Using the resource

This resource can be used for research and discussion as a class, or for individual study and reflection.

It offers a series of activities that can be used together or as individual components to integrate into your own scheme of work.

Who is Sonia Boyce?

Key people: art inspirations and influences

Key themes: identity, Black histories, social practice and community engagement

Artworks in focus

Art & Design activity suggestions

Who is Sonia Boyce?

'Being a Black woman is a perpetual struggle to be heard and appreciated as a human being …' – Sonia Boyce

Sonia Boyce is a Black British artist. She was born in Islington, London in 1962. Her mother was from Barbados, and her father was from Guyana, and they met in London after arriving in the 1950s as part of the Windrush generation.

Sonia Boyce

Sonia Boyce

In her work, Boyce explores the experience of Black people, especially women, living in Britain and tells their often unheard or forgotten stories and histories.

In the 1980s while at art school Boyce began making large-scale figurative pastel and mixed media works on paper. These drew on her personal experiences of family and home to explore wider themes relating to cultural and gender identity.

Missionary Position II

Missionary Position II 1985

Sonia Boyce (b.1962)


Though her focus later shifted from her personal memories; her experiences as a Black woman living in a white society, and the impact of politics and sexual politics remained central to her work.

Boyce uses a wide range of media including drawing, print, photography, video and sound. She often collaborates with other artists as well as musicians, other creatives and communities.

The Audition

The Audition 1997, printed 2018

Sonia Boyce (b.1962)


Career highlights and achievements

Sonia Boyce's achievements can be mapped in terms of a series of 'firsts' in relation to Black British art. (This is something that Boyce feels ambiguous about – questioning why it took so long for Black artists to be recognised and pointing out that there were many important Black artists before her.)

  • In 1987 Tate bought Sonia Boyce's drawing Missionary Position II – it was the first by a Black woman in their collection.
  • In 2016 Boyce was made a Royal Academician (the first black woman to be invited to join the Royal Academy), and in 2019 she received an OBE for her services to art.
  • In 2022 she was invited to represent the UK at the Venice Biennale, a prestigious international art exhibition held in Venice (a little like the Olympics, but for art). She was the first Black person to represent the UK, and her exhibition won the prestigious Golden Lion Award.

Art school and the British Black arts movement

'Art was a door that hadn't been opened to me before. I grew up in a very working-class community and had no idea about art school.' – Sonia Boyce

Boyce studied Fine Art at Stourbridge College in the West Midlands, where she felt out of place and marginalised as a Black woman. In a 2018 interview, she said: 'the system hadn't anticipated me, or anyone like me. Even though there were a lot of female students, they were thought about as though they were being trained to become the wives of artists, not artists themselves. As a Black person, there wasn't a narrative at all.'

While at college she went to a conference of Black artists organised by students at Wolverhampton Polytechnic including Eddie Chambers, Marlene Smith, Donald Rodney, Claudette Johnson and Keith Piper. This changed everything for Boyce as she met others who shared her interest in confronting the challenges faced by Black people living in Britain in the 1980s.

'When I entered that auditorium, I suddenly discovered there were hundreds of artists around the country, and that there was so much I was completely unaware of. How did I not know about all these people?' – Sonia Boyce

The British Black arts movement formed out of the conference. It aimed to establish a visibly 'Black art' that addressed social and political issues relevant to ethnic groups in Britain, building on the work of the BLK Art Group. Through exhibitions, the movement shone a spotlight on the work made by Black artists and helped to change the perception of British culture to include Black and Asian artists.

Key people: art inspirations and influences

Lubaina Himid

One of the artists that Sonia Boyce met at the conference was Lubaina Himid. Like Boyce, she creates figurative artworks that help to tell the stories and experiences of Black communities in Britain. Himid encouraged and supported Boyce and invited her to exhibit her drawings in exhibitions including The Thin Black Line at the ICA in London in 1985.

Claudette Johnson

Claudette Johnson was a member of the Blk Art Group and another friend that Sonia Boyce made through the conference in Wolverhampton. Johnson's exploration of racism in art history, especially in relation to women, was an inspiration to Boyce. Johnson was exploring these themes at a time when intersectionality (looking at combined issues such as being a woman and Black) wasn't often considered.

Standing Figure with African Masks

Standing Figure with African Masks 2018

Claudette Johnson (b.1959)


'People would ask me where I was putting my energy in terms of fighting for change: are you black, or are you a woman?' – Claudette Johnson

Frida Kahlo

In 1982, Boyce saw a retrospective exhibition of the work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. She was inspired by Kahlo's use of self-portraiture and symbolism to address her identity and the issues that women faced in society, as well as the cultural and political effects of colonialism on her country.  ('Identity' means the things that make people who they are, such as their qualities, personality, beliefs, background and culture.)

