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Sonia Boyce MBE OBE RA

Born, 1962 in London, England

Sonia Boyce is by far one of the most important artists associated in large part with the emergence of Black artists in 1980s Britain. Beyond or within this context, she is further identified - along with Lubaina Himid and others - with the emergence and development of curatorial and critical contexts addressing the practice of Black women artists of that decade. Boyce was born in London in 1962 to parents from the Caribbean countries of Barbados and Guyana. She received her art school training at Stourbridge, graduating in 1983, then returning to London, where she has continued to live and work since that time.

Boyce was one of five artists in Room at the Top, a group exhibition curated by Waldemar Januszczak. The exhibition took place at Nicola Jacobs Gallery, 9 Cork Street, 6 February - 9 March 1985. The other artists included in the exhibition were: Gerard de Thame, Mary Mabbutt, Paul Richards, and Adrian Wiszniewski. The exhibition was one of the very few such undertakings, during the 1980s, in which the work of a Black artist (in this instance, Sonia Boyce), was exhibited alongside work by white artists. Boyce was for a while an artist with whom Januszczak, (at the time, visual arts reviewer for the Guardian), was particularly impressed.

Boyce was one of the first Black British artists to have work included in The British Art Show (in 1990). Likewise, she was the first Black British artist ever to have a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel (Sonia Boyce: Recent Work, New Gallery, 13 May - 26 June 1988). Boyce is primarily known for her work as a visual artist, but over the years she has also worked as an archivist, editor, lecturer and tutor. Together with artists such as Keith Piper, Boyce’s work was widely exhibited in a range of exhibitions during the 1980s and beyond. These exhibitions began with the initiatives developed by Lubaina Himid such as Black Woman Time Now at Battersea Arts Centre and Five Black Women Artists at the Africa Centre. From these exhibitions, Boyce went on to many other group exhibitions, among them Into the Open and Unrecorded Truths (again, both of these exhibitions featured the curatorial input of Lubaina Himid). She also had several important solo exhibitions, perhaps the most import being her 1986 show at the Air Gallery.

Boyce is known and celebrated for her wonderful oil pastel drawings that explored a range of personal and social narratives, touching on an astonishingly wide range of subjects. The ambiguities of Christianity and its troubling and troubled relationship with Black people; the legacies and the consequences of the British empire, Predatory and abusive behaviours that often remain hidden from view; the importance of memory. All these topics and many others have featured in Boyce’s earlier work. From the late 1980s onwards, her work began to change markedly. She began to move away from her distinctive oil pastel drawings towards ways of working that utilised photography, montage, colour photocopying and so on. From this work, Boyce progressed to performance, installation, and other ways of working that were largely reflective of contemporary art practices of the 1990s. Her work was the subject of a monograph written by Gilane Tawadros and as an artist, illustrator and editor, her name is linked to a range of publications.

Her work was included in the From Two Worlds exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery, 30 July - 7 September 1986. Likewise, her work was included in the landmark exhibition The Other Story: Afro-Asian artists in post-war Britain, Hayward Gallery, London, 1989. She has held a number of academic posts, including that of Associate Lecturer in Fine Art at Central Saint Martin’s School of Art and Design at the University of the Arts, London. She edited (with David A. Bailey and Ian Baucom) Shades of Black, subtitled Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain. Sonia Boyce and David A. Bailey’s collaborative work, plus a pieces of Boyce’s own work, was included in the book Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain. At the conference, she chaired The Importance of Collaboration in the Development of Practice panel, 21 April 2001. She was also part of the conference’s Summation panel.

For a period of time, Boyce and Bailey ran the African and Asian Visual Artist’ Archive. The previously mentioned Shades of Black emerged out of their work at AAVAA.

Sonia Boyce was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2007, for services to art. In 2016, Boyce was elected as a member of the Royal Academy. She was one of a number of British artists and cultural figures recognised for their contribution to their fields, being awarded an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in the Queen’s 2019 New Year’s Honours. 

