The U.K. debut of Sonia Boyce’s “Feeling Her Way,” which won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation at the 2022 Venice Biennale, offers a reconfigured presentation that responds to the generous spaces of Turner Contemporary. This new iteration (on view through May 8, 2023) allows the work more room to breathe, and its expansiveness is entirely appropriate to Boyce’s subject. For the core of the project, she invited singers Jacqui Dankworth, Poppy Ajudha, Sofia Jernberg, and Tanita Tikaram, with guidance from composer Errollyn Wallen, to improvise and interact with their voices. Jernberg was unable to travel and worked from Atlantis Studios in Stockholm. Dankworth, Ajudha, and Tikaram, along with Wallen, met and worked together in the famous Studio Two at Abbey Road Studios in London.
Boyce’s videos of this session reveal how the participants grew in trust and how their improvised collaborations became increasingly confident and playful, questioning authority and authorship. The first room of the exhibition features four videos of the Abbey Road session installed against tessellating collaged wallpaper, also by Boyce, while reflective, three-dimensional geometric structures, which double as seating in this room and elsewhere, immerse the audience in the work. Despite the obviously constructed nature of these forms, their brass-yellow coloration and metallic luster are true to their imagined mineral origins in pyrite, or fool’s gold—a term originating in the colonial era that has since become a ubiquitous metaphor for false values, raising questions of judgment and worth. The cold, hard surfaces of the structures heighten awareness of our bodies in relation to others, to the space, and to the performers in the videos through their fascinating reflectivity—they not only meld videos and viewers, but also act to situate each viewer as an agent in a participatory action, so that listening, witnessing, and taking notice become political acts.
The second and third rooms screen footage of Ajudha and Tikaram respectively, while the fifth shows Dankworth and Jernberg. The fourth room, a long, corridor-like space with reflective gold wallpaper, functions like a spine or conduit to link the adjoining galleries in the exhibition. The space contains a selection of items, including photographs, 12-inch albums, seven-inch singles, CDs, and cassette tapes, that Boyce collected during a six-month period in 2021 as part of Devotional Collection. This project, which gave birth to “Feeling Her Way,” began in 1999 when Boyce invited members of the public to send her objects that they associated with and used to remember Black British female singers, and it is still growing. Boyce’s concern is that while the voices of these women play an important role in people’s lives, the memory of who they are, or were, is frequently undervalued. While looking at the collection, viewers also encounter their murky reflections in the gilded walls, implicated as the audience for these, at times, forgotten voices.
“Feeling Her Way” is an exploration of how freeform, improvisatory collaboration might open the way for new possibilities in the future. It asks how we might feel and express ourselves when we feel liberated from the expectations of others. It’s a joyous exhibition with serious intent and infinite opportunities for viewers to reflect on their place in the world in different ways. Good things will surely come of this.
“Sonia Boyce: Feeling Her Way” tours to Leeds Art Gallery, May 25–November 5, 2023.