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A post shared by Museo Frida Kahlo (@museofridakahlo)

In her early work, Boyce often used personal experiences to explore her own identity as well as the broader experiences of Black women and the challenges they face. Her drawing She Ain't Holdin' Them Up, She's Holdin' On (Some English Rose) (1986) was inspired by Kahlo's painting My Grandparents, My Parents and I (1936) in which Kahlo explores her identity within the structure of her family. Boyce's drawing reflects her relationship with her own family and her experience of trying to balance her Afro-Caribbean heritage with her identity as a Black British woman. She uses symbolism as an important part of this exploration.

Margaret Harrison

While Sonia Boyce was studying on a foundation course at East Ham College of Art, the artist Margaret Harrison visited the college. Her work dealt with subjects that Boyce had not seen represented before. She wrote about Harrison: 'She taught us that even rape can be a subject for our canvases – sexual abuse, abuse of trust, abuse of power, an everyday occurrence, a highly political act'.


Rape 1978

Margaret Harrison (b.1940)

Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

Mary Cassatt

As a student Boyce also explored the work of Impressionist artist Mary Cassatt. She was inspired by her inventive use of pastels to create dynamic and spontaneous drawings and her bold contribution to the development of a modern art language. 

The Young Girls

The Young Girls c.1885

Mary Cassatt (1844–1926)

Glasgow Life Museums

Key themes


Identity is a theme that Boyce has explored throughout her career. In her early work, she focused on her self-identity.

Many of Boyce's early figurative drawings were self-portraits that included her family, friends and childhood home. Her drawing She Ain't Holding Them Up, She's Holding on (Some English Rose) (1986) is a self-portrait in which Boyce shows herself balancing a family in her hands. The family, which includes her father, mother, sister and herself as a child, look as if they are posing for a photograph, dressed in their best clothes. In the drawing, Boyce is both supporting them and holding onto them – holding onto aspects of her identity that come from them and from her cultural background. 

Look at the drawing carefully. Can you spot any objects or imagery that Boyce might have included to symbolise her identity? 

She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose)

She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose) 1986

Sonia Boyce (b.1962)

Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, mima

  • The patterned wallpaper is something she remembers from her childhood home. It is typical of the bright, patterned wallpaper that many Caribbean immigrants of her parents' generation had in their homes.
  • The yellow birds, which seem to be holding a canopy over the family, were based on ornamental peacocks that belonged to her mother. 
  • At the top edge of the painting, a tropical landscape with blue sky and palm trees references her parents' life in the Caribbean and her own Caribbean heritage. 
  • The pattern on Boyce's dress is also a symbol and refers to the artwork's title, Some English Rose. Roses are an emblem of England as well as being associated with beauty. But rather than colouring them red or pink, Boyce has made them black – symbolising her identity as Black and British. The thorns suggest her strength and perhaps also the hardships and prejudice that she faced as a Black person growing up in Britain.
  • Boyce's hair is dyed blue and styled in short punky dreadlocks. This looks very different from the more conventional, neat hairstyles of her parents, suggesting that she is rebelling against them and finding her own style and identity.

Black histories

Alongside making art, Sonia Boyce is a researcher and educator. Her research focuses on finding and highlighting marginalized Black histories. In 2015 she launched a research project, Black Artists and Modernism (BAM) with the aim of uncovering work by Black and Asian artists hidden away in the storage rooms of museums. Boyce has taught in art schools across the UK and is passionate about ensuring that students know about the Black artists in our national collections.


Untitled (sixth in the 'Korabra' series) 1986

Gavin Jantjes (b.1948)

Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

'I've been teaching in art schools for 39 years, and in many of the places that I have taught, it's been really clear that students are not getting a full picture of artists who have made quite significant contributions to modern and contemporary art, and don't really know how to access that information, and so I suppose that was really the starting point.' – Sonia Boyce

For her 2022 Venice Biennale exhibition Feeling her Way, she created a multi-media installation that celebrated Black British female musicians. She made wallpaper patterned with collaged photographs, presented vinyl and other memorabilia that she had collected and found in charity shops. She also presented video and audio works that she had made collaboratively.

Social practice and community engagement

Engaging with others to make art is an important aspect of Sonia Boyce's practice as an artist. She often works with communities so that their ideas become the art, ensuring that their voices are heard.

Newham Trackside Wall is an example of one of the artworks that Boyce created with community engagement. The 1.9 km mural runs alongside the Crossrail track in Newham in east London. The mural is made up of text and photo panels. The photo panels feature local buildings and plants that can be found in the area. The text panels are printed with memories, soundbites and recollections collected from 170 local people, as well as historical facts about Newham.