She continues to practice, exhibit and collaborative with a range of venues, in Britain and internationally. One of her most recent projects in London was her Devotional work at the National Portrait Gallery. The work “an installation in one of the gallery’s spaces“ featured the names of a wide range of Black British women singers, drawn directly onto the walls and decoratively embellished. Supplementing this was a collection of portraits of some of these singers.

Boyce’s work was discussed and illustrated in Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers, one of four books in a series titled Annotating Art’s Histories, jointly published by The MIT Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts and iniva the Institute of International Visual Arts, London, published in 2008 and edited by Kobena Mercer. The chapter relating to Boyce was Diaspora, Trauma and the Poetics of Remembrance, by Jean Fisher.

Two of Boyce’s most celebrated pieces - She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Hold On (Some English Rose), 1986, and Big Women’s Talk, 1984 were reproduced as part of a chapter by Amna Malik - Migratory Aesthetics: (Dis)placing the Black Maternal Subject in Martina Attille’s Dreaming Rivers (1988) - in “Black” British Aesthetics Today. Published by: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007

Boyce’s work was included in the major Migrations: Journeys into British Art exhibition at Tate Britain, in 2012. The catalogue included two pages of edited text of an interview Boyce by Lizzie Carey-Thomas and Paul Goodwin, two of the curators of the exhibition. In the text, Boyce discusses aspects of the history and development of her practice.

Related items + view all 83

click to show details of Thin Black Line

»  Thin Black Line

Article relating to an exhibition, 1985

click to show details of The Thin Black Line ICA catalogue 1985

»  The Thin Black Line ICA catalogue 1985

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1985

click to show details of Third Text: The Other Story

»  Third Text: The Other Story

Journal relating to an exhibition, 1989

click to show details of Unrecorded Truths

»  Unrecorded Truths

Invite relating to an exhibition, 1986

click to show details of Waldemar Januszczak | There is a world elsewhere

»  Waldemar Januszczak | There is a world elsewhere

Review relating to an exhibition, 1986

Related exhibitions + view all 27

»  The Image Employed

Group show at Cornerhouse. 1987

Related venues - view 5

»  Aicon Gallery

London, United Kingdom

»  AIR Gallery

London, United Kingdom

»  The Black-Art Gallery

London, United Kingdom

»  The Bluecoat Gallery

Liverpool, United Kingdom

»  The Bronx Museum of the Arts

United States of America

»  Caribbean Cultural Center

United States of America

»  Cartwright Hall

Bradford, United Kingdom

»  City Gallery Leicester

Leicester, United Kingdom

»  City Museum and Art Gallery

Plymouth, United Kingdom

»  Cornerhouse

Manchester, United Kingdom

»  Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery

Portland, Oregon, United States of America

»  Elbow Room

London, United Kingdom

»  Fruitmarket Gallery

Edinburgh, United Kingdom

»  Gasworks

London, United Kingdom

»  Guildhall Art Gallery

London, United Kingdom

»  Harris Museum & Art Gallery

Preston, United Kingdom

»  Hayward Gallery

London, United Kingdom

»  Ikon Gallery

Birmingham, United Kingdom

»  Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA)

London, United Kingdom

»  Konsthallen

Göteborg , Sweden

»  Maclaurin Art Gallery

Ayr, United Kingdom

»  Manchester City Art Gallery

Manchester, United Kingdom

»  Nicola Jacobs Gallery

London, United Kingdom

»  Northern Centre for Contemporary Art

Sunderland, United Kingdom

»  Oriel Mostyn

Llandudno, Wales, United Kingdom

»  The Photographers’ Gallery

London, United Kingdom

»  Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Exeter, United Kingdom

»  Royal Festival Hall

London, United Kingdom

»  The Royal Pavilion, Art Gallery and Museums

Brighton, United Kingdom

»  Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

Norwich, United Kingdom

»  Studio Museum in Harlem

New York, United States of America

»  Tate Britain

London, United Kingdom

»  Towner Art Gallery

Eastbourne, United Kingdom

»  Whitechapel Art Gallery

London, United Kingdom

»  Wigmore Fine Art

London, United Kingdom

»  Wolverhampton Art Gallery

Wolverhampton, United Kingdom