Sonia Dawn Boyce, OBE RA is a British Afro-Caribbean artist, living and working in London. She is a Professor of Black Art and Design at University of the Arts London.
Boyce's research interests explore art as a social practice and the critical and contextual debates that arise from this area of study. With an emphasis on collaborative work, Boyce has been working closely with other artists since 1990, often involving improvisation and spontaneous performative actions on the part of her collaborators. Boyce's work involves a variety of media, such as drawing, print, photography, video, and sound. Her art explores the interstices between sound and memory, the dynamics of space, and incorporating the spectator. To date, Boyce has taught Fine Art studio practice for more than thirty years in several art colleges across the UK. In February 2020 Boyce was selected by the British Council as the first Black female artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale 2021.
Boyce works with a range of media including photography, installation and text. She gained prominence as part of the Black British cultural renaissance of the 1980s. Her work also references feminism. Roy Exley (2001) has written: "The effect of her work has been to re-orientate and re-negotiate the position of Black or Afro-Caribbean art within the cultural mainstream."
An early exhibition in which she participated was in 1983 at the Africa Centre, London, entitled Five Black Women. Boyce's early works were large chalk-and-pastel drawings depicting friends, family and childhood experiences. Drawing from her background she often included depictions of wallpaper patterns and bright colours associated with the Caribbean. Through this work the artist examined her position as a black woman in Britain and the historical events in which that experience was rooted.
In 1989, she took part in an exhibition called The Other Story which was the first display of British African, Caribbean, and Asian Modernism in a major British gallery.
In her later works Boyce used diverse media including digital photography to produce composite images depicting contemporary black life. Although her focus is seen to have shifted away from specific ethnic experiences, her themes continue to be the experiences of a black woman living in a white society, and how religion, politics and sexual politics made up that experience.
Boyce was awarded an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List 2007, for services to art. On 9 March 2016, Boyce was elected as a member of the Royal Academy.
In 2016, Boyce became a Royal Academician, a society in England created by George III for artists and designers.
In 2018, as part of a retrospective exhibition by Boyce at Manchester Art Gallery, she was invited by the curators of the gallery to make new work in dialogue with the collection's 18th- and 19th-century galleries, for which Boyce invited performance artists to engage with these works in these galleries in, as the artists has said, 'a non-binary way'. As part of one of these events the artists decided to temporarily remove J. W. Waterhouse's painting Hylas and the Nymphs from the gallery wall, prompting a wide discussion of issues of censorship and curatorial decision-making, interpretation and judgement, by gallery audiences and in the media.
Boyce has taught widely and uses workshops as part of her creative process, and her works can be seen in many national collections. Boyce's works are held in the collections of Tate Modern, Victoria & Albert Museum, the Government Art Collection, British Council and the Arts Council Collection at Southbank Centre.
In 2018 she was the subject of the BBC Four documentary film Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain's Hidden Art History, in which Brenda Emmanus followed Boyce as she traveled the UK following the history of black artists and modernism. Boyce led a team in preparing an exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery that focused on artists of African and Asian descent who have played a part in shaping the history of British art.
She was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2019 New Year Honours for services to art.
It was announced in February 2020 that Boyce had been selected as the first black woman to represent the United Kingdom at the 2021 59th annual Venice Biennale. She was chosen by the British Council and will produce a major solo exhibition. The British Council's director of visual arts, Emma Dexter, claimed Boyce's inclusive and powerful work will be a perfect selection for this significant time in UK history. Boyce first attended the Biennale in 2015, she was a part of curator Okwui Enwezor's All the World's Features exhibition.
In her early artistic years Boyce used chalk and pastel to make drawings of her friends, family and herself. She graduated later to incorporate photography, graphic design, film, and caricature to convey very political messages within her work. The incorporation of collage allowed her to explore more complex pieces. It is important to note Boyce's utilization of caricature within her work. The caricature is historically meant to showcase exaggerated features of individuals. They are often grotesque and can incite negative perceptions of their subjects. By using caricatures she allows herself to reclaim them in her own image.
Boyce's work is politically affiliated. She utilizes a variety of mediums within the same work to convey messages revolving around black representation, perceptions of the black body and pervasive notions that arose from Scientific racism. Within her bodies of work Boyce wishes to convey the personal isolation that results from being black in a white supremacist society. In her work she explores notions of the Black Body as the "other". Commonly, she uses collage to convey a body of art that incites a complicated history. Boyce rose as a prominent artist in the 1980s when the Black Cultural Renaissance took place in the United Kingdom. The movement arose out of Margaret Thatcher's conservatism and also Enoch Powell's racism. Using this societal backdrop, Boyce takes conventional English narrative surrounding the black body and turns it upside down. Through her art she conveys a hope to overturn ethnographic notions of race that pervaded throughout slavery and after the slaves had been emancipated.