'He was always playing another role' – A conversation with artist Sonia Boyce on her retrospective at the Manchester Art Gallery

  • 16.04.2018

‘Othello the Moor from Venice’ is the portrait of Ira Aldridge painted in 1826 by James Northcote and the first painting ever bought for the Manchester Art Gallery. It depicts a black man from North America in a white shirt, beneath which a more opulent costume seems to hide, while his lost gaze falls on a lower left point beyond the frame seems to hide a certain nostalgia.

‘The picture shows Ira as Othello, and Othello as the other. Ira Altdrige, it was said, came from Africa, but he actually came from North America, and did not have an easy time with the establishment, even though he was in line with it.’

The work can be found within the same art gallery Sonia Boyce has her retrospective show, an exhibition that takes Ira Altridge’s portrait as one of the points of the departure. Being a prominent feminist artist since the 1980s, Boyce has looked over male hierarchies within the practice of painting through her own canvases, performances and social interventions.

Claiming the female body within the art system seems today to wake a suspicious ambivalence. That is why Boyce’s work fell into a media storm in January as someone reported the removal of ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ (1896) by John Waterhouse to be an arbitrary measure of censorship taken by the institution.

The person who reported the act to the press deliberately did not mention that the removal was part of a participative performance started by Sonia Boyce called ‘Six Acts’, in which the staff team of the museum would discuss artworks, their thematic and formal characteristics, and their role as being pictures on display in a public exhibition space. I spoke to Sonia Boyce at Les Ateliers de Rennes during the meetings of ‘Art and Economy’ organized by Etienne Bernard and Celine Kopp about the people Boyce chooses to work with, the political undertone of her performances, as well as on turning the social space into a non-hierarchical place through disorder.

Mrs. Boyce, what took you so long to state that the removal of John Waterhouse’s painting was not a deliberate institutional removal of an artwork, but a process attached to your body of work?

Ok. The fact that the removal of ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ has taken a certain kind of publicity, detached from the context of work, works against my career as an artist, reducing the gesture to a cliché, to a trend.

The action is part of a series of performances called ‘Six Acts’ and is the outcome of a year ong conversations between the staff of the Manchester National Gallery – mainly the curators and public programmers – and me.

Each time we had a discussion in every exhibition room in the historical wing, involving also the technicians, volunteers, vigilantes, cleaners and the interested visitors present in those moments. Each time, we had more people involved.

Where they invited to speak about their knowledge of the artworks?

Well, the institution has a series of interventions to which artists are invited called ‘Gallery Take-Over’, where they produce a work reacting to the collection. It happens very regularly and in my case, the take-over was related to a retrospective exhibition planned for this year, as a project that related the curatorial and the public programmers to my work. A conversation developed from this.

‘There is too much flesh in here’

was the first thing that I thought. Discussion groups around the works from the permanent display came to their own reflections, and for the first time, the staff heard each others opinions and feelings about the artworks exhibited.

Did you ask the employees of the museum to talk about themselves?

Employees never talk about themselves. They see themselves as public servants with responsibilities related to the public. They never really talk about themselves and the lifetime they spend in the museum, which could be of a greater influence in their relevance as a public space.

I remember that most of the female workers of the staff said that the historical wing was a space of discomfort. We started to get curious about that thing they called discomfort, and analyzed the images, the contexts, and so on. And this is how the conversation about the painting by John Waterhouse began.

So the conversations emerged primarily not around the artworks but the people’s opinions?

Yes. Once we started to have these conversations about the motives of feeling – as humans – uncomfortable about some of the artworks, we realized that it was due to similar issues.

What were these issues?

Recurring themes. For example the depiction of women as the equivalent of death, the morbid narrative running throughout the halls displaying the nude female body, the depiction of women as the contemplating, passive figure. The topics of concern repeated themselves over the months of encounter and more staff members and visitors would join the conversation, revealing that they not only were observers of voyeuristic pleasure by the men but also objects of comparison.

How was the reaction of performers that are supposed to stand as subjects that activate other readings of the artworks?

The performers are drag performers I met at the Canal street, known as the center of the gay district of Manchester. They do not fall into binary positions of gender or gender representation. I brought the people to perform in front of the selected paintings that improvise the understanding of the roles of their subjects.

And this is how the removal of ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ from 1896 by John Waterhouse opened up a space for the group to influence the exhibition space?

The Pre-Raphaelite painting was just the point of discussion for many other reasons; one of them is the etymological root the figure of the nymph shares with the word nymphomaniac.

There are so many paintings regarding the encounter of young women with predatory male figures. What does the removal of Waterhouse’s painting bring to the current debates around gender?

There is also a painting from Sappho, shown right in front of Hylas and the Nymphs. She carries a lyre, which signalizes that she is a poet, but she is about to throw herself off a cliff because she is unable to consummate her love of a man. Basically, the depiction talks about a woman failing at being a heterosexual. The same happens in the painting of ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’. He was the male lover of a Greek god, and he was brought to his dead by these kind of sirens.

So here is actually a narrative about hetero-normativity that gives the only option as being between either straight or dying. There are other paintings with which young girls do selfies, but for which statistically middle aged men would behave weirdly towards the nudes. This is actually where the ‘me-too’ relation comes from: Letting women feel intimidated by the work – and in this case – the exhibition place, because of the narratives expanded in the collection.

Censorship has been leveled at the removal without taking into account that it was a temporary removal intended as an act of reflection. Censorship, nevertheless, could be related in this case to what has happened to ‘Open Casket’ by Dana Schutz at the Whitney Biennial and to ‘Scaffold’ by Sam Durant at the Walker Art Center last year.

The removal was a collective decision. I wanted the staff of the museum to be transparently reflective about the work, but not against it. It is a matter of display and how it is contextualized in the museum today. The performativity of the act lies in the relation of the painting and the staff. They wanted to remove it, so be it. I never directed them to do it. It is an improvised way of allowing questioning take place without knowing what will be the outcome of it.

Is there a general persistence in focusing the conflict to the artwork?

I wouldn’t say that the artwork is being discussed. I think we are in a moment of quite severe cultural wars, where the main conflict appears around the question of who is getting his or her opinion to become the public discourse. Think about Balthus painting ‘Thèrese Dreaming’ (1938): Who is allowed to nail their flag to the mast as a public opinion? This is why I couldn’t separate the process from the action and from the outcome. The conversations around ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ as well as about other artworks with all the employees of the gallery is about what does it mean to live with art. The artwork turns into the device that makes the conversation possible.

How could the act of removing the painting be spread in the media so totally disconnected from its original purpose?

It was a certain artist present who was really proud of having gone to the press. He, a painter himself, keeps saying that he is the person that caused the storm. I believe he didn’t like the performance, even knowing that the gallery take-over has been a long-standing program in which the institution itself explicitly calls for a dialogue between the collection and current debates. He wanted rather to make it into a viral meaningless gesture, and twist it into a matter of censorship. Censorship turns into the mirror of the question: Who has the right to have an opinion?

Read the full version of this interview on the first issue of 'Arts of the Working Class', launching on April 26.