Detail of 'Newham Trackside Wall' by Up Projects and Sonia Boyce (b.1962)

Detail of 'Newham Trackside Wall' by Up Projects and Sonia Boyce (b.1962)

Explore details of the artwork in the carousel below and on the artwork page. You can see more details of the artwork on the Newham Trackside Wall website.

What impression of the area comes across from the artwork? You could reflect on or discuss:

  • the people that live there – the demographic (or structure of the population), how they feel about Newham, what they like and don't like about it, and the sense of community
  • the history of the area – its main industry and how this has changed, significant events that have impacted the area and people's memories
  • nature and the environment – animals, plants and green spaces that can be found in the area and how Sonia Boyce has incorporated nature into the artwork.

You could also reflect on or discuss whether you feel the artwork is successful:

  • has Boyce successfully engaged the community?
  • do you think the artwork adds interest and beauty to the area?
  • does the artwork provide the viewer with a good understanding of the area – what have you discovered or learnt about Newham from the artwork?

Artwork in focus: 'Missionary Position II'

Missionary Position II is a large-scale pastel and watercolour drawing of two young Black women in a domestic interior. One is praying and the other is leaning back and looking at her with her arm raised. The features of the women suggest that they are both self-portraits of Sonia Boyce.

Boyce made the drawing as a young artist, two years after graduating from art school.

Look closely at the drawing. Use the questions below to reflect on or discuss it, then find out more in the 'About the artwork' section.

Missionary Position II

Missionary Position II 1985

Sonia Boyce (b.1962)


First impressions …

  • What can you see?
  • What do the women's poses and expressions suggest?
  • What does the artwork make you think and feel?

Background, objects and clothing …

  • What are the women wearing? What might this tell you about them?
  • What is the background or setting? What other objects can you see?
  • What might the objects symbolise?

Media and techniques …

  • What is pastel?
  • Are you surprised that the drawing was made using pastel?
  • What techniques and processes has Sonia Boyce used?
  • How has she used formal elements such as composition, colour, pattern and mark-making?

Message and meaning …

  • What do you think the message or meaning of the artwork is? What is Sonia Boyce telling us?

Artwork in focus: From Tarzan to Rambo: English Born 'Native' Considers her Relationship to the Constructed/Self Image and her Roots in Reconstruction

From Tarzan to Rambo ... is a large, photography-based, mixed-media artwork over 3.5 metres wide. In it, Boyce explores and questions the representation of Black people in the media and how this impacts how they see themselves and their identity.

Look closely at the artwork. Use the questions below to reflect on or discuss it. Then find out more in the 'About the artwork' section.

First impressions …

  • What are your first reactions to the artwork? What does it make you think and feel?

Look closer at the images, objects and patterns included in the artwork ...

  • What different types of image you can see in it?
  • How are the objects, images and patterns arranged?
  • Do the photographs of the woman's face remind you of anything?
  • What is the relationship between the faces on the left of the image and these photographs?
  • What does the title make you think of? How does this connect to the image?

Media and techniques …

  • What techniques has Sonia Boyce used?

Message and meaning …

  • What do you think the message of the artwork is? What is Sonia Boyce saying?
  • What do you think the artwork says about identity?

Artwork in focus: 'We Move in Her Way'

We Move in Her Way is composed of photographs of a dancer. The print is one of a series of photographic and video works that Boyce created from recordings she made of a vocal and dance performance that she organised at the ICA in London. She invited Black singers and dancers to improvise their performance, encouraging them to allow the work to evolve organically through movement and interaction.

Look closely at the artwork. Use the questions below to reflect on or discuss it, then find out more in the 'About the artwork' section.

We Move in Her Way: Dancers

We Move in Her Way: Dancers 2017

Sonia Boyce (b.1962)

Royal Academy of Arts

First impressions ...

  • What are your first impressions of the artwork?
  • What does it make you think and feel?
  • It might help to think of words to describe your reactions.
  • Who can you see in the artwork?

Media and techniques ...

  • What process, media, and techniques has Boyce used?
  • How has Boyce manipulated the images?
  • How has Boyce used pattern?

Message and meaning ...

  • What do you think the message of the artwork is? What is Sonia Boyce saying?

Activity suggestions

Create a mixed-media artwork that reflects your identity

Sonia Boyce used photography, collage, drawing and painting to create her artwork From Tarzan to Rambo … The complex imagery and layers of ideas reflect her thoughts about her identity. For her exhibition Feeling Her Way, she presented a multi-media assemblage of objects, photographs, patterns and audiovisual material.

Create a mixed-media or multi-media artwork to reflect your identity.

  • This could be a collage of photographs, found images, drawings and texts. The photographs and drawings could relate to things that you are interested in or feel passionate about. The texts could be single words or short sentences in the style of diary entries.
  • You could create a digital artwork or video that uses collaged or assembled elements.
  • Or you could create a multi-media assemblage that includes objects and images alongside video or audio.

