Fluid Locations: Discussing Archives and Representation with Sonia Boyce – Sally Frater


Sonia Boyce in collaboration with Ain Bailey, Oh Adelaide, 2010; single screen video with sound, 7 min, 12 sec.; courtesy of the artist.

Sonia Boyce is an internationally renowned multi-disciplinary artist who lives and works in London, England. In 2010, together with sound artist Ain Bailey, Boyce collaboratively produced the work Oh Adelaide, a video/sound piece which developed from a found film clip sourced from the Internet of the late performer Adelaide Hall performing “Creole Love Call.” The original clip, after passing through the hands of Boyce and Bailey, has been transformed into something that is haunting, ethereal, and dream-like in character. The work was included in the exhibition There is no archive in which nothing gets lost, which was recently held at the Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, in Houston Texas. The exhibition, which also featured video works by Wangechi Mutu and Lorna Simpson, explored the intersection of place, narrative, history, representation, performance, and “the archive”. Boyce graciously agreed to speak with me about Oh Adelaide and its inclusion in the exhibition at the Glassell School of Art. Below is a truncated transcription of a two-hour, trans-Atlantic dialogue that occurred over Skype in which we discussed Oh Adelaide and its inception as well as the work’s relationship to larger issues of the “archive”, history, and representation.


Sonia Boyce: You know that I used to run an archive – the African and Asian Visual Artists Archive (AAVAA) at the University of East London? I was immersed in archival activities, and inevitably questions arose about the archive as an art practice. Oh Adelaide comes out of this.

Sally Frater: How did you come across both the source material and then come to know the figure of Adelaide Hall?

SB: It’s a bit of a long story… Back in 1999, I was invited by FACT in Liverpool, which is the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, to work on their Collaborations Programme. They match artists with a community group in order to facilitate collaboration. I was placed with Liverpool Black Sisters. At the time I was also working at AAVAA with David A. Bailey, so I was already thinking about the archive and history, particularly in terms of sound and music. I wanted them (Liverpool Black Sisters) to do some research. I wanted them to research something they would be familiar with. I asked them about the first record they ever bought. Then I asked them to think of the names of all the black British female performers they knew. There was about 10 minutes of silence, as no one could remember anyone. It was quite awkward and then someone thought of Shirley Bassey and we started singing her songs. The group members began asking their friends and colleagues for more names, and what was originally intended to be a six-month project has grown into the Devotional series.

Adelaide Hall wasn’t in that first grouping. The list has grown exponentially over the years – people still send me names. I created a drawn installation in 2007 of 180 names at the National Portrait Gallery, with a budding curator Eddie Otchere. Eddie put me in touch with Stephen Bourne, who has done a lot a research on 20th century black performers, and it was Stephen who introduced me to Adelaide Hall. He is a self-taught theatre historian; Stephen’s story is very interesting actually; his aunt was adopted into his family and she was black. She was born at the turn of the century. Stephen’s family is white working class, and his aunt worked in a dress-making shop. She started to work for Elisabeth Welch. I presume you know who Elisabeth Welch is? [Sally Frater: No.] Elisabeth came to the UK from the USA. She was an African-American who made a film ‘Song of Freedom’ in the UK in 1936 with Paul Robeson. She was an actress and a singer and like Adelaide Hall they were both part of that pre-World War II set of black international theatre, film, song and dance performers.

Anyway, getting back to this question of gathering material, people kept sending me names and the thing kept on growing and the archive began to take root. So that’s how the collecting of names and items unfolded. People started to send me things. Once I started to accumulate the names and the items it was a question of what to do with them. There are now around 270 names that date back from the end of the 19th century into the 21st century. I started to make work from it, and realised that in order to really activate the collection I should invite others to create works with me.

SF: How did the collaboration with Ain Bailey come about?

SB: I’ve known Ain (she is one of the named performers in the Devotional roll-call) for many years, and I asked her if she’d like to try and collaborate on making a work from the collection. We put Adelaide Hall’s name into Google and the film footage that is the source for the art work is what came up and I thought, “I want to use that.”

Many of the performer’s names that have been sent to me I didn’t know, I didn’t know who they were. I used the Internet as a research tool to get an artist’s biography. In Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida speaks about amnesia and how the archive is a system for forgetting. Over the years, as I’ve tried to research the names sent to me it has been interesting to note whose stories have reached the Internet and whose have not. For some performers there is very little information. It’s really interesting to know, because the Internet is seemingly democratic.

SF: The interplay between the two components of the work, the visual and the aural, and the distortions which occur in each, lend the work a feeing of displacement at being outside of time and make it difficult to locate oneself in it. By the same token, the resulting collage of the fragments of performance that Bailey has used to compile the sound piece connect the piece to the work of other artists in the Devotional series and to many other histories a larger narrative of history. How do you feel about Oh Adelaide being fused with these other histories?

SB: First of all, one of the things that I should say about the Devotional collection is that many of the named performers would probably hate being collected under that rubric. The activity of collecting is not on their behalf, its not to represent them. It’s really about an unplanned way that a diverse range of public listeners have built a collective memory. Oh Adelaide is symptomatic of this collective memorialisation. I suspect, that many of the early performers, or even some of the performers now, would not really be happy about being collected under the category of “black female performers”. Oh Adelaide is a collage, it is a cut and paste, it is a digital mash up, where vision and sound sit awkwardly side-by-side – sometimes synchronised, sometimes not. I love that Ain’s haunting soundtrack trawls through many musical genres as she cuts and rewinds, makes indecipherable as music, and creates an aural wallpaper, yet none–except the clarity of Creole Love Call–is a discernible song, just pure atmosphere.

