With her retrospective at Manchester Art Gallery, the artist and curator talks censorship, stereotypes and dismantling power in the age of #metoo
Jennifer Higgie What was the rationale behind your week-long removal of John Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the nymphs  from the Manchester Art Gallery at the end of January?
Sonia Boyce I like exploring what happens when people come together. As part of my retrospective at the Manchester Art Gallery, I was asked to make a work for an ongoing programme called ‘The Gallery Takeover’. I organized a series of discussions with the staff, from curators to volunteers, about the displays of historical painting. Many of the people who work at the gallery had never had a conversation about the collection, discussed the rationale behind what was chosen to be on show or been asked what they thought of the paintings. The group grew to about 30 members of staff and many of them mentioned how the representation of women in the galleries, in particular Hylas and the Nymphs, made them feel uncomfortable. Apparently, Waterhouse’s painting – which depicts Hylas, a character from Greek mythology and the lover of Heracles, who was lured to his death by a group of seven nymphs – seems to attract two groups in particular: middle-aged men and teenage girls, who like to take selfies in front of the painting. Directly opposite Hylas and the Nymphs is a depiction by Charles-August Mengin from 1877 of Sappho, the lesbian icon and poet, who is pictured semi-naked and about to throw herself off a cliff as she couldn’t love a man – an entirely fictitious scenario. In other paintings in the gallery, women represent either death, sex or quiet beauty. In the final discussion session, the consensus was to temporarily take down Hylas and the Nymphs at the end of a public event. It was replaced with a text that asked members of the public to write their thoughts about the painting and the representation of the female form on Post-it notes, which were stuck to the wall where the painting had been hung. The gallery’s aim was to encourage public debate about the gesture.
JH You also focused on another painting in the collection, James Northcote’s Othello, the Moor of Venice . What is it about the picture that attracted you?
SB It’s a portrait of the renowned black Shakespearean actor, Ira Aldridge, which was the first work acquired for the gallery’s collection, in 1827. By coincidence, his daughter, Amanda Aldridge, who was a composer, features in my Devotional Collection project [1999–ongoing]: an archive of sound, ephemera and wallpaper relating to collective memory and black British women in music. Ira Aldridge’s portrait throws up lots of questions around race, drag and representation.
JH What was the outcome of the discussions you had with the staff?
SB We organized an evening performance for the general public to explore gender trouble in the galleries. For the event, which was titled Six Acts, the performance artist Lasana Shabazz responded to Ira Aldridge’s portrait while the drag collective Family Gorgeous improvised in front of other 19th-century paintings in the gallery, including Hylas and the Nymphs.
JH How choreographed was the event?
SB Not at all. My only caveat was that no one got hurt and nothing was damaged. I made it very clear to the performers that I don’t direct; I told them that they had two hours to do what they wanted, in terms of responding to the works in the gallery. I brought in a film crew (the event became a six-screen film, Six Acts, 2018) but I never look through the camera: people are there to do what they want to do. Hylas and the Nymphs was carefully taken off the wall towards the end of the performance by the gallery technicians.
JH The removal and subsequent re-instatement of Hylas and the Nymphs raises questions about the symbolic power of what is hung – or not – in a gallery. What was the response to the removal of the painting?
SB One of the audience members was an artist who was concerned about why the painting had been temporarily removed; we had a long conversation about it. He went to the press and it blew up into accusations of censorship and political correctness. Very few media outlets actually discussed the context of the painting’s removal and what had replaced it. No one mentioned it was an action that had developed from months of discussions with the gallery’s staff, nor did anyone mention that paintings are constantly being taken down and moved in museums; they don’t get up on the wall by themselves. The main question for me was: who has the right to an opinion about art and its display? It’s a core element of this particular action. I wasn’t there to validate a specific viewpoint: I was there to facilitate an engagement with Manchester Art Gallery’s collection.
JH I applaud what you did as a way of revitalizing art history: looking at historical pictures as something powerful and complicated, not simply as objects that reinforce conservative ideas about the past. Many old paintings are regarded with a nostalgia for something that has never actually existed.
