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Sonia Boyce: Reclassifying Classification

Nizan Shaked traces the interventions of Sonia Boyce’s work in received categories of artistic practice, considering how these interventions suggest means of classification beyond media, artistic intention and identity.

Classification and comparison are fundamental tools within academic disciplines ranging from sciences such as geology and biology to virtually all the fields of the humanities. Problems of classification, which frequently occur, have also been at the heart of how scholars have revised and reinterpreted natural, economic, social, and cultural phenomena. As methods of taxonomy are assessed and re-assessed, and one type of measure or comparison replaced with another, new and different mistakes are made. ‘Fail again. Fail better’ goes Samuel Beckett’s well-known quotation from Worstward Ho (1983). Art is no different. As we classify art practices according to the paradigms of the moment, and measure them against the recent or more distant past, we are always likely to miss certain aspects of artistic contribution. This is a given condition of reception for historically underrepresented artists like Sonia Boyce, who have entered into the field of art from a position at odds with the discipline’s received parameters. Boyce’s work has responded to these parameters and proceeded to debate them, charting a path previously unseen to contemporary critical analysis, constrained as this had been by paradigms blind to the kinds of interventions that Boyce’s work makes. In hindsight it is clear that Boyce’s specific points of entry, both artistic and discursive, have reshaped the field itself, expanding the parameters within which we understand the meaning of certain gestures.

Boyce became visible in the 1980s with lush, large-scale figurative pastel works on paper, at a time when drawing, painting and the figure were trapped within the poles of Conceptualism and post-conceptual photographic practices on the one hand, and on the other an urgent need to tell stories not yet told and to address broad swathes of aesthetic oversight. While the former tendencies rejected pictorial or narrative representation and the hand-made, the latter revolted against the narrow prescriptions of a latter-day avant-garde. Feminist or other forms of identity-based critiques of the claims presented by conceptualist practices aimed to highlight the blind-spots of practices that developed in opposition to high modernism but still perpetuated some of its assumptions. For example, Mary Kelly introduced the material and discursive work of social reproduction into the philosophically abstract domain of Conceptual art’s analytic propositions. Her Post-Partum Document (1973–79) pointed to the gendered division of labour that relegated childcare, and the domestic sphere in general, to women.01Kelly’s emphasis on the parameters determining the construction of (gendered) subjectivity disputed Conceptual art’s claim to neutrality, objectivity and other enlightenment-based presuppositions. Instead, the work posed a synthetic proposition, showing that it is not only white Western male subjectivity that can be the basis for totalising concepts, but that more politically-specific issues, in Kelly’s case stemming from feminism, can also pose a model from which universalist underpinnings might be abstracted, so they can be then applied toward a broader conclusion (or political goal). Kelly’s work demonstrated new modes of conceptualist abstraction. Juggling multiple swords, her work also aimed in another direction, using the Duchampian-born non-pictorial strategies of Conceptual art to critique the feminist strand of art practice that used representations of the female body in an attack on patriarchy’s blind spots.

Sonia Boyce, Exquisite Cacophony, 2015, single-channel HD video, colour, sound, 35min. © Sonia Boyce. Courtesy DACS/Artimage

Boyce has positioned her early work as a response to key feminist debates of the 1970s and 1980s: ‘some people align themselves with what could be called the Mary Kelly position, within feminist art discourses, or, there was another camp you could say that was very much about the performative body and claiming the body within visual arts.’02She recalls how ‘painting was absolutely the troublesome ground to be working in … and at the same time there was also a huge debate about whether one should use the female form or not.’ But there was such a lack of what Boyce calls ‘rich images of the black female body’, that she did not want to ‘evacuate’ that space. Synthesising these antimonies, Boyce’s early works added the vector of race representation to the crossroads of identity political debates.

By viewing Boyce’s early work in retrospect, in terms of how it has transformed and developed, we can see not only that the drawings sit within a complex matrix, but also how Boyce’s imposition of this matrix has related to and informed broader tendencies in art. Boyce’s development can be placed en abyme by asking about the significance of drawing as a medium, the use of materials themselves as critical tools and social signifiers, the question of imaging women, and the question of conceptualist anti-narrative and anti-subjective modes of art-making. In this way we can think about the reintroduction of narrative in art in the 1980s not as a return to iconographic referencing, but as an intervention into the cerebral forms of post-conceptualist practices. Thus, while in some respects Boyce develops her practice in contrast to the synthetic conceptualism of Mary Kelly by insisting on a direct representation of the body, her later work, which utilised found objects, the haptic semiotics of materials and orchestrated chance recitals, comes close enough to conceptualist paradigms to merit consideration in that vein. Boyce’s work illustrates the development of conceptualism since its revision by feminism and other forms of synthetic propositions through critical, postcolonial and queer perspectives.

