Sonia Boyce and Liverpool Black Sisters: Motherlode

  • 4 March 2000 - 1 May 2000

Online environment & video/sound installation

Motherlode (later titled Devotional) represents an ongoing dialogue over the last decade between members of the general public and the artist Sonia Boyce, about collective memory and music. In 1999, Boyce developed a workshop involving a group of women brought together to sing and recall the first record they ever bought. As a closing act to the workshop Boyce asked the group to name a black British female singer. In answering this question the Devotional series was born. From the first name nominated to the most recent, a growing number of people have joined the process of adding their favoured artists to this list. The piece has since been retitled Devotional and updated to include photographs from the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection. In 2007 the piece was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery.

This special installation by the artist, pays homage to the great musical tradition created within the African Diaspora following the period of the transatlantic slave trade, and highlights the wealth of creative talent in Great Britain.

In the summer of 1999, ten women [Anne-Marie Norbert, Claire Taylor, Dianne Paul, Michelle Walker, Nicola Duzant, Pilar Rowland, Sally Olding, Sandi Hughes, Sonia Boyce and Oluwatoyin Odunsi] collectively began a journey of discovery and revelation. To reach the Motherlode we must first unearth a rich historical seam of Black British singers. Initially there was just a blank. 'Do they have to be British?' was one response, uncertain that we could remember many British performers that have found a place in our [collective] psyche. Can you name ten Black British female singers? No problem with African-American practitioners - but British. Hmmm? Elizabeth Welch and Winifred Atwell? Not many of us knew about these two pioneering performers.

A song evokes many associations. Music also has the power to unleash collective and individual childhood memories and even props. Haircombs and brushes transform themselves into microphones. Socks stand in as long elegant satin gloves. And a whole host of sundry garments fashion themselves effortlessly into feather boas. OK, we're ready for our close-up. Dum da da dum da da... Shirley Bassey's Big Spender is the key that unlocks a stream of consciousness. Think about:

Madeline Bell, Yazz, Beverley Knight, Joan Armatrading, Ruby Turner, Michelle Gayle, Tasmin Archer, Cleopatra, Des'ree, Cleo Laine, Phoebe 1, Kele Le Roc, Gabrielle, Mel & Kim, Shola Ama, Skin [Skunk Anansie], Jackie Graham, Princess, Poly Styrene [X-Ray Spex], Anabella Lewellan [Bow Wow Wow], Skye Edwards [Morcheeba], Heather Small [M People], Mel G [Spice Girls], Wee Papa Girls, Sade, Marsha Hunt, Caron Wheeler [Soul II Soul], Millie, Five Star, Total Contrast, 52nd Street, Black Uhuru, Janet Kay.

We could go on. And we did.

Now it's time to sing. Claire and Anne-Marie get the ball rolling. Everyone follows. Stumbling over words, and sometimes in the wrong key, we laugh and cheer. Pilar sings Girl from Ipanema, unassisted and in Portuguese. We are all enraptured by the haunting melody. Sandi's rendition of Tracy Chapman's Fast Car rapidly goes off the rails and spins into freestyle, marking a turning point from playing with what we already know to creating something completely new.

Technically we cross other boundaries: from DAT tapes to mini disks, camcorders to 35mm and digital still cameras, Photoshop, Director, Flash Movies and Sound Forge. Relying heavily on the transformative skills of Sally to guide us through the raw and the plentiful material to a more cultivated sense of sound, we harmoniously arrive at the Motherlode.

Sonia Boyce  


Motherlode was commissioned by FACT through the Collaboration Programme and was developed and produced in Liverpool.

The project was co-ordinated by Michelle Walker for Liverpool Black Sisters and FACT.

Web Design: Sally Olding

Thanks to Maria Brewster, Emile Coleman, Ian Folland, Jonathan Hartley, all at Juno Studios, Liverpool Black Sisters and Liverpool Community College.

Financially supported by the Arts Council of England's 'Arts for Everyone Scheme', North West Arts Board's SHIFT fund, Esmee Fairbairn Charitable Trust and P.H. Holt Charitable Trust.