Getting to know Sonia Boyce: ahead of her Venice Biennale debut, a new show deep dives into her practice

UK artist has organised a group exhibition at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art displaying 12 artists who interact with the ideas behind her own works

Sonia Boyce (left) has organised a group exhibition at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art Boyce: © Anne Purkiss; Mima: © Rachel Deakin

Sonia Boyce (left) has organised a group exhibition at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art Boyce: © Anne Purkiss; Mima: © Rachel Deakin

Artist Sonia Boyce pre-empts her presentation at next year’s Venice Biennale with a major show of works at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (Mima) in north Yorkshire, England. In the Castle of My Skin (until 10 October) also includes works by 12 other artists selected by Boyce that interact with “the ideas” and concepts of her practice.

Boyce has covered the walls with a kaleidoscopic collage incorporating song lyrics and natural scenery; meanwhile, her jagged sculptures dotted around the gallery are modelled on the shape of fool’s gold (the mineral pyrite). In the show, Boyce develops a dialogue with artists including Teresa Margolles, Alberta Whittle and Simeon Barclay, introducing other pairings along the way (a wall painting by Emma Bennett, Pink Walkway, 2021, riffs for instance with Bridget Riley’s black and white zig zags, part of Fragments, 1965).

In one room, Boyce explores the contribution of black female musicians to society in the UK through Devotional Wallpaper, a gathering of 200 singers’ names such as Sinitta and Sade printed on inkjet paper; works combining charcoal and layers of black paper by the US artist Paul Chan, mounted onto blank music sheets, hang on the wallpaper display.

Sonia Boyce: In the Castle Of My Skin at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art Photo: © Rachel Deakin

“The way I work is quite organic and meandering and playful, I hope—not just with materials and ideas, but through collaborating with people. The team, whether at Eastside Projects in Birmingham, where the project was first held, or with the Mima staff—they were very involved in the discussions and decisions about the artists and works that are central to the show,” Boyce tells The Art Newspaper. “Everyone was encouraged to throw names and specific works into the mix. It was a great way to get to know works in Mima's collection and to think about the practices of several artists.”

Boyce has worked with the Middlesbrough institution previously. “I have been in conversation with Mima for several years, and yes, we started working together in a focused way because of the Black Artists & Modernism project (BAM). It was a project where I was leading a research team to look at the ways that works by African and Asian descent artists in Britain are accounted for across the UK's public collections,” she says.

The three-year BAM project launched in 2016 and was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The Mima collection also includes an important work by Boyce, She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose), a mixed-media piece made in 1986 showing a figure “holding on” to her Afro-Caribbean heritage while identifying as a British woman.

Asked if the Mima show is a springboard for her Venice installation in any way, Boyce says: “The social and collaborative side of my practice continues, but it has to be said, I'm not at liberty to say much more than that.”

Boyce came to prominence as part of the Black Arts Movement in the 1980s, tackling and upturning notions of race in her work, encompassing performance, drawing, print, photography, and audio-visual elements. In 2018, her exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery sparked controversy when the gallery took down one of its best-known works, Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) by John William Waterhouse, as part of a series of activities in Boyce’s evening “takeover”.