Reviews

Scat: Sonia Boyce, Sound and Collaboration

Boyce and Devotional Wallpaper

Boyce and Devotional Wallpaper

What do a 16th century choral piece, 1930s jazz singer Adelaide Hall and pop diva Shirley Bassey have in common? Very little you might say, but not everything is as its seems in an intriguing new exhibition from leading British artist Sonia Boyce, who uses sound and visual imagery in her exploration of art, culture and society.

Jazz scat as an aspect of  popular music forms the connecting thread, most obviously so in two videos, For You, Only You and Oh Adelaide. In the former, Boyce has filmed an unlikely encounter between Early Music consort, Alamire, and contemporary sound artist Mikhail Karikis in the dramatic surroundings of Magdalen College Chapel, Oxford.  Although seemingly worlds apart, Karikis’ fractured vocalisations and the soaring harmonies of the choir blend into a beautiful piece of music in its own right.

The haunting qualities of scat as wordless singing are used again in the seven-minute  Oh Adelaide, a collaboration between Boyce and the DJ Ain Bailey incorporating 1935 film footage of Adelaide Hall, the US jazz scat pioneer and entertainer who moved to Britain before World War ll.

Boyce describes it as a “digital mash up where sound and vision sit awkwardly side by side”.  Throughout the fragmented, dreamlike sequence Hall appears and disappears in a haze of white light as she sings Creole Love Call. “As an audience we’re urged to keep track of her – to capture her.”

Oh Adelaide relates to another key segment of the exhibition, The Devotional Collection, Boyce’s archive of black British women in the music industry that includes hundreds of items – CDs, cassettes, vinyls, DVDs and magazines – both her own and donated to create what she calls an “independent collective memory” that rescues the likes of Hall from “amnesia”.

“The Devotional project is not dependent on the music industry validating those musicians but on a collective decision to build something ourselves in order to wrestle with amnesia.”

She explains how it all started: “The Devotional series began life as a collaborative project back in 1999 when I asked a group of participants to name a black British female singer. It took people about 10 minutes before anyone could remember anyone’s music that they’d grown up with. Shirley Bassey was the first name nominated.”

Embarrassed, the group began asking their friends and colleagues for more names, and the list took on a life of  its own, accompanied by the memorabilia.

“What the project, as it has unfolded, has highlighted is the process of erasure that has occurred in terms of a wider knowledge about these performers and their contribution to popular culture.”

This part of the exhibition includes a display of Shirley Bassey album sleeves above a turn table playing one of her LPs – you choose which one. Occupying the entire space of another wall is Devotional Wallpaper,  200 names of singers and musicians elaborately drawn in repetitive concentric lines. While most are obvious – Ms Dynamite, Pauline Black and, of course, Hall – others like violinist Vanessa Mae are not.

“Not all the people here would consider themselves black,” explains Boyce. “But I’m using the term black politically, in the way it was used in the ’80s.”

Besides she adds, the collection “is not on their behalf, its’s not to represent them. It’s really about an unplanned way that a diverse range of public listeners have built collective memory.”

Likewise, Bassey, a singer who might be thought of as having no particular significance as far as black pop culture is concerned, is someone who “everyone has heard of”, hence her prominence here.

For Boyce, the archive and the manipulation of Hall’s historic clip into something contemporary indicate that we don’t have to settle for the past as it is presented. “This is in no way a denial of history, but more that the materials of history are not fixed as something given; we can choose to re-fashion what we are given to reflect better our understanding of those historical references from our perspective now.”

The exhibition at Shoreditch’s Invia gallery shows how far she has travelled since emerging as a leading leading light of the black British arts scene in the 1980s, when she became one of the youngest artists of her generation to have her work purchased by the Tate.  “My early works were very much concerned with discussions about painting, and finding appropriate representations of black life. This was very urgent at the time – it burned bright but fast for a few years.”

As her work matured she branched out into other media. “I now move between drawing, video, performance, print, and most importantly, I work with other people to produce the artworks. I have always had a social art practice, but now, increasingly, making the work involves a wider variety of people to become involved. This adds a richness that I could never produce whilst working on my own.”

The role of art in society and how it can be a vehicle of change, the relationship between sound and memory, the boundaries of time and culture and how these might be mediated, and the role of the public in the whole process of art making are just some of the issues Boyce touches upon. For the uninitiated, that’s a lot to take in in one exhibition. The trick is to think of yourself simply as a musical time traveller, but not going prosaically in a straight line from A to B.

First published in West End Extra July 12 2013

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