Sonia Boyce has the ability to provoke and emotionally engage at the Manchester Art Gallery Takeover

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A report by Mark Hudson for London’s Telegraph.

Anyone remember Waterhouse-gate? That moment, a good, oh, six weeks ago when the removal from the walls of Manchester Art Gallery of a painting by the great Victorian painter John William Waterhouse led to fears of the rise of a “new puritanism” in the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns.
The painting, Hylas and the Nymphs (1896), showing an ancient Greek hero being lured into a pool by a group of apparently underage water nymphs, was replaced by post-it notes requesting public responses to the removal, prompting a public outcry about politically correct meddling in our public collections.
When it emerged that the removal wasn’t quite the act of censorship it appeared, but part of a performance staged ahead of an exhibition by Sonia Boyce – a “pathetic stunt” as one tweeter put it – the whole thing quickly blew over. Now, however, with the opening of Boyce’s exhibition, Waterhouse’s painting is once again back in the spotlight and we have the opportunity to find out the intentions behind one of the more bizarre curatorial interventions of modern times.
It’s ironic that while curator Clare Gannaway (who acted as gallery’s spokesperson during the Waterhouse furore) became a hate figure for those outraged by the painting’s removal, Boyce herself was barely mentioned. Ironic, because Boyce, a stalwart of the Eighties Black Art Movement, has spent much of her career campaigning for greater visibility of the Black presence in British culture. She might at least have been granted the starring role in her own media storm.

But then, as quickly becomes apparent in her exhibition, Boyce’s is a collaborative art, in which her own contribution is unobtrusive, sometimes almost to the point of invisibility.

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One of the first artists to treat the black British experience as a suitable – even essential – subject for art, Boyce, born 1962, started out as a painter. Since the late Nineties, though, she has focused on film, recording creative collaborations in which she doesn’t, generally, directly participate.

If the exhibition’s frequently voiced assertion that Boyce is “fascinated by what happens when people come together” feels a touch lame, each of her works is based around a relatively simple cultural juxtaposition in which an element of black cultural history inevitably figures.

In Six Acts, which was the one leading to the removal of the Waterhouse painting, Boyce invited a group of local drag artists to respond to the gallery’s celebrated 18th- and 19th-century collections and their implicit themes of “gender, race and sexuality”. With an uproariously camp clown inviting spectators to view the “filthy, dirty” bits of a Pre-Raphaelite painting through holes in a sheet and a shaven-headed man lasciviously eating apples in front of a Burne-Jones painting of Eve, dressed only in a sprig of ivy and a unicorn’s horn, Boyce certainly found a superior class of drag performer.

The action unfolds on six screens in what feels like a Hogarthian bacchanal restaged by Derek Jarman. The final ritualistic removal of the Waterhouse feels like the revenge of the “outsider” gutter mob on established art. Yet the fact that Boyce managed to, inadvertently, turn this event into a global media spectacle is – disappointingly – not referred to. Surely allowing external developments to impact on the work is a basic pre-condition of this kind of art.

In Crop Over, the balance of elements is a touch more predictable, as a Barbadian carnival stilt-walker wanders the neo-classical terraces of Harewood House, a stately home near Leeds built on the profits of the slave trade. If the film, featuring tumultuous carnival scenes, makes enjoyable viewing as a quasi-documentary, the opposition of vital Afro-Caribbean culture and ossified white, colonial culture feels unoriginal, and I doubt that anyone who doesn’t already know that British culture benefitted from the slave trade will bother to watch it.

More surprising, and genuinely illuminating, is For You, Only You, in which Boyce invited experimental sound artist Mikhail Karikis to collaborate with early music group Alamire in a partially improvised response to a work by renaissance composer Josquin de Prez. If that sounds painfully dry and worthy, the careful staging on three screens allows you to enter the work in a way that renders the explanatory notes – telling us that the work references Dadaist sound poetry, jazz scat and African call-and-response singing – redundant. The contrast between the rapturous chorale and the sheer discomfort of Karikis’s coughing, spluttering performance says it all.

Boyce functions in all this as a kind of commissioning editor conducting the various elements from a distance. Yet she, as a black British person, is the one who is in a position to make these fascinating elements really provoke and emotionally engage the viewer. It would be interesting to see what would happen if Boyce made a far riskier, far more personal investment in her own work.

Until July 22; 0161 235 8888; manchesterartgallery.org

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