Interview with Sonia Boyce

We talk to the artist and academic about black artists’ vital role in Modernism and how to bring this to the attention of the public

December 17, 2015
Professor Sonia Boyce, University of the Arts London

Sonia Boyce is an artist and academic who has taught fine art studio practice for the past 30 years. She holds a co-chair of black art and design at the University of the Arts London, and her works – now held in Tate Modern’s collection – have been the subject of numerous exhibitions. She is the principal investigator for Black Artists and Modernism (BAM) – a three-year research programme, in partnership with Middlesex University, investigating the connections between black British artists’ practice and the artworks’ relationships to Modernism.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in London in 1962.

How has this shaped you?
London is an amazingly fast-paced and diverse place, where you just get accustomed to living alongside and interacting with people from all over the world. In fact, I think that’s what makes it a smart and creative place.

What do you hope to achieve from the project academically, professionally and personally?
Hopefully, the research will go some way to untangling some of the wretched constraints that have contained our understanding of the depth and breadth of artworks by artists of African and Asian descent in the UK. The main narrative has been specifically about cultural background, and we want to change that narrative to refocus on how the artworks speak to, and in some instances have informed, the larger story of 20th-century art. The project will be a success if it is able to bring that fascinating story to a wide audience.

“Without black artists there would be no Modernism” is one of the central statements of the project. What has been the influence of black artists on British art and culture?
Of course, the research as a whole seeks to elucidate the details of this argument. However, we know that artists such as David Medalla in 1960s London, through the Signals project, played a significant role in nurturing social practices that are now the mainstay of contemporary art. We also know that his bubble machines (from 1963 onwards) influenced some of the later works of Marcel Duchamp [and] that Frank Bowling is widely considered to be one of the most distinguished artists to emerge from post-war British art schools. At the Royal College of Art, his contemporaries were David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Allen Jones and R. B. Kitaj, and while he was considered at the time to be as accomplished, he was told that the world was not yet ready for such talent. Similarly, Althea McNish is another artist who was central to the transformation of post-war Britain. There are numerous stories to be told.

What is the place of research in these fields in the UK’s academic community? Does it need a change of attitude by policymakers and funding bodies to sustain it?
Surprisingly, given that the UK leads in the area of art practice as research, there remains an attitude that art isn’t really research – that somehow there’s an exclusionary relationship between the rigour of investigation that comes with research “proper” and the playfulness that is required of artistic production. But it’s not true; the two sides are wedded. Material culture and ways of making generate knowledge.

How would you say you have developed as an artist over your career? Do you ever look back at your early works and think, “Wow, they’re completely different from my recent pieces”?
I can see both the connections and the differences, especially a recurring theme of how identities are performed. There has been a change of medium – I started out by making large paintings, but now I work across media, in particular video, photography and sound, most importantly, with other people who help to make the artworks.

If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000 a year fees, would you go again or go straight into work?
I am an absolute advocate for university education. That doesn’t mean I am against people going straight into the job market or taking up apprenticeships, I just believe that higher education exercises the intellect in a certain way that is hard to replicate in other situations. It’s also a great character-building experience going off to university, and should be a lot of fun as well as hard work.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I wanted to be a dancer. I had planned to study contemporary dance at the Laban Centre, but realised I didn’t have the physical stamina required.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Let frustration fuel inspiration. Share what’s interesting.

What was your most memorable moment as a student?
Realising that I was allowed to draw all day and every day if I wanted to; that drawing is a serious endeavour.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
Louise Bourgeois, for her tenacity and enormous talent.

What do you do for fun?
[Lie on the] sofa, with the family all snuggling, watching a musical with all the necessary snacks.

If you were the UK universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to our sector?
Abolish tuition fees. In order to deliver this policy, I would need to be the minister for a lot longer than a day.


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Bucks New University has appointed Sean Mackney pro vice-chancellor (education). He joins from the University of Exeter, where he is director of student education and engagement. His previous positions include acting chief executive and senior deputy chief executive at the Higher Education Academy. Mr Mackney said: “I am looking forward to joining the team and working with students and staff to see that all of our graduates succeed in whatever they choose to do. It is a young, ambitious university with a great future ahead of it.”

Teesside University has made David Bell its new pro vice-chancellor (international). Dr Bell achieved his master’s degree in computer-aided engineering at Teesside in 1986. He was previously associate dean (international) in the Faculty of Engineering and Environment at Northumbria University. Teesside has also appointed Simon Walker the director of legal services and university secretary. He will also begin the role of clerk to the board of governors.

The University of the West of Scotland has appointed Waiyin Hatton chair of court. Dr Hatton was awarded the Association of Scottish Business Women’s Woman of Inspiration award in 2014.

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