SF: Within the work I thought that there was a suggestion of the importance or perhaps necessity of introducing or involving the “imaginary” when we approach or investigate history or histories. Do you feel that this is a valid claim to be making of the work and or your approach?

SB: I wanted to look at the documentary photograph as a starting point but not an end point. Rather than saying we have to have a reverential treatment of the document I wanted to think about how we make use of it now? Do I have to treat it as if it is dry archival material or can it have another life? In addition, the original footage has these very troubling images: caricatures, like minstrels, that I thought, “I can’t live with these as they are, I have to do something to it!” I know the imagery is of its time, but still, to our sensibilities, the image of the minstrel does not sit well.

Actually, being troubled by the past’s imagery became a moment of epiphany. Just the very act of putting something in the archive, suggests its future use is beyond the control of the past… we don’t have to settle for the past as it is presented. The past is not fixed. This question of playing with history comes out of not settling… this idea that we are supposed to learn or just accept it, that doesn’t mean that we have to disrespect it but we don’t have to accept it as a given.

So, I decided that it was perfectly legitimate to treat this digital footage as pure material to be played with, as something elastic. So light and dazzling whiteness becomes the material presence that reveals and threatens to obliterate everything in its path, which Adelaide Hall and her accompanying pianist emerge and disappear within. As the audience, we’re urged to fight to keep track of her – to capture her.

SF: What I thought was particularly interesting was the fact that the other works in the exhibition, Wangechi Mutu’s Cutting and Lorna Simpson’s Corridor, both were videos of performances that responded to a set of undisputed historical circumstances and in a sense became propositions for considering theses whereas your work stems from an actual archival footage but seems that much more surreal. Are you familiar with these works? If so can you address this idea?

SB: I’ve seen clips of their works online but I only really knew about them through the exhibition. I was struck by the particularity of place. That place was being performed as much as the figures within the space. I suppose with Oh Adelaide, it slips in and out of place. I was struck by the particularity of place that was being performed. I really think that this was interesting. I thought that Oh Adelaide was going to look really awkward next to the two other works because you could not say where it was from. With Simpson’s and Mutu’s works, I felt a defiance – something adamantine about being in that place, in quite a radical way. This house is my house, this earth is my earth. In their works there seemed to be a claiming of place and an claiming of space and in a way, I suppose that Oh Adelaide takes Adelaide Hall out of a place, she becomes transient on the screen… with Wangechi’s piece, there is a place but you don’t know where that place is. The question about ownership, I don’t know that ownership is the word. Laying claim is probably the word that exists between the three works. I was struck by a confidence of both figures in those spaces. A “right to be” confidence.

Place and a claim on space, are interesting questions within a context of thinking about black diasporic experiences. And particularly if I think about the Devotional project as a whole, it is entirely about migratory networks, of the performers being or coming from several places, yet finding themselves in the UK. And, if I think back to my growing up period, and particularly this question of laying claim to a British identity was an ambivalent experience. The migratory experience is somehow located across these three works… The exhibition is maybe talking about the differences within diaspora. There are three very distinct diasporic experiences.

Sally Frater is an independent curator and writer. She holds an Honors BA in Studio Art from the University of Guelph and an MA (with Distinction) in Contemporary Art from The University of Manchester and Sotheby’s Institute of Art. In her curatorial practice she is interested in exploring issues of identity, history, memory, environmental criticism as well as issues of representation and equity in gallery and museum practices. She has curated exhibitions for the Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2012) Justina M. Barnicke Gallery at the University of Toronto (2012), Georgia Scherman Projects in Toronto, Ontario (2012), The Print Studio in Hamilton, Ontario (2010) Art Gallery of Peterborough (2010), A Space Gallery in Toronto, Ontario (2006, 2008), and the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton, Ontario (2005, 2006). Her writing has appeared in catalogues for the Studio Museum in Harlem, The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, NKA, Prefix Photo, Border Crossings magazine, C Magazine, Fuse, Blackflash Magazine, Women and Environments International and Canadian Art. She has presented at conferences at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario, Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario and McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. She has received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council and has served on juries for the Ontario Arts Council, and the Houston Arts Alliance. A member of IKT and ICI (Independent Curators International) she is currently a Core Critical Studies Fellow at the Glassell School at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and a resident at Project Row Houses, Houston.

Sonia Boyce came to prominence in the early 1980s as a key figure in the burgeoning black British art-scene of that time – becoming one of the youngest artists of her generation to have her work purchased by the Tate Gallery, with paintings that spoke about racial identity and gender in Britain. Her works have subsequently been purchased by several public collections. Since the 1990s Boyce’s practice has taken a more multi-media and socially inclusive approach to bridge cultural differences. Since 1983, Boyce has exhibited extensively throughout the UK and internationally. Exhibitions and monographs include: Sonia Boyce: Speaking in Tongues, (Gilane Tawadros, Kala Press 1997), Annotations 2/Sonia Boyce: Performance, (Mark Crinson, Iniva – the Institute of International Visual Arts 1998); Video Positive: the other side of zero, Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool (2000); Recent Sonia Boyce: la, la, la, Reed College, Portland – Oregon (2001); Century City: art and culture in the modern metropolis, Tate Modern, London (2001); Sharjah International Bienal 7, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (2005); Devotional, National Portrait Gallery, London (2007); Crop Over, Harewood House, Leeds and Barbados Museum & Historical Society (2007/2008), For you, only you (Paul Bonaventura, Ruskin School of Drawing & Fine Art, Oxford University and tour 2007/2008), Praxis: Art in Times of Uncertainty, Thessaloniki Biennal 2, Greece (2009); Like Love, Spike Island, Bristol and tour (publication by the Green Box Press, Berlin, 2010); Afro Modern, Tate Liverpool and tour (2010); and, The Impossible Community, Moscow Museum of Modern Art (2011).