“A glorious cacophony of black female voices” – Sonia Boyce’s soul train arrives in Venice | Venice Biennale


VThe oices rise and fall, weaving their way through song and sound without words. They break and bend, whisper and shake. There are screams and ululations, soft bluesy riffs, operatic moments and open-throated roars, as well as moments when the singers search for a melody or discover a new sound, filling the British pavilion in Venice with a glorious cacophony.

Titled Feeling Her Way, Sonia Boyce’s multi-layered installation is a joyous, tremulous performance for a chorus of black female voices (Jacqui Dankworth, Poppy Ajudha, Sofia Jernberg and Tanita Tikaram). Each singer literally gropes through the music, guided by Belizean-born British composer Errollyn Wallen. We also have to navigate our way through space and dissonance, different tempos and moods, and different characters, qualities and approaches of musicians. Conviviality and separation, soul and dynamism – this is what guides them. Sometimes improvising for the first time, sometimes in a duet or surprising each other with a spontaneous echo, the singers seem to discover as much as they interpret in their usual way.

Done… Boyce’s ‘sound origami’ at the UK pavilion. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The music has great resonance and complexity, sometimes accidental. It unfolds as you move through the five spaces of Boyce’s pavilion, the sense of folding and reconfiguration, like a sort of sonic origami.

Somehow, the rehearsals never sound the same, depending on where the listener is, attending first to one singer, then to another. Suggesting a sort of resolution that never comes, the filmed performances rearrange themselves in space and time. You don’t have to work as hard as letting go, because you realize that’s what singers do too.

Of Boyce’s recent work, this is the most accomplished I’ve seen, one that goes beyond intention, taking on a life and vitality of its own. Boyce steps up the musical complexity with his installation, presenting the filmed performances (some of which took place in Abbey Road studios) against a tessellated screen background mounted with photographic shots of studio details – microphone stands and cables, mixing consoles, sound baffles and flooring, mixed with geometric patterns.

From Boyce's personal archive...the work in Venice.
From Boyce’s personal archive…the work in Venice. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Above and on the floor, golden geometric shapes – derived from iron pyrite crystals – cluster and spread out, clustering at the corners and providing seating for visitors. They reflect what surrounds them, while reflecting the order and random structures of the music itself. A long wall at the rear of the pavilion has silver wallpaper reminiscent of a 1970s bedroom, on which Boyce displays photographs and collages of old CDs, cassettes and album covers, as well as posters and other ephemera . All part of Boyce’s personal archive, and still bearing their discount price tags, these albums by Shirley Bassey, Beverley Knight, Brown Sugar and Five Star are displayed reverently like on a teenager’s bedroom wall.

When Boyce was younger, there was little representation of black female artists in the UK. Music gave him a sense of belonging and sustenance. This archival impulse and sense of community continues in the nearby French pavilion, where London-based French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira includes a film in which Boyce and curator Gilane Tawadros discuss cultural resistance and survival in communities of color.

At first appearing aurally and visually dissonant and fragmentary, Feeling Her Way proves to be the simultaneous expression of individuality and collaboration, and the affirmation of the creative spirit.


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