Black Artists’ Experience in Britain: Sir Frank Bowling and Sonia Boyce

Guest article by Dr Chris Davies

It was two hundred and thirty seven years before the Royal Academy of Arts elected a black Academician. And since its inception in 1984, only two black artists have been nominated out of one hundred and twenty five for the Turner Prize. For the two artists explored in this essay – Sir Frank Bowling and Sonia Boyce – critical recognition and financial security has come late in their careers. This begs the question – Why? – Can this neglect be attributed to institutional racism, a legacy of Britain’s colonial past? Or though respected by their peers both artists’ careers, it can be argued, were undermined by the lack of critical attention and inadequate opportunities to show their work.

A more controversial argument is that in the case of Bowling his work feels dated, a throwback to 1960s British abstraction, behind the zeitgeist, and in the case of Boyce her work though radical nevertheless lacks popular appeal with collectors and from a dealer’s perspective is difficult to market?

Sir Frank Bowling
Sir Frank Bowling arrived in London from British Guiana in 1953. He trained at the Royal College of Art between 1959 and 1962; his peers included David Hockney, Ron Kitaj, and Allen Jones. His early work, figurative in nature, combined social commentary with autobiographical elements. Throughout his career, Bowling has crisscrossed the Atlantic, between studios in London and New York.

This has had a continuing impact on his painting, especially in the 1960s when he became aware of the Color Field paintings of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Soon after arriving in New York for the first time in 1966 Bowling started to make a series of ‘map paintings’. These were made by laying down a field of colour then overlaying with stencilled maps of the world and silkscreened images, the influence of Newman’s Onement I is evident, the placing of an ‘image’ on top of a ground of colour. Bowling’s indebtedness to Newman is even more evident in Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman.

Throughout his career, Bowling has adopted an innovative approach towards painting: in the selection of materials, techniques adopted and subject matter. The widespread availability in the late 1960s of acrylic pigments, favoured for their quick-drying qualities, enabled Bowling to apply paint in a freer, more gestural manner. Pouring paint in layers pronounced that the visual aspects of an artwork are more important than narrative content, that painting is process-based. Throughout his career, he has endeavoured to extend the language of abstract painting holding on to his belief that one of the main ingredients in making paintings was colour and geometry.

Since the 1980s Bowling has honed and adapted his technique. Among the adaptations were mixing acrylic paint with acrylic gel to extend the volume of paint, create greater texture, and add transparency, cut foam into strips to create linear accents and suggest loosely geometric shapes, and experimented with a range of other materials and objects in his work, effecting interventions into the painting. He applied ammonia, metallic pigments, fluorescent chalk, beeswax and glitter to his densely textured surfaces. To achieve the gestural effects in Ah Susan Whoosh (see above) Bowling applied paint by hand and moved the canvas around to create controlled organic accidents.

In several works, found objects such as plastic toys, packing material, the cap of a film canister and oyster shells are embedded within the paint. In the 1990s and beyond he started to attach his main canvas to brightly-coloured strips of secondary canvas, creating borders between planes.

His approach is gestural and unplanned – It all happens very much in an extempore way. “I don’t have any pre-planned idea about how I’m going to make a painting.” Maturing into a master of his medium, he developed a visionary approach that fuses abstraction with personal memories. Now 85, he still paints every day, experimenting with new materials and techniques.

Sonia Boyce
The statement made by Pablo Picasso that painting is not made to decorate apartments; it’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy could equally be applied to the portfolio of work produced by Sonia Boyce over the last thirty years. Born in 1962, Boyce is a British Afro-Caribbean artist, living and working in London. She is a Professor of Black Art and Design at University of the Arts London, was elected a Royal Academician in 2016 and recently has been selected by the British Council to represent Great Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2022, the first black woman to be selected. Her work is unashamedly political. Her rise to prominence as a radical artist in the 1980s coincided with the emergence of the Black Cultural Renaissance movement. A constant in her body of work is addressing the personal isolation that results from being viewed as an outsider in British society.

Throughout her career, Boyce has explored a wide range of media – photography, film and video, sound, drawing, print and mixed media – to establish dialogues about being black and female in Britain today.

Boyce’s early work addressed issues of race and gender in the media and in day-to-day life. She expressed these themes through large pastel drawings and photographic collages, frequently depicting friends, family and reflecting childhood experiences. In 1987, she became the first black woman to enter Tate’s collection when it bought her drawing Missionary Position II. This drawing explores ideas about British society in the 1980s, especially conflicting opinions about religious beliefs across different generations and cultures. The artist uses herself as the model for both figures and the work reflects her growing antipathy towards her Christian upbringing. The praying figure suggests passive acceptance of white culture. The figure on the right, wearing a red turban, which Boyce associated with Rastafarianism, proposes an alternative position to the dominant ideologies of the day.

We Move in Her Way is a fine example of Boyce’s manipulation of digital photography to capture contemporary black culture.

Since the 1990s she has been working with other artists and the public. Her recent work collaboratively brings the audience into sharper focus as an integral part of the artwork, between artist, vocalists and audience, demonstrating how cultural differences might be articulated, mediated and enjoyed. This engagement has included controversial interventions, improvisation and spontaneous performative actions. One such intervention attracted media attention and condemnation from some quarters when in 2018 as part of a retrospective exhibition of her work at the Manchester Art Gallery she removed from display the painting Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse.

Her justification for this action was that this “was art in action… (and) was an attempt to involve a much wider group of people than usual in the curatorial process.” It was intended to generate debate on the depiction of the naked female in art and who decides what is hung on gallery walls. Boyce believes that such discussions inevitably bring conflicting perspectives and interpretations into play. Judgment is at the heart of art, and this type of engagement has wide cultural implications.

In recent times although her focus is seen to have shifted away from specific ethnic experiences, her themes continue to be the experiences of a black woman living in a white society, and how religion, politics and sexual politics are part of that experience. Her work has become progressively less didactic, as she explains “I’m preoccupied with investigating how the artwork can have a life of its own that transcends the need to tell people what to think. This is my challenge. How to move the work beyond tight readings and how to embrace the seepages that occur“.

Sir Frank Bowling and Sonia Boyce are two very different types of artists, nevertheless, two artists who have made and continue to make major contributions to British art from the perspective of being black in a society that has often displayed intolerant racism; they are to be commended and applauded.

This essay first appeared on the Frome Art Society website

Further Research/Information
Boyce, S.
Bowling, F. Frank Bowling, exhibition guide, Tate Britain, 2019
Cheman, M. Sonia Boyce: a revolutionary face of contemporary British art
Higgie, J. Sonia Boyce: 30 Years of Art and Activism,
Homer, L. Frank Bowling: Material Explorations,
Fair Use Notice | All images are used for commentary, research and educational intention.

All copyright works © the artist or the estate of the artist

Dr Chris Davies is an Art Historian, Freelance Lecturer Arts and Humanities and for 30+ years a lecturer and programme leader degree contemporary arts practice. He has co-organised and curated exhibitions, seminars and symposiums, as well as engagement with local arts organisations.