David Goldenberg (DG): There is no equivalent to the Other Story and the black art movement in the UK, so how might we learn and build on its lessons?

At the moment there seems to be a flaw in large scale exhibitions, Biennales and Documenta, which do not provide long term support to understand the complexities of the events, works, ideas, and program for change, so what form do we need that is adequate to the importance of these cultural events?

On Monday 10th June, I was invited by Sonia Boyce (SB) to visit her studio in South London to talk about her work.

The discussion revolved around three key points. The Other Story exhibition, Hayward Gallery, London, UK, 1989, where l first encountered Sonia’s work. Feeling Her Way, Sonia’s Venice Biennale installation, toured to the Turner Contemporary Museum Margate, Kent, which l went to see in the summer of 2023.

I started the discussion by asking Sonia to define Colonialism, decolonization, and postcolonialism.

Sonia Boyce in her studio. photo by David Goldenberg

SB: These issues are not my issues but Rasheed Araeen’s, my concern is with the materiality of culture, with Modernism, i.e. what was possible, when Anglo American, art, such as Greenbergian formalism and formalist painting, such as Hoylands, was fashionable.

DG: I first encountered your work at Rasheed Araeen’s The Other Story, at the Hayward Gallery in 1989, which l think is one of the few significant moments in recent times, the same way that l think about Okwaui Enwezer 2002 Documenta, shows which l continue to think about.

SB: The history of The Other Story still needs to be written, because it took Rasheed 11 years to realise the exhibition. The exhibition also brought the Black art movement to an end. The exhibition was also marked by the hostile response to the exhibition and the afterlife and history, through artists, critics and, institutions reflecting into the consequences of the exhibition, particularly Jean Fisher’s text reappraisal of the other story, 2009. After all, the retelling of the other story or what now, and my recent text All The Rage: For Oluwale and the destruction of the national front, 2017 – 19, which revisits Rasheed’s and Eddie Chambers work in response to British imperialism, the far right and fashionable use of nazis emblems. And suggests that we might define the first Black British art as Rasheed Araeen’s 1971-73 panel work of found texts and collages, examining the death of Oluwale by the British Police, and the artist Eddie Chambers’ work which continued Araeen’s project, a sequence of collages mutating the British flag into a swastika. Sonia noted excerpts from All The Rage: For Oluwale and the destruction of the national front:

“I am in a quandary, unable to reconcile a dilemma. The source of my problem comes from a desire to un-couple and de-privilege a sociopolitical reading of artworks by Black-British artists in favour of drawing our attention to the aesthetic form and strategies that the work of art offers. Here, l refer to an essay by Jean Fisher, The Work Between Us’(1997), where she remarks on the discrepancies and tendencies to obscure the artwork by focusing on the geopolitical identity of its maker. She says: “I should like to make a plea for visual art every-where. Or more specifically, to ask that we rethink the ways by which we frame art in order to return it to what is proper to art.” More often than not, the framework to which Fisher alludes rarely places works of art within an art-historical context, or the genealogies of art practice. Noting her concerns, l am trying to find another way of talking about these works without relying on the familiar narratives of politics in art equals identity, which equals some insight into a subjective condition.”

From the same text Rasheed defines Black Art “Black Art is, in fact, a specific contemporary art practice that has emerged directly from the struggle of Asian, African and Caribbean people [i.e. black people] against racism and the work itself specifically deals with and expresses a ‘human condition’: the condition of black people resulting from their existence in a racist white society or/and in global terms, from western cultural imperialism.”

DG: Rasheed Araeen’s follow-up project The Whole Story, Art In Postwar Britain, was never realised.

SB: Because the exhibition took so long to realise, the purpose of the exhibition changed in Rasheed’s mind, from an exhibition presenting Black British art to an exhibition as a form of institutional critique. Who selects the artist, which art, how is the art and artist defined, and how is art inscribed into Western art history. An example was going to see an exhibition of three minimalist artists’ work at Tate Britain, including Rasheed’s work, they looked indistinguishable in terms of quality, except the label described Rasheed as a Pakistani self-taught artist.

