Review by Dan Thompson: Sonia Boyce’s Feeling Her Way at Turner Contemporary

Feeling Her Way by Sonia Boyce © British Council

Sonia Boyce’s exhibition Feeling Her Way, the latest exhibition due to open at Turner Contemporary, is a simple and elegant celebration of the contribution of Black women to British music and culture – a contribution very familiar to people in Margate.

Sonia Boyce © British Council

Across four rooms, we see and hear Jacqui Dankworth, Poppy Ajudha, Sofia Jernberg, and Tanita Tikaram (who played the Winter Gardens in 1991, at the peak of her pop success) improvise new music together. Composer Errollyn Wallen leads the musicians, who have not worked together before. Boyce recorded Dankworth, Ajudha, and Tikaram at the legendary Abbey Road Studios in London. Covid meant that Jernberg had to join from Atlantis Studios in Stockholm. We see them on film as they improvise, learn to trust each other and the composer, and play with their voices.

© British Council

The colour-tinted video works are mostly displayed on large screens rather than projectors, which mean Turner’s vast spaces can be flooded with daylight. The rooms are carpeted, too. These physical changes to the normal Turner set-up make the whole experience more relaxed and comfortable than many recent exhibitions.

The music bounces from room-to-room, and when you stand in the central gallery space, surrounded by objects from Boyce’s collection of tapes, CDs, records, and music memorabilia, the voices all come together. This is random – all the films in the different rooms have different running times, so any moments when the voices come together are serendipity, not planned. But it works, wonderfully.

© British Council

The screens are displayed among tessellating wallpapers, created by Boyce, and golden geometric structures are scattered across the floor. In other places, gold shapes burst from walls, like a vein of metal found in rocks, and the central gallery is papered floor-to-ceiling in a geometric gold-printed wallpaper, too.

Feeling Her Way was originally commissioned by the British Council for the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, but here it is given more space to breath, and it is better for it. The exhibition feels like it was made for here.

Photo Dan Thompson

Boyce is no stranger to Margate – she exhibited with Turner Contemporary in 2004, when it was based at Droit House, so knows Margate, and has seen the gallery’s impact on the town.

In a show with Black music at the heart, it’s easy to find more connections to Margate. Boyce’s work sits well alongside Margate Carnival, with its connections to Notting Hill, and Olby’s and the annual Margate Soul Festival.

But  although it’s unsaid here, this is also a town that had its troupes of blacked-up minstrels, hosted a ‘Hot From Harlem’ all-black revue in the 1950s, and – as Empire of Light recently reminded us – was the site of some notorious National Front marches in the 1980s.

Photo Dan Thompson

Rather than protest, though, Boyce celebrates the uncontested, uncontestable contribution of Black women to the British cultural landscape. From Echobelly to Bow Wow Wow, Shirley Bassey to Mel B, they’ve brought joy, happiness, and had us on the dancefloor for the last seventy years. And that’s something worth celebrating.

Sonia Boyce’s exhibition Feeling Her Way is at Turner Contemporary from February 4- May 8.

Dan Thompson regularly writes about the arts for Isle of Thanet News. Living in Ramsgate and based at Marine Studios in Margate, he works for one of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations, B arts in Stoke-on-Trent, and is on the board of another, Talking Birds in Coventry.

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  1. I celebrate black women’s contribution to British music and culture all the time – by listening to their music, not by viewing this cr*p.

    I’m off now to dig out my Shirley Bassey records.

    • She’s so good, Dan mentioned her twice in one sentence:

      “From Bassey to Bow Wow Wow, Shirley Bassey to Mel B” (and Bow Wow Wow’s Annabella Lwin is half Burmese and half English, certainly not black!).

    • Thank you Peter. My life always has a little more joy in it after reading your erudite opinions. I really hope to read more of them soon.

        • That sounds wonderful, Peter. I will be sure to check them out. But I do take most delight in your considered thoughts on the full spectrum goings on in Thanet – especially the rapier way that you prick the pomposity of others. I sincerly hope that any future books will cover your views on society and politics in general. You have so much to share.

          • Thank you David. I do actually try to do that in my books too (I’ll argue with anyone why I think the Dave Clark Five made better singles than The Beatles or Mud were a superior band than Roxy Music!). Dame Shirley Bassey deserves her reputation though. It couldn’t have been easy coming from a black Welsh background and achieving what she has.

  2. Can Mr Thompson explain why white women have a lower case w, but black women have a capital B? Is a cultural thing, or a modish arty thing which has passed me by?

