‘A glorious cacophony of Black female voices’ – Sonia Boyce’s soul train hits Venice | Venice Biennale


Voices rise and fall, picking their way through songs and wordless sounds. They break and bend, whisper and tremble. There are cries and ululations, gentle bluesy riffs, operatic moments and open-throated roars, as well as moments when singers are groping for a melody or discovering a new sound, filling the British Pavilion at Venice with a glorious cacophony.

Called Feeling Her Way, Sonia Boyce’s multilayered installation is a joyous, tremulous performance for a chorus of Black female voices (Jacqui Dankworth, Poppy Ajudha, Sofia Jernberg and Tanita Tikaram). Each singer is literally feeling her way through the music, guided by Belize-born British composer Errollyn Wallen. We must feel our way, too, through the space and dissonance, the different tempos and moods and the different characters, qualities and approaches of the musicians. Togetherness and apartness, soulfulness and drive – these are what guide them. Sometimes improvising for the first time, sometimes duetting or surprising themselves with some unbidden echo, the singers seem to be discovering as much as they are performing in their familiar ways.

Accomplished … Boyce’s ‘aural origami’ at the British Pavilion.
Accomplished … Boyce’s ‘aural origami’ at the British Pavilion. Photograph: David Levene/the Guardian

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

Somehow, the repetitions never sound the same, depending on where the listener is, attending first to one singer, then another. Suggesting some kind of resolution that never comes, the filmed performances rearrange themselves in space and time. You don’t have to work at it so much as let yourself go, as you realise that is what the singers are doing, too.

Of Boyce’s recent work, this is the most accomplished I have seen, the one that exceeds intention, taking on a life and vitality of its own. Boyce redoubles the musical complexity with her installation, presenting the filmed performances (some of which took place at Abbey Road studios) against a tessellated, montaged wallpaper of photographic shots of studio details – microphone stands and cables, mixing desk consoles, sound-baffles and flooring, mixed in with geometric patterning.

Drawn from Boyce’s personal archive … the work at Venice.
Drawn from Boyce’s personal archive … the work at Venice. Photograph: David Levene/the Guardian

Overhead and on the floor, geometric golden forms – derived from iron pyrite crystals – cluster and spread, bunch-up in corners and provide seating for visitors. They mirror what is around them, while also reflecting the order and random structures of music itself. A long wall at the rear of the pavilion has a silvery wallpaper redolent of a 1970s bedroom, on which Boyce presents photographs and collaged displays of old CD, cassette and album covers, along with 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 reverentially presented as though on a teenager’s bedroom wall.

When Boyce was younger, there was scant representation of Black female artists in the UK. Music gave her a sense of belonging and sustenance. This archival impulse and sense of communality, continues in the French Pavilion next door, where French-Algerian, London-based artist Zineb Sedira includes a film in which Boyce and curator Gilane Tawadros discuss cultural resistance and survival in communities of colour.

At first seeming aurally and visually dissonant and fragmentary, Feeling Her Way reveals itself as a simultaneous expression of individuality and collaboration, and the affirmation of the creative spirit.

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