Black art hasn’t developed since The Other Story. [And if we are to take Gavin Jantjes statement at face value, on the eve of his show, June 2024, at the Whitechapel Gallery, “the recent influx of black artists into the art industry is just a knee jerk reflex and not a serious response”. The exhibition brought to an end the early series of self-portraits.

DG: After talking about The Other Story l asked Sonia to talk about the work, beginning with the ICA show We Move In Her Way, In The Castle Of My Skin, the series of installations, leading into the installation Feeling Her Way for the Venice Biennale in 2022.

SB: From the early 1990s until 2015/17, the work was marked by relatively small-scale projects, as a response to institutional critique and Relational Aesthetics, a move into multimedia, video, collaborative practices, exploring different forms of participatory practices, to break down and confuse identity and representation.

Different ways of representation might be possible. Representation is not always visual. Look at how Plantation songs evolved into Jazz, leading to the sonic as representation and memory. The work that developed from this time can be seen to be a conversation with David Medalla, Adrian Piper, Sophie Cale, Lygia Clark, The Signals gallery that David Medalla established with Paul Keeler, with the support of the curator and art critic Guy Brett.

The legacy from the 1970s remains to be thought about in terms of questioning how and where art takes place, the physical embodiment of what is recognized as art, blurring the boundary between art and the everyday.

The work from the late 1990s can be seen as generative, in progress, such as Devotional Wallpaper and Placards, 2008 – 2021 and Audition in Colour 1997-2020, developing and mixing aspects of earlier and recent works, colour panels, wallpaper, patterns, jazz, singing, improvisation, crystalline shapes.
Forms establish a sequence of links Jazz/Dada/ collage/trauma. Wallpaper/William Morris/class/nature/interiors.

The performance at the ICA, 2017, of masks and dancers, overran its initial planned time, because of the enthusiasm of the audience, who took over the event, generated a lot of interest.

Afterwards, l was invited by Gavin Wade to work on a project for Eastside projects, or rather develop a project in collaboration with Gavin Wade and the gallery, so expanding the possibility of collaboration to collaborating with an institution, into this mix was added a collaboration with skateboarders. It was Gavin who suggested using irregular sculptural shapes that were laying around the gallery wrapped with my wallpaper, which marked a shift from wall-based works. And it was Gavin who suggested using fool’s gold or pyrite, with its multiple evocations.

At this time l was thinking about the James Bond film Goldfinger.

At the same time as l started planning for the show with Gavin l received a call from MIMA who was also interested in a collaboration and suggested incorporating works from their collection.
Eastside projects and Mima presented permutations of the In the Castle Of My Skin, mixing plywood structures, wallpapers, objects, videos, drawings and prints. Feeling her way was the next iteration of this ensemble of elements and picture of a constituent infrastructure, resulting from ever increasing collaborations, co-dependencies, and negotiations.

If we think about Museums, with a museum we enter other worlds, museums extend the language of theatre and scenography.

In the Castle of My Skin

DG : How did you design your show for Venice?

SB: I designed it in SketchUp, drawings and 3d printing. Then l used the videos of the sound of the singers to structure the work throughout the venue, but how the sound worked in the space was unknown.

The British Pavilion space is quite difficult to organise an installation, while the spaces for Turner Contemporary allowed for a different experience.

New versions of the installation are currently on show at the PHI Foundation in Montreal and the Toronto Biennale of Art, Canada, and l have just finished a new installation Benevolence, for GAMec, Bergamo, comprising resistance songs and protest movements around the world.


Three students from the Gaetano Donizetti Higher Institute Of Musical Studies in Bergamo were invited last autumn to perform and improvise popular songs in the heart of Bergamo’s La Citta Alta. In particular, in the preliminary phase of the project, the artist and the students noted how Bella Ciao – a key song in the country’s democratic history-has now become a symbol of global and transgenerational resistance.

DG During my visit to Venice this year l had the distinct impression that the Biennale as a form didn’t work. What were your thoughts?

Wallpaper (2022).

SB: The pavilion organisation is about managing expectations, and politics. We seem to be in a post nation time, and artists who are showing in the pavilions are not necessarily from the countries of the pavilion they are showing in.