Influenced by the feminist movement of the early 1960s as well as by conceptual art, Sonia Boyce developed a figurative and iconographic style of drawing that became central to the British Black Arts Movement of the 1980s. Her early works in chalk, charcoal, pastel, and watercolor on paper describe race, gender, and religion as a collection of ideological signifiers that adorn and surround individuals. In Missionary Position II (1985), for example, each brightly colored element—the woman’s headdress, her hand, the wallpaper, and a table lamp—is carefully positioned to convey the struggle between accepting and resisting the dominant ideologies of British society. Boyce is outspoken about using herself as the model for these early drawings, reflecting her own internal struggles as a black female artist who was brought up in Britain as a Christian.
In the 1990s, Boyce transitioned from this form of self-portraiture to work in a broader range of media and to engage more directly with social codes. She became interested in how meaning is constructed collectively and spontaneously through interactive performance. She began by documenting and studying ephemeral exchanges between people, using photography and video in her studio, and then moved to large-scale gallery installations that use such media as handmade wallpaper and animation to explore the improvised communications of her viewers. These installations lay the ground for unrehearsed events that diffuse individual authorship and emphasize the power of intersubjective performance. During postproduction, however, when Boyce creates an archival document of a given event, she reasserts her hand as the artist.
Boyce’s video installation Exquisite Cacophony at the Biennale di Venezia documents a live multivocal performance. With its roots in the modernist idioms of jazz scat singing and Dadaist noise, and in homage to music as a medium of political resistance, the performance is discordant and nonsensical, mixing sound fragments, syllables, patterns, and riffs. Jazz derives from the field hollers and work songs of African-American slave laborers, whose rhythms mingled with ragtime and brass bands, while Dadaist noise responded to the psychological trauma of World War I. Both idioms depart from reason and logic as the mainstays of dominant political regimes and insist that vocal improvisation is a strategic means of autonomy and resistance. For Exquisite Cacophony, Boyce brings together three vocalists who will layer jazz rhythms and Dadaist noise with gospel, hip-hop, indie rock, dub–reggae, disco, folk, and Hindustani music. Their collective ignition of sound ripples across the Venetian lagoon.