SB Of course, all historical art was once contemporary. The irony is that when they were painting and exhibiting their work, the pre-Raphaelites were often criticized for being too radical. Even when it was made, Hylas and the Nymphs wasn’t a literal reflection of contemporary Victorian life: it’s a retelling of a Greek myth that plays with Victorian values about the representation of sexuality; it was only considered acceptable to paint such a sensual scene if the protagonists weren’t – contrary to how they look – human. Anna Phylactic, the ringmaster of the performance in the gallery, made clear the connection between the idea of a nymph – a mythical being who happens to be female – and a nymphomaniac. Why is a nymphomaniac linked to a prepubescent girl who isn’t quite human? What is our contemporary relationship to that?
JH For all of the controversy, the removal of Hylas and the Nymphs has generated a lot of debate: has it been constructive?
SB It has, to a point, but it troubles me that some people think the gesture was simply a publicity stunt – which is a mockery of how I work, examining how we process the present and its relationship to the past.
JH When you began your career as an artist in the 1980s, you were making drawings – Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain So Great , for example – but then you moved into social practice. What prompted this change?
SB After I made the large work on paper, She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose) , I felt that there was nowhere else to go: I had come to a full stop. That is why I moved into a more performative, social practice. The constant in my work has always been a discussion around gender, race and sexuality; it was never just about me but, more broadly, about the role and representation of the black female figure. Growing up in Britain in the 1960s and ’70s, I felt the historical and cultural narratives about the black female subject were quite limited.
JH What was the first work you did after you stopped making drawings?
SB I asked people if i could film and photograph them wearing an afro wig. At the time, I was making a series of hair objects and sourced material from Afro-Caribbean hair shops in London but most of them didn’t sell afro wigs. One day, I was walking past a fancy-dress shop and saw that they had a lot of afro wigs in lots of different colours for sale and I realized that they’re used for parody. Immediately, there’s a connection with clowns and minstrels: as signifiers of the African body, the afro became a trigger for hilarity and mockery. So, I put out an open call to photograph and film people putting one on [The Audition, 1997]. I ended up taking over 900 photographs in one day. There was lots of laughter, which was partly to do with an unconscious response to what is actually a deep historical joke. The philosopher Simon Critchley, who has written a lot about humour, observed that someone is always the butt of a joke, however benign it might seem. Here, the afro as a fragment of the african body occupies both desire and parody.
JH How important is the site in which your work is made and then shown?
SB The space the work is shown in can inform a reading of it. For a long time, I talked about my practice being parasitic – in that a parasite is a disruptor but can also give the host body what it needs but doesn’t want. I often go to a place not knowing its history and making art is a way of unearthing that. My mother is from Barbados and, when i started to visit there in my late 20s, I’d see folk characters turn up at events. It seemed surreal to me: no one else was disturbed but I was like: ‘What is going on?’ This led me to make Crop Over , a film exploring the annual festival that celebrates the sugar cane crop being brought in. I wanted to film it in the plantation properties in Barbados, which are called Great Houses, but I didn’t know that the folk characters, who are working-class archetypes, were traditionally banned from entering these spaces because of the conventions and codes of the plantocracy. When we started filming inside one of these homes, the Barbadian woman who looked after the house was really angry with me. She kept mumbling: ‘This is wrong. They’re not meant to be here; they should be in the yard, not inside the house.’ When we did the second half of the film in the grounds of Harewood House in yorkshire – an enormous estate, which was funded by the slave trade – they wouldn’t let us film inside the stately home, despite supporting the project financially. They never gave us a reason.
JH How interested are you in ‘Carnival Theory’: the idea that all cultures need a day or two a year in which the populace can run riot – as a kind of safety valve – in order to keep them under control for the rest of the year?
SB I’m very interested in it, and not just in the caribbean or the UK. I made a film in Germany about the annual Fasnacht festival, which happens at the beginning of spring in order to chase the winter spirits away. I witnessed a public court in Constance where the populace rounds up the local dignitaries for a mock trial; they’re judged for their wrongdoings that year. Jean Fisher wrote a great essay, ‘Toward a Metaphysics of Shit’ , for documenta 11 about the outlawing of carnivals in the UK and the possibilities of cultural activism.
JH Which artists have influenced your thinking?
