A choir of joyful, experimental, virtuosic Black female voices greets visitors to the British pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale, the world’s most prominent international art event – delayed a year by the Covid pandemic.
Sonia Boyce, 60, the artist who is representing Britain at the Biennale, invited four Black singers of different generations – jazz singer Jacqui Dankworth, singer-songwriter Tanita Tikaram, blues-influenced artist Poppy Ajudha and experimental vocalist Sofia Jernberg – to improvise, at first together under the direction of the composer Errollyn Wallen, then alone.
The resulting videos of the singers play out in an immersive, bright environment full of colourful “wallpaper” and golden embellishment.
Boyce also shows items from her Devotional project, an ever-expanding archive begun in 1999, of vinyl, CDs and memorabilia of an often hidden history of Black female musicianship. It is, she said, “a collective attempt against amnesia”.
As is characteristic for Boyce, who often collaborates with others, she did not direct or instruct the musicians or her film crew after she brought them together. Rather, during the daylong session at Abbey Road Studios, she allowed them to “play”.
“One of my most abiding memories of the day was watching Tanita Tikaram improvising five different songs on the spot,” said the artist.