Sonia Boyce, ‘Paper Tiger Whisky Soap Theatre (Dada Nice)’, 2016, wallpaper. Installation view, Villa Arson, Nice, 2016. Photograph:Jean Brasille. Courtesy the artist

Another key area of contention in the 1980s was the concern to unify the parameters of Black arts. The anthology published for the conference ‘Shades of Black’ (2005) provides an excellent summary, pointing out the historical lack of Black Art’s documentation, and highlighting the archives and exhibitions set up by artists themselves to remedy invisibility and erasure.03As these practices developed, critical reception stumbled at first but then slowly found its footing. Debates ensued over whether there was such a thing as a ‘black-diaspora aesthetic’, if and how ‘Black Art’ was an effective category, and what aspects of production the term referenced – the artist’s ethnic or cultural origins, subject matter, media, methods, forms, style, etc. Initial misunderstandings and art historical dogma explain the marginalisation of the work by curators, and the insistence of mainstream critics to only read the work through the ethnicity of the artist, sidelining the broad scope of contributions performed by the work. The reduction of work to the identity of the artist, the demands on artists of colour to represent their community and the literalisation of complex gestures are just some of characteristic attitudes that framed the reception of underrepresented artists at the time, not only in the UK but also in the US. Funding and institutional constraints shaped the presentation of works, which were often relegated to secondary spaces (corridors rather than galleries, for example), while reception also affected the ways in which the work was understood. The attempt, for instance, to remedy oversight by funding a Black arts exhibition forced a classification that overshadowed nuances of practice and replaced marginalisation with essentialism, constraining the interpretation of the work to biography right at the time where a nuanced approach to biography was wielded as critique. As a result such critiques were misread. The American context was overlooked, as was the work’s interaction with other disciplines in the arts such as theatre, music and popular culture. In fact, in cases where artists used portraiture or figuration, it was not only the subject matter but also the choice of media that were aspects of the intervention – the act of claiming an authorial space within the broader public discourse from which Black artists, especially women, had previously been barred. Because such practices were widely received within the conventional paradigms, in which narrative and the pictorial were considered outmoded, they were often cast as a return of strategies that had been surpassed by a more abstract approach to form or to content.04Of course, since black women had been prevented historically from creating images of themselves, the meanings of these representations, the right to which had been hard won, were necessarily new. Shouldn’t we, all of us, then as now, want to see images that black women (or any other underrepresented identity) have made from their own point of view? Much like artists such as Claudette Johnson, Lubaina Himid and Sutapa Biswas, to name a few, Boyce, who picked up ‘the worst possible media, at that particular moment’, offered a template for future generations of artists, as well as works for viewers and critics of all backgrounds who remain hungry for such images.05

Sonia Boyce, She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose), 1986, pastel and mixed media on paper, 218 × 99cm. © Sonia Boyce. Courtesy DACS/Artimage

Rather than relying on the authority of oil on canvas, Boyce took on the more vulnerable medium of pastel on paper. 06Nevertheless, many of these works command a life-sized or even larger scale, defying the traditional role of drawing, with its typically modest dimensions, as medium of draft or sketch. Works such as She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding on (Some English Rose) (1986), Missionary Position II (1985) and Big Womens’ Talk (1984) are some of the rich images upon which Boyce insisted, splendid in their boldly-coloured outlines, intense diagonal hatching and shading, use of complementary colours and proliferation of patterns where backgrounds merge with subjects’ clothes. These works are also rich in content, with layered frames of reference to British-Caribbean diaspora cultures, family legacy, cultural and national identity and gender politics. Narratives of sexuality repressed and oppressed by norms and traditions are given consensual and nonconsensual manifestations. But even the solemn Mr. close-friend-of-the-family pays a visit whilst everyone else is out(1985, charcoal on paper), where the young woman is clearly being victimised, leaves the viewer with a sense of future overcoming. While her eyes emanate deep sadness and her face is expressionless and still, the figure of the teenager nevertheless stands tall and strong, even as the arm of the man, whose face is cropped, stretches out over the span of the decorative tiled background between them, his hand reaching to touch her. The title of the work is written around the top of the broad border framing the central event, while the bottom is adorned by bouquets of human palms, blooming with threat. Of the vectors forming the drawing’s grid, which appear stronger here and there, one strong vertical splits the length of the girl’s head and torso – an armature reflecting how systematic gender and power dynamics undergird her existence. That the girl’s intent gaze is aimed directly at the viewer turns the work from being a portrait of a specific woman to a calling for collective accountability, pushing what would otherwise be an atomised audience into their collective state as a society. Inevitable pleasure derives from the magic of the charcoal, where from one material so many different textures can be rendered. Nevertheless this pleasure positions the onlooker on the side of the perpetrator, since both stand to enjoy what the young woman has not consented to offer. We can read the relation of the text and image in several ways. If we are to understand the words literally, the image uncovers what the words hide. But we could also read ‘Mr. close-friend-of-the-family’ as an ironic statement, and watch the drawing declare in words what it depicts as an image. In any case it reminds us that Boyce’s rendition of this specific story, which is also the story of many other bodies, is meant not solely for the enjoyment of the audience, but also as a political provocation. The choice of medium activates this productive clash.