Gather ideas

Start by thinking about who you are and what aspects of yourself you want to explore and convey in your work. You could look again at Boyce's artwork She Ain't Holdin' Them Up, She's Holdin' On (Some English Rose) and the different symbols she included to represent her family background, her memories, and her identity and image.

It might help in planning your artwork to fold a piece of paper in half vertically and, on one side, make a list of the things that make you who you are. These could relate to:

  • your family or your background
  • your memories – the things you saw or places you visited as a child
  • things you enjoy doing, wearing, eating or looking at
  • things you feel strongly about

On the other side of the paper, make a note of images, texts or music that you could use to represent these things.

Be inspired!

Explore mixed-media artworks that combine or overlay different types of imagery and/or text.

  • Margaret Harrison uses texts, photographs and newspaper clippings alongside drawn or painted images to put across her powerful feminist messages.
  • Ingrid Pollard often combines photographs, text and spoken words to create mixed media artworks.
  • Ian Breakwell records his experiences in a diary and uses these texts in his artwork, often overlaying them with drawings and photographs.

Plan and create your artwork

How will you arrange these different elements? Sonia Boyce repeated the heads that appear in From Tarzan to Rambo … to suggest the frames of a film. Think about how you can use the composition to reflect the message and meaning of your work.

  • Your images and/or texts don't have to be placed next to each other – they could overlap or be layered over each other.
  • Once you have created your collage, you could work back into it – adding drawings, colour, marks or text.
  • Or you could photograph and upload your artwork to your computer and work over the composition with digital editing tools – altering colours, adding text and overlaying other imagery.
  • If you are creating a video artwork, think about how you will piece the images or video footage together. What sound will you use? Perhaps music that means something to you. Or you could compose and record a narrative that describes or reflects aspects of your identity.


Make an abstracted photographic collage

To create We Move in Her Way, Sonia Boyce manipulated a photographic print of a dancer.

Have a go at reshaping a photographic image to create an artwork.

We Move in Her Way: Dancers

We Move in Her Way: Dancers 2017

Sonia Boyce (b.1962)

Royal Academy of Arts

Gather ideas and source materials

You could either use a photograph that you have taken yourself or a 'found' photograph. Here are some ideas ...

  • Photograph yourself – or someone who inspires you. This could be a friend or someone well-known.
  • Like Boyce, you could use a photograph of someone in action – e.g. running, skateboarding or dancing. Or it could be a photograph of someone sitting or resting.
  • You don't have to use a photograph of a person. You could photograph a building, object or something from nature.
  • It will help if your photograph has strong shapes in its composition.

Create your artwork

Use photo editing tools on your computer to repeat and flip the image to create a repeat pattern.

You could also try layering the image and manipulating the colour, or adding geometric shapes or patterns over the top.


Collaborate with others to design a public artwork that reflects and celebrates your local community

To create her public artwork Newham Trackside Wall, Boyce collaborated with 170 local people who shared their memories, stories and images of the area. She also collaborated with the charity that facilitated the project and the manufacturers who made the panels for the wall.

Detail of 'Newham Trackside Wall' by Up Projects and Sonia Boyce (b.1962)

Detail of 'Newham Trackside Wall' by Up Projects and Sonia Boyce (b.1962)

Plan a project that reflects and celebrates your community. You could collaborate with friends or other students.

Gather ideas

Think about what makes your local community special. (Your community could be your school, college, or where you live.)

  • If you are working as a group, discuss your community with others and write a list of your thoughts.
  • Wander around and take photographs of your community. Photograph the things that define it and make it unique, or photograph the things you enjoy about it.
  • Store these in a sketchbook or folder.

Ask questions

Like Boyce, you could ask other people in your community for their thoughts and stories. It might help to create a short questionnaire with questions such as:

  • What do you like about the community/school/college?
  • Are there any special places you like to go to?
  • What do you do in your free time?
  • What is your favourite memory of this place?

Research histories

Visit your local library or archives to find out about the history of your place.

If the community you wish to celebrate is your school or college, ask your librarian if there are any documents relating to its history stored there. You may uncover some interesting stories!

Plan and design

Once you have gathered your material, think about the form your artwork will take. (Even if you don't have the resources to create a large-scale artwork, you could design one using sketches and models.)

Here are some ideas ...

Design a mural. Use this street art resource for inspiration and ideas for planning and creating a mural.

Design a sculpture or installation. Look at public sculptures that celebrate community for inspiration. Use the links below to explore these Art UK public sculpture learning resources for ideas:

Create a sound piece. Use the voices of people in your community and music or other sounds that reflect the mood, atmosphere or spirit of your place. What equipment would you need to play the sound piece? Where could you place it in your school or community so people passing by can listen to it?

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