with Wells Fray-Smith
‘… speculative fiction allows us to work through contemporary problems or dilemmas through this lens of the future.’
Listen to the full interview here:
My name is Sonya Dyer. I am an artist and I also write. I am based at Somerset House Studios in London. My work is mainly sculptural and moving image, and I also work a lot with text.
My ongoing body of work for the last five years is called Hailing Frequencies Open. It is reimagining futurity and reimaging space travel through an interconnected web of three figures. Some factual, some from real life, whatever that means.
In brief, the first of the three figures is Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura in Star Trek. I’m interested in not only her role as Uhura, and how ground-breaking that was, but also Nichols’ work with NASA where, through her own production company, she did a lot of work to diversify the NASA astronaut pool. She was an incredibly influential woman within NASA and this is less recognised than her fame as an actress.
The second in the trilogy is the story of HeLa cells which were taken from the body of a woman called Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman who had a very aggressive form of ovarian cancer. Scientists found that her cells were essentially immortal, so they can reproduce under any circumstances. They’ve become the gold standard for biomedical research. Research companies have made billions of dollars off her cells, but none of that went to her or her family. I’m interested in the fact that her cells were the first human materials sent into space. They were sent into space by the Soviets in 1960. I posit that human space travel begins with HeLa.
The third in the trilogy is the Greek myth of Andromeda. Within Greek mythology, Andromeda is referred to as an Aethiopian. She was the daughter of the king and queen of Aethiopia. In Western art history, she is invariably depicted as European. There is also a star constellation and a galaxy named after her, so much of my work takes place within the Andromeda Galaxy. I’m interested in Andromeda not only in mythology, but also as a potential location for a more, perhaps, utopian future.
Essentially, I’m engaged in a form of science fiction, speculative fiction or world-building exercise wherein HeLa cells are headed towards Andromeda, which is the space for this reimagination of the role of Black women, in particular, within our constructions of the future.
What are you showing in The London Open 2022?
I’m showing a sculpture and a moving image work. The moving image work is called Andromeda (2021). It’s the first in a trilogy of films that I’m making that are reimagining the story of Andromeda. Within the film, I’m working with ideas of ambivalence. I’m working with ideas of communication across the stars. It features a wonderful actor/dancer called Tatiana Young who plays the role of Andromeda as well as using Morse code as a means of communicating between Earth and the Andromeda Galaxy. I am also showing the first in a trio of sculptures. It is a prototype of the first space vessel in a fleet that I imagine forms part of this mission to Andromeda. Significantly, it is named after Anarcha, who is one of three women, Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy, who were experimented on by a man called J. Marion Sims, who is sometimes referred to as the father of modern gynaecology. Although he probably didn’t actually invent anything, rather he experimented on enslaved African-American women without any pain relief. By naming my vessels after these women, I’m also speaking to this history of the monument, which has obviously been quite the conversation publicly for a good few years now. I am reimagining who the monument is for, what form a monument can take, and also who gets to have things named after them. Rather than the stories of these women being something abject, I am interested in actually making them part of this pioneering fleet of vessels, recasting their stories as something that is epic and monumental.
There’s confluence in your work between what might seem like fiction – and science fiction – and what might be reality, whatever that means, as well as the realms of space and earth. Can you speak about this coming together of realms, of fiction and truth, or a separation between the two?
There’s a cliché that truth is stranger than fiction, and I think that’s very much true. I am interested in really melting the barriers between what is factual, what is fictional. I’m interested in this almost dream space where the two converge. I think, in a way, Nichelle Nichols provides a really interesting model of that.
I also think what speculative fiction allows us to do is to work through contem- porary problems or dilemmas through this lens of the future. I think speculation, in many respects, does give us space to do that work of not being fixed in the time period that we happen to live in. But actually to use that space to imagine what could be. So often the futures that we create are really just a different version of the contemporary. That’s what I’m particularly interested in as well.
Works in the exhibition:
Andromeda Mission: Anarcha Prototype II, 2019