      • Dear Mr Checksfield , I’m still laughing at your outrageous ,ridiculous and crazy comment that you think that Mud were a “ superior band than Roxy Music “. Ha ha ha ha .
        How is this so ? I’ve just checked my calendar to see if it was April fools day come early .
        It’s certainly a January Fool come early with that comment . Lol
        You think that you’re talented ,as you boasted recently on here , Not a good look !
        Surely as a writer you’ve just committed “commercial suicide” with that crazy opinion about Mud v Roxy which you might have done better keeping to yourself if you wanted to keep any credibility that you think that you’ve still got .
        On what basis do you make that comment ?
        Before you answer ….
        So….Let’s look at the hard facts , Roxy Music wrote all of their music on their studio albums
        ( Jealous Guy the exception was a single not on a studio album and which was a tribute to John Lennon )
        Roxy Music are still to this day considered with respect for their influence on music
        Bryan Ferry was along with Bowie and Bolan icons of 70’s glam rock and even now when I’ve seen Ferry solo shows ,at top London venues , young people now are dressing up like him from his 70’s period
        All eight of the studio Roxy Music albums are considered classic without a duff album between then
        Roxy Music were a very successful albums band but still have had more hit singles than Mud ,including a number one with Jealous Guy
        Roxy have recently at the end of 2022 completed a sellout 50th anniversary Arena tour across North America and UK
        This shows how even now how relevant the band still are and that people across the world still wanted to see them
        Gauge that against Mud who were more of a singles act but never had hit studio albums ,didn’t write their own hit songs , were puppets to producers Chinn/ Chapman , were only popular for 3 years ,are not considered iconic like Bryan Ferry or Roxy Music
        When Ferry did a cover version ( Let’s stick together / Price of love / Hard rains a gonna fall / I put a spell on you ) he brought something new to his interpretation , unlike Les Gray of Mud and his cheesy mock Elvis impression on Lonely this Xmas
        Both “ Tiger feet “ and “ The cat crept in “ I concede were fun records by Mud at the time but let’s not kid ourselves that musically they’re anything but just bubblegum and they’re not relevant or held in the same regard as Roxy Music still are !
        It’s a bit like comparing an Aston Martin ( Roxy Music ) a timeless classic ,against a Mini Metro ( Mud)
        An average car at the time but quite forgettable now ! Lol
        In short there is absolutely no comparison between Roxy Music ( Bryan Ferry) and Mud .
        Both bands played different types of music and appealed to completely different audiences
        That’s the end of the defence ,m’lud against this ridiculous and outrageous claim . Lol
        Cheggers ; Do you wish to counter claim any of that ? Of course you do because you like have the last word on everything . ……..
        Before you do , be aware that I know my stuff ! More than you do on this subject !

          • Ha ha , Poxy music , I thought that I’d leave that genre of music to you to write as you’re such a self appointed expert on that subject … and ALL other matters !
            Just because you’ve written a self published book doesn’t mean that you know what you’re talking about
            I use this Mud ( slinging )(Lol) v Roxy Music as a prime example of that
            Come back to me when you can talk reasonably and nicely about decent music .

  3. Thank gawd ,that all our taxes are going to the right place ,i will have to come off wacky baccy soon ,and then I can see it’s more pretentious crap ,Turner centre revelling in more rubbish

  4. My word, isn’t Thanet going lefty WOKE this year!! First we have the “Margate School (Frankfurt School?)” with its LBGTQ-Alphabet-Soup inviting children to participate in their sordid activities and begging for donations; then some other LBGTQ-Alphabet-Soup for children moving into the good old Midland Bank in Ramsgate. And now this! If art is art, what has colour to do with it? Talk about pushing extremist ideology! All very subversive!!

    • They don’t understand the irony that by concentrating on artists of “colour” (i.e., any female who isn’t quite 100% Caucasian) is itself racist. I also had to laugh out loud how The Black & White Minstrel Show (wholesome family entertainment in its day) is mentioned in the same breath as National Front marches.

  5. I knew when this article was published that our local art review group would comment negatively, and you did not surprise me.
    All the usual stuff about WOKE.’bad art’, how much someone knows about pop music, blackness/whiteness,LGBTQ etc.
    To anyone not having knowledge of this, you lot sound like a lot of old blokes off on a rant about the failings of modern art, and modern life.
    I don’t understand modern art, and my tastes only go as far as mid 20th century art , but I am not going to slag off what I don’t know.I like Grayson Perry’s pottery, but that doesn’t make me woke.
    Sadly the world will not stop, even if you earnestly pray for it do so.

  6. Why is it that art attracts such derogatory comments.Is it the artists? What art would meet your approval? Are we going to start having conversations about degenerate art and architecture?
    It does seem that only art that emanates from approved sources,namely old dead white men.
    Art(and crafts)can transform a town.So can books.What is needed is ownership of at least some of the urban areas of Thanet.Small units should be rented out at low rents and SME’s loaned finance and given business advice.
    I am doubtful about Turner Contemporary but not because it is woke,but because it is a top down project as are most regeneration projects in Thanet.

  7. Finally someone in Thanet looking back over musical history with some taste and talent.

    Excellent review and and excellent installation, as usual the ignorance boils to the surface and any mention of any demographic that isn’t their own and claims celebrating any success by other group of people is “racist”

    Ignorance is bliss.

    Did Mud have a hit with that one?

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