Sonia Boyce

AIR Gallery

Sonia Boyce is young, just three years out of college, but she is already acquiring considerable status here. The reasons for this, and the problems surrounding such a precipitate rise, are interesting. She was born in London in the early ’60s of West Indian parents, and her work displays the visual legacy of a childhood spent in Carribean immigrant surroundings. She speaks of attempting, in the absence of any alternative model, to generate a visual language from the experiences of growing up in rooms loaded with bright patterns that often clashed violently. What accounts for much of her success so far is the extent to which her drawings are seen merely as an extension of that history, as exotic surfaces designed to celebrate otherness, as a sustained and eloquent reiteration of blackness and black sensibility within Britain.

However, to press eager praise upon an artist for a mark-making skill employed to confirm an uncomplicated black identity is to ignore, or perhaps to preempt any discussion of, the inquisitive, analytic thrust of Boyce’s work. In Big Women’s Talk, 1984, a young Boyce sits, chin cupped in the palms of her hands, elbows resting on her mother’s lap. Her mother’s face is above hers, but we see only the woman’s open mouth, for the rest of her face is cut off by the upper edge of the drawing. She is evidently talking to another woman, who is not shown, while her daughter listens. There is an affirmation here of tradition, of continuity, yet even though Boyce’s pose is resigned, her abstracted and distant gaze and the juxtaposition of contrasting dress and wallpaper designs cast doubt on whether the perpetuation of her present condition is inevitable. The use that Boyce makes of surface pattern in her work relates less to an uncritical recouping of some mythic image of Carribean wholeness than to a struggle to identify some area of free space for the personal statement of difference and identity, both as a woman and as a black Briton.

It is not that Boyce is bereft of a visual tradition. Indeed, many are offered to her, the two most powerful being Modernism and, relatedly, the range of those “primitivisms” that so materially affected it. It is, rather, that the rhetorical bias of these traditions tends to exclude those who are already excluded from mainstream culture, to keep them from functioning productively within the established framework. Boyce deals with these issues of black female identity and sexuality in works such as Missionary PositionsII, MrClose-friend-of-the-family pays a visit while everyone else is out, and Aunt Enid, the Pose, all from 1985. The figure of Aunt Enid, although black, is an ironic reconstruction of that essentially white stereotype, the prim face of lower-middle-class gentility. She stands in relaxed but formal pose trying, in every way just a little too hard, to conform to received norms of appearance. Missionary Positions II addresses the interpenetration of gender, race, politics, and religion within the act of submission—for instance, the way that women play secondary roles to men, or the fact that black workers are the first to be sacrificed when jobs are cut. At the top of this drawing Boyce writes the title with the phrase “position changing,” as if the words were graffiti on the patterned wallpaper; and on a strip that runs across the bottom appears the following prayerlike slogan: “bard but look my trials nuh– / they say keep politics out of religion / and religion out of politics / but when were they ever separate?”

In the most recent work, Boyce’s overt use of stylistic references has become more playful and probing. Mantlepiece, 1986, for example, a triptych subtitled “Halleluja /Distant Tales Different Beliefs Talking in Tongues / Praise the Lord,” makes a formal nod toward Gilbert & George with its clasped hands, open mouths, and protruding tongues, but in place of their disingenuous and pompous amoralism it offers a more tentative and complex mix of ideologies and emotions. Boyce’s talent is still raw, but it is encouraging that she seems well aware of how misplaced some of her plaudits have been.

Michael Archer