m constantly reminded of why black women have to be strong. As we know there is a barrage of institutionalised representations of black people. There are enough insulting and negative images. The question becomes then, how does one confront these distortions and initiate change. There was a time when I saw the need, and supported the idea, of positive images, of redressing the balance, so to speak, but I have got past that stage. When you start to discuss the issues that affect a com­munity, transposing positives for negatives is insufficient in dealing with the complex­ities of human experience and given structures. I am reminded of a seminar at the ICA. One of the speakers was a young black novelist who had written a book on black children in care. She was heavily criticised for the way in which the book ended on a negative note. I thought, one, it’s hopefully one of the many books she will write, and two, why can’t she be negative? Is negativity the privilege solely of white people? You become a caricature if you’re always positive, and that surely doesn’t reflect our experiences as black people.

What is your attitude then to those black artists who would advocate a radical black visual aesthetic outside of the Western Tradition? I’m thinking particularly of Eddie Chambers and Keith Piper. Keith Piper has said that he wants a black art that is comparable in form to reggae, that is in a sense self-reliant, that owes nothing to inherited Western forms.

I’ve nothing against those aspirations, if you’re talking about African and Caribbean artists reworking traditional forms. But if you’re talking about the work of British born black artists, then the visual materials they use obviously can’t be taken outside of a British context.

It’s not just a British context though. Their work is indebted to a modem radical European tradition.

What I was going to say was that different cultures, historically, are interrelated, that those traditions are influenced by what is happening in the West. There are very dif­ferent modes of looking at and theorising about art in different cultures, but artists’ concerns cross cultural boundaries, so it becomes difficult to separate out influences. I find it difficult to evaluate either Keith or Eddie’s work without crossing the aesthetic traditions of Western culture. Nonetheless, I don’t want to set boundaries around what black artists should or shouldn’t be doing, that becomes restrictive rather than constructive.

Do you see your work as a form of reportage and reclamation, a process of ‘making things visible’?

In a way yes. African culture has a strong oral tradition, and in this sense I’m trying to be an oral translator through pictures. I gather things up which I remember, as a means of going forward to make certain cultural and political points. I’m making visible the warmth, as well as the confrontation of our daily lives as the basis upon which things can be discussed.

How do you see the future of block art in this country?

I’m not optimistic about the state of art in general in Britain in terms of art education and the support of artists. Things are crumbling a bit. Colleges are being closed, experimental courses are being changed, etc., etc. In relation to black arts, there is so much that has to be done, there are so many areas that have to be discovered, rediscovered, worked through, argued about and fought for. In spite of all this it is impossible not to feel a strong sense of optimism.


This article is taken from Circa Art Magazine, issue 39, April / May 1988, pp. 22 – 25.