SB In the early 1990s, I was teaching at Goldsmiths and we were having a lot of conversations about Sophie Calle; about how she disrupted and activated social space through her interactions with strangers. And, an earlier generation of activist artists – Adrian Piper, in particular, but also Valie Export and Vito Acconci. Gilane Tawadros asked me if I had thought about Lygia Clark, which was when I really began considering how we can relate to each other through art in a way that is proactive. I became very interested in examining the issues that rise to the surface when you work with other people. In the UK, I love David Medalla’s ‘Exploding Galaxies’ and found both Art & Language’s and Stephen Willats’s explorations of social structures compelling. When I became immersed in more conceptual practices, I was influenced a lot by Susan Hiller’s work and, later, with social practice, by artists such as Suzanne Lacy.
JH How has your work evolved over the past 30 years or so?
SB It has become progressively less didactic. I’m preoccupied with investigating how the artwork can have a life of its own that transcends the need to tell people what to think. This is my challenge. How to move the work beyond tight readings and how to embrace the seepages that occur. I’ve been trying to be more playful and elastic with my material, so that the work can find its own rhythm and life.
JH Do you think there is more openness to discussing issues around gender, race and class now than when you started out as an artist?
SB Everything comes in waves and we’re on one now. Historically speaking, however, there’s always a backlash to a forward-looking movement. I find it shocking that, 100 years ago, we were talking about women getting the vote and, now, we’re discussing women getting equal pay. I’ve been involved in feminist debates and activism since the 1970s and, whenever we think we’ve resolved an issue, it goes underground and resurfaces as a refusal. I genuinely don’t understand why everyone isn’t a feminist – it’s simply about being treated fairly. It’s the same with race: what is so difficult about all people being treated equally? These questions can seem so simple but, obviously, there’s a lot of historical baggage that gets in the way. One of the barely disguised criticisms I felt in response to the takeover event at Manchester art Gallery was the implication that Waterhouse was a proper artist – something I could never really be because I’m black and female and not a painter.
JH You’re currently working on the longest public artwork ever made in the UK: a 1.8 km wall for Crossrail in the Royal Docks, east London, where you grew up. How are you approaching it?
SB It’s quite a complicated project; it’s going to be printed in sections featuring stories intertwined with images of local flora and fauna. We’ve been working on training young people in oral history to help gather testimonies; we organized a pub quiz to generate stories and anyone can contribute stories online. I’ve long been inspired by William Morris’s patterns as well as Islamic geometry, which i find mind-boggling. I want the finished wall to reflect a multitude of voices. I’ve learned so much about the area. For example, there’s a hybrid Bombardier beetle that is only found in the docks; it’s most likely that it once arrived on a ship and, over the years, has adapted to the local terrain.
JH What are your thoughts on #metoo and #notsurprised?
SB What I have been surprised by is the assumption that, because we’re in the art industry, we might be exempt from the problems that women, in general, face. We’re all in the same world and, if the infrastructure of our wider culture supports sexual misconduct, it’s difficult to call out bullies: we all know that there can be awful backlashes if you report anything. The thing is, #metoo reflects how women are devalued in the work environment, particularly in economic terms: you only need to look at the sales of art by women, and at the statistics of how many women get to show their work in major museums, are represented by galleries or included in collections to realize that we’re second-class citizens. Museums need to change displays in order to activate a different story. We need to reconsider overwhelming narratives, such as women representing death or being portrayed as objects of desire; plenty of women throughout history have made art and this needs to be reflected in public displays. There is so much work to be done.
JH Part of the anger around the removal of Hylas and the Nymphs seemed to be around the misguided assumption that museums are neutral spaces; that they’re simply showing their collection without an ideological stance – whether conscious or not. But, of course, no museum has the space to hang all of its works. What is on the walls reflects a choice that someone has made.
SB The thing is, if we’re going to talk about censorship – which is what I was accused of – other questions need to be asked: what is held in the collections of the country’s museums and galleries but not shown? What does the quiet authority of such institutional structures reveal? Are museums and galleries proud of a narrative that frames women as equalling death or as silently beautiful? All I’m asking is that we give ourselves space and time to discuss other possibilities. I don’t think anyone gets harmed by that.
This interview appears in the print edition of frieze, June - August 2018, issue 196, with the title 'Work To Be Done'.
Main image: Sonia Boyce, Devotional Collection, 1999–ongoing, installation view at Manchester Art Gallery, 2018. Photograph: Mike Pollard/Manchester Art Gallery
First published in Issue 196