Sonia Boyce’s OBE, immersive exhibition at The Leeds Art Gallery closes on the 5th of November 2023, and it’s an experience you wouldn’t want to miss!
Walking into ‘Feeling Her Way’, I was immediately overwhelmed by echoing female voices, mementos of 80’s pop nostalgia, and gallery walls embellished with vibrant geometric patterns. Reminding myself that Boyce is renowned for challenging the traditions of plain white walls and ornately framed paintings, I took a deep breath and leaned into my discomfort.
Originally commissioned last year by The British Council for the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Boyce exhibits and celebrates the contribution that Black British female musicians have made to international culture in an institution historically dominated by white narratives. Now, during Leeds 2023: Year of Culture, her work has found a new home at The Leeds Art Gallery, where it continues to honour and spark conversations about the achievements of her community.
Spread across three adjoining rooms, Boyce’s multi-media exploration begins in the first room with her ‘Devotional Collection’. Here we find an eclectic assortment of musical memorabilia including the likes of Shirley Bassey, Beverley Knight and Brown Sugar. Boyce has been collecting souvenirs of Black British female greatness since 1999, archiving this contribution like a self-proclaimed “obsessed creature”. She decorates the walls with these tokens of achievement, transforming The Leeds Art Gallery into a celebratory trophy cabinet of sorts.
Voices chanting ‘I am Queen’ draw me into the next room, where I find multiple screens playing footage of vocal
performances that showcase the talents of five musicians: Errollyn Wallen who conducts Jacqui Dankworth, Poppy Ajudha, Sofia Jernberg and Tanita Tikaram. I take my seat on one of the mineral pyrite stools and listen to the women, who have been encouraged by Boyce to use their voices to explore “how they feel free”; they unapologetically chant and harmonise.
As the women playfully navigate their emotions and how they wish to vocally express them, they serve as a reminder of their rightful presence in establishments like this. Boyce’s artistic presence is palpable too, exerting her command over the gallery space as if to announce, "Look at what we've accomplished; our voices will not be silenced."
In each and every detail of the exhibition, Boyce focuses on “how identities are performed”, even creating geometric wallpaper out of production stills from the day of the vocal performances, which form the backdrop of the exhibition. So often we hear narratives of the struggles of these artists, and these struggles are important, yet here it was exciting to see Boyce deviate from the sentiment of some of her earlier work. Not harbouring the past but instead asserting the women’s present power.
With reverberations of ‘I am Queen’ lingering in my ears as I make my exit, my mind continues to dwell on my initial experience of complete sensory overload. I was visually, audibly, and tangibly overwhelmed with Boyce’s accumulated archive, and uncomfortably so. Boyce discusses her “practice being parasitic – in that a parasite is a disruptor but can also give the host body what it needs but doesn’t want”. After accepting my discomfort, I realised Boyce’s work was intended to be disruptive. Like a parasite, the voices, visuals and kaleidoscopic patterns invaded my senses, leaving me with no choice but to physically experience appreciation for what these women have accomplished.
Words + Images: Annelise Maynard, she/her