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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