Sonia Boyce, Big Womens’ Talk, 1984, pastel on paper, 122 × 122cm. © Sonia Boyce. Courtesy DACS/Artimage

Even when artists previously excluded from the long game of art were admitted onto the playing field, the establishment of art history and criticism was often unable to expand its outlook beyond a limited set of contemporaneous debates. As Kobena Mercer identifies, ‘In the case of Jean-Michel Basquiat, his association with wildstyle graffiti (merely one of several iconographic sources) outpaced the understanding of the critical intelligence of his intertextual selection and combination of references that articulated his work as a subversion of modernist primitivism’.07The critical reception of a set of artists, including Basquiat and Lari Pittman specifically was, according to Mercer, ‘sidelined’ by the ‘often doctrinaire positions in art criticism that were skeptical of the medium of painting.’ 08

Sonia Boyce, Plaited and Knotted, 1995. © Sonia Boyce. Courtesy DACS/Artimage

For Pittman – whom we can firmly classify as a painter – painting, together with all the specific drafting techniques he combines to form his tableaux, was in fact a strategic choice wielded in the larger field of art – as a political statement both through and about the grand historical medium. ‘Painting is queen’, goes Pittman’s motto, queering the medium’s regal status and its inherited place as the primary mode of the fine arts, at least since Modernism. In this context, the introduction of the artist’s identity within the work was not a return of the enlightenment-based notion of the creative genius. The reclaiming of painting, drawing and other traditional media in the 1980s followed the post-conceptual or ‘pictures’ practices that followed Conceptualism, both rejecting the notion of art as an expressive practice.09In this context, the insertion of one’s identity perspective into the making of an artwork was not a means to express the self, but rather the use of identity as a model of a social position – an approach to art as a site for broader social discourse.

The bearing of the artist’s identity on an artwork can be considered both in terms of the artist’s status as the work’s maker, and in terms of the content they bring to the work.10The introduction of psychoanalysis as a tool for critiquing Conceptual art’s orthodoxies – an agenda declared in Mary Kelly’s art – allowed for distinctions between the self, identity and subjectivity. The subject was no longer assumed to be the self-sovereign individual of rational choice. It was forged instead by the passage through the social structures of class relations, further stratified by race, gender, sexuality, ability, age and so forth. By the 1980s it was clear that identity in art was constructed, strategic and discursive, not at all meant to represent an authentic state of being that the artist transmitted to their viewer. Rather, it was a re-presentation – there to be ‘read’ as a post-structuralist text. Like authorship, image, material, narrative and context, identity was an element in the work that was to be dissected for both its denotative and connotative aspects.

Do you want to touch? (1993–ongoing), a series of sculptures from the early 1990s made of hair or hair extensions and other materials, is a literal invitation, as the viewer is actually allowed to touch the work. The title references the disturbing license people take when touching, or asking to touch, other people’s hair (or a pregnant women’s belly, to name another example Boyce gives).11As Gilane Tawadros explains, these works ‘develop some other familiar themes in Boyce’s work: the relationship between private and public; the “spectacular” triangle between artist, viewer and object’.12In placing on a pedestal a combination of found materials and materials shorn from the human body, these twists on the ‘assisted Readymade’ underscore in retrospect the forgotten aspect of Duchamp’s urinal. There, Duchamp not only displayed the artifice of art as a constructed value system, but also intimately related it to the human body and its need to dispose of the excesses of the metabolic process. Several of Boyce’s artistic strategies can be traced back to the cerebral core of the Duchampian legacy, which locates the meaning of the work not in the artist but rather in the viewer at the moment of reception.13

