Exhibition Review by Fruzsina Vida

Sonia Boyce, Feeling Her Way

Leeds Art Gallery
May 26, 2023—November 05, 2023
Curated by Emma Ridgway, Commissioned by Emma Dexter, British Council.

From the first moment of entering Leeds Art Gallery, visitors are lured into Sonia Boyce’s Feeling Her Way by the sound of sirenic voices. The multimedia exhibition was created for the British Pavilion of the Venice Biennale 2022 and won the Golden Lion Prize for Best National Participation. It contributes to the recent institutional dialogue considering the experience of the black diaspora, such as Black Venus at Somerset House, Johny Pitt’s touring show, Home is Not a Place, Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition Behold by María Magdalena Campos Pons and Tate Modern’s A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography. Boyce’s Feeling Her Way comprises photography, drawing, video, and geometric installations, but the most significant aspect of this multisensory experience is the musical element. The eerie sounds not only create suspense in viewers before entering the space; they crawl into the soul and stick in the mind after the visit, for further contemplation.

Sonia Boyce (b.1962) is a British-Afro-Caribbean artist, whose oeuvre addresses issues of gender and race and the representation of these themes in the media. Her works span figurative painting, pastel drawings, photographic collages, media art and installations. Since the 1990s, she has focused on participatory projects, inserting herself in situations as a guide, as well as a voyeur.[1] These extemporaneous artworks raise questions of language, authorship and artistic autonomy. 

Feeling Her Way is one such project for which Boyce invited five musicians – Jacqui Dankworth MBE (b.1963), Poppy Ajudha (b.1995), Sofia Jernberg (b. 1983), Tanita Tikaram (b.1969) and composer Errollyn Wallen (b.1958) – to work together. In 2021, the singers participated in a recording session at Abbey Road Studios in which they explored the power of shared practice and reflected on each other's melodies. The experimental one-off event aimed to highlight how independent artistic expressions can create a collective artwork. Overall, the exhibition is the documentation of the recording session. The curator, Emma Ridgeway, expressed that “central to the exhibition are Boyce’s colour-filtered video works that immerse the gallery spaces in the emotive sound of women singing.””[2]

Figure 1. The Artist. Sonia Boyce, Feeling Her Way, Leeds Art Gallery, May 2023. ©Rob Battersby.

Figure 2. Room 2. Sonia Boyce, Feeling Her Way, Leeds Art Gallery, May 2023. ©Rob Battersby.

Throughout the show, the walls of the galleries are covered in wallpaper designed by Boyce, adorned with a sequence of geometric patterns embedded with colourful tiles, reflective surfaces and portraits of the participating artists. As visitors enter the first room, they are met with a myriad of objects, attached directly above their heads. Photographs of singers, vinyls, cassette tapes and CDs are spread across the room. These elements spring from Boyce’s Devotional Collection (1999) – “an ever-growing archive which was created to document the cultural contribution of Black British female musicians to international culture.”[3] While gazing at the items, the origin of the angelic voices is revealed. In the corner, a digital screen projects a film of Poppy Ajudha as she chants Demons (2021): a blues-infused song about the vulnerability in all of us. This overture sets the mood for the upcoming experience, encouraging the viewers to dive deeper and hear what else the singers share with us.   

In the second room, a four-channel video of Ajudha, Dankworth, Tikaram and Wallen titled Feeling Her Way (2021) is staged to replicate the geometric patterns on the wallpaper. Cubic items finished in a brass-yellow hue are spread across the space. The droplets of golden matter behave as a prism and project strobic beams of light across the room. Occasionally, visitors can glance at their own reflections as reminders that they are participators of the multisensory experience. The singers actively listen and respond to each other's voices. The spontaneous encounter proves that music is a universal language that connects all of us. Indeed, this is further complemented by a different song projected from another direction. On a separate screen, we see Tikaram crafting the experimental Instant Singer-Songwriter (2021). She plays the piano and sings fragments of original songs. Both the lyrics and the instrument highlight the liberating notion of artistic expression. Tikaram sings, “the only limit is your imagination” and she lives by this motto in her improvisation. Viewers find themselves in the centre of a vocal play, produced by voices coming from all directions. 

