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Art review: Sonia Boyce: Feeling Her Way at Turner Contemporary, Margate

10 March 2023

Susan Gray views a Margate exhibition

© British Council

Feeling Her Way, featuring four performers: Errollyn Wallen, Tanita Tikaram, Poppy Ajudha, and Jacqui Dankworth (2022)

Feeling Her Way, featuring four performers: Errollyn Wallen, Tanita Tikaram, Poppy Ajudha, and Jacqui Dankworth (2022)

WHEN Feeling Her Way was commissioned for the British Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale, the Golden Lion-winning installation was contained in a more compact space than at Turner Contemporary. Reimagined and spreading across five rooms in the seaside gallery, Sonia Boyce’s continuation of her Devotional Collection resembles nothing more than a church, with a nave lined with icons of black British female musicians, and four lavishly decorated chapels leading off it.

How much Boyce would welcome the church comparison is uncertain. She positions her own church-going firmly in the past: “I used to.” An earlier work Missionary Position II (1985), featuring the artist’s self-portrait in two figures, one kneeling in prayer, is an examination of how church could be an oppressive force in the lives of black British people.

And a recent Desert Island Discs interview revealed that the charcoal-on-paper work Mr Close-Friend-of-the-Family Pays a Visit Whilst Everyone Else is Out, from the same year, was the artist’s response to an attempted childhood rape. In the work, the figure representing Boyce looks at the viewer full on, while the male figure is twisting away, his outstretched hand like an open-jawed alligator. His head is only partially visible under the frame, as is the crucifix under his shirt.

Feeling Her Way is a joyous exploration of the work of four female vocalists, Jacqui Dankworth, Tanita Tikaram, Poppy Ajudha, and Sofia Jernberg, and the composer Errollyn Wallen. Boyce brought the five musicians together, at Abbey Road, in London, and the Atlantis Studios, in Stockholm, to interact, improvise, and play with their voices. In the first and largest room, four screens show Wallen, on the far left, leading the three vocalists in improvised performance.

In colour-tinted videos, we see the singers wring every drop of meaning from the word “Run”. Then they play with the phrase “I am queen.” Finally, they extend their full vocal range to sound like a bell. Surrounding the screens, Boyce’s trademark brightly coloured tessellating wallpaper, drawing on the wallpaper patterns popular in her childhood, and reflective gold seating with angular facets add to the sense of grandeur and awe. Editing brings the audience into intimate connection with the singers.

Moving on to the next three rooms, each is devoted to the mostly improvised songs that the performers created. Tikarum’s screen is tinted blue as she sings “Ain’t no happiness in this town.” Next door, Ajudha improvises at the piano, beginning in the style of a jazz ballad, but growing more sombre as the work continues, reminiscent of German Romantic composers with a simple metre. Lyrics about heartbreak float above the heavy chords, with lines of hope breaking through: “I’m still smiling, I want to live. Ask me how I’m still laughing, I’ve got so much more to give.”

Multiple portraits of Dankworth in red hairband, echoing Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, flank the entrance to the final room. Inside, a screen shows Dankworth singing “Reach Out”, a tribute to her 94-year-old mother, Cleo Laine. On the other side of the room, a screen shows Jernberg vocalising abstract sounds, recorded separately in Stockholm, and the two works blend together. Then, for one minute, on a glowing orange screen, both vocalists make abstract sounds, including a playback of Laine’s bell sound created earlier. It is like being in a cathedral where you understand neither the language nor the order of service, but know that something beautiful and resonant is present.

“Sonia Boyce: Feeling Her Way” is at Turner Contemporary, Rendezvous, Margate, until 8 May. Phone 01843 233 000. turnercontemporary.org

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