Sonia Boyce, Exquisite Cacophony, 2015, single-channel HD video, colour, sound, 35min. © Sonia Boyce. Courtesy DACS/Artimage

In rejecting what she identified as the Victor Burgin model of intention, where the artist presides over the artwork’s meaning and anticipates viewer reception, Boyce later turned to facilitating situations between artists and makers from various fields, who are given general directions but no specific instructions.14In this larger body of collaborative performance works, Boyce establishes frameworks for live events, theater or video productions, setting up situations with unpredictable outcomes.15In this respect her work is closer to the Adrian Piper model of Conceptualism, aimed as a catalyst for unprescribed viewer reaction. For the video installation Exquisite Cacophony (2015) Boyce paired the classically trained experimental vocalist Elaine Mitchener with the American rapper Astronautalis for an unrehearsed session, filmed at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where the two performers improvised to prompt-cards handed to them by the audience. The piece points to a split within the Conceptualist tradition between works that rely heavily for their interpretation on an outcome directed by artistic intention, and those that place emphasis on the plan, allowing the potential of meaning of the outcome to proliferate. 16

Instead of classifying the work of Sonia Boyce through media, we have a gyrating constellation, where characteristic aspects of several genres or movements revolve around one another, although not in the combinations they did in their first iteration in history. In this way, Boyce’s works break with prescribed perspectives on which ideological positions align with which artistic styles or practice typologies. In reorganising previously incompatible configurations of forms and content, Boyce opens the door for new configurations of politicised aesthetics.


  • This is clearly stated in the first page of Mary Kelly, Post-Partum Document, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. See also M. Kelly, Imaging Desire, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996.
  • Sonia Boyce in conversation with Tim Marlow at Manchester Art Gallery, ‘Sonia Boyce Objects of Obsession: Sonia Boyce in conversation with Tim Marlow’, YouTube, 53min 56sec, available at (last accessed on 11 September 2019). An important contribution here is Amelia Jones, Body Art/Performing the Subject, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
  • David A. Bailey, Sonia Boyce and Ian Baucom (ed.), Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980sBritain, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005. See also Lubaina Himid, ‘“5 Black Women”, “Black Woman Time Now” and “The Thin Black Line”’, in Nick Aikens, Teresa Grandes, Nav Haq, Beatriz Herráez and Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez (ed.), The Long 1980s: Constellations of Art, Politics and Identities: A Collection of Microhistories, Antwerp: Valiz and L’internationale, 2018, pp.253–55.
  • Although this tendency was quite broad, often cited is: Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Silvia Kolbowski, Miwon Kwon and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘The Politics of the Signifier: A Conversation’, October, vol. 66, Fall 1993, pp.3–27.
  • S. Boyce in conversation with T. Marlow, op. cit.
  • John Roberts, ‘Sonia Boyce: In Conversation with John Roberts’, Third Text, vol.1, no.1, 1987, pp.55–64.
  • Kobena Mercer, ‘Where the Streets Have no Name: A Democracy of Multiple Public Spheres’, in Helen Anne Molesworth (ed.). This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, Chicago and New Haven: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Yale University Press, 2012, p.137.
  • Ibid., p.138.
  • See Douglas Crimp, ‘Pictures’, October, vol.8, Spring 1979, pp.75–88; Douglas Eklund, The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984, New York and New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 2009.
  • See Michel Foucault, ‘What is an Author?’, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice (ed. Donald F. Bouchard and trans. D.F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon), Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977, pp.113–38
  • Rebecca Fortnum, ‘Sonia Boyce’, Contemporary British Women Artists: In Their Own Words, London: I.B. Tauris, 2007, pp.112–19.
  • Gilane Tawadros, Sonia Boyce: Speaking in Tongues, London: Third Text Publications, 1997, p.8.
  • This has been identified by Rosalind Krauss in ‘Sense and Sensibility: Reflection on Post ’60s Sculpture’, Artforum, vol. 12, no. 3, November 1973, pp.43–53.
  • R. Fortnum, op. cit. Also see Allison Thompson, ‘Sonia Boyce and Crop Over’, Small Axe, vol.13/2, no.29, June 2009, pp.148–63; Sophie Orlando (ed.), Sonia Boyce: Thoughtful Disobedience, Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2017.
  • For Boyce’s collaborative work see: S. Orlando, ibid.
  • For Boyce’s collaborative work see: S. Orlando, ibid.