Figure 3. Room 3. Sonia Boyce, Feeling Her Way, Leeds Art Gallery, May 2023. ©Rob Battersby

Figure 4. Artist Sonia Boyce standing in Room 5 at the British Pavilion, 2022. Image by Cristiano Corte ©British Council.

Walking into the last room, we become fully immersed in the vocal statements of the musicians, and sounds from all previous screens are heard together, creating a cacophony of voices. It feels as if we are listening to an orchestra tune before a concert–the combination of notes sounds rogue, but once we focus on an individual delivery the occurrence becomes clear. The videos create an engaging multimedia “happening” as sounds relate to each other in unique, unrepeatable ways. Here, Dankworth, daughter of jazz singer Cleo Laine, is singing the song Reach Out (2021). As explained in the exhibition text given to visitors at the entrance, upon asking her mother about the secret to her charisma, Laine responded: “You’ve got to imagine there’s a light which is always there, and you’ve got to reach towards it.”[4] As if following her mother’s instructions, Dankworth reaches out towards us listeners in the form of an expressive and intimate song. In the closing sequence, Dankworth’s impressions of a chiming bell layer over the vocals of Jernberg. Dankworth responded to the pre-recorded voice of Janenberg who was absent from Abbey Road Studios due to restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic. This room – with the layering of sounds – is the peak of freeform artistic expression. By arriving here, visitors complete a physical and psychological journey that the exhibition channels.

The title of the exhibition, Feeling Her Way, can be interpreted as women expressing their sensations. In this regard, ‘Her’ relates to Sonia Boyce and the participating musicians and the feelings they expressed through the project. Despite the title focusing on an individual, these separate perceptions indeed result in a collective reaction, as was seen in the four-channel video in the second space. Simultaneously, ‘Her’ is a reference to ‘herstory’– a term important in the practice of Boyce, used to describe a feminist perspective, emphasising individual stories of women. The concept emerged during the second-wave feminism of the 1970s and 1980s, to juxtapose the male-dominated presentation of history.

Additionally, the exhibition can be translated as a multi-layered experience that is separated into fragments relating to the singers, Boyce, and the visitors. The first form of artistic expression was the singers’ who formulated their individual senses in their songs. This was viewed and guided by Boyce who, as a voyeur, experienced the improvisations first-hand and staged them to evoke greater emotive sentiment for the listeners. This enhances the visitors’ experience, allowing them to become fully immersed in the emotional encounter.

Once leaving Feeling Her Way, the sounds stay with us. We find ourselves reminiscing over the heard melodies, investigating individuality and the presentation of singular voices in a crowd. We have been part of a collective moment. Boyce presents the value of collaboration in an ever-evolving immersive multisensory spectacle that has a forceful effect when experienced in person.

Figure 5. Room 1 in the British Pavilion featuring four performers, Errollyn Wallen, Tanita Tikaram, Poppy Ajudha, Jacqui Dankworth, 2022. Image by Cristiano Corte ©British Council.

Figure 6. Room 6 in the British Pavilion featuring performer Tanita Tikaram, 2022. Image by Cristiano Corte ©British Council.

Figure 7. Room 3 in the British Pavilion featuring performers Jacqui Dankworth and Sofia Jernberg, 2022. Image by Cristiano Corte ©British Council.

Figure 8. Room 4 in the British Pavilion featuring the Devotional Collection 2022. Image by Cristiano Corte ©British Council.

Fruzsina Vida graduated from the University of York with an MA in History of Art with a specialisation in Architectural History and Theory in 2023. Under the supervision of Joshua Mardell, she wrote her dissertation about the influence of avant-garde movements, such as Bauhaus and Constructivism, on vernacular architecture in Hungary during the Socialist period. Fruzsina was the recipient of the Hepworth Wakefield Studentship 2021/22, where she worked with the curatorial team. Currently, she is the Editorial Assistant of Aesthetica Magazine.


Article Information
Fruzsina Vida, "Exhibition Review: Sonia Boyce: Feeling Her Way,” Aspectus, no. 5 (Fall 2023): 75–79. DOI: 10.15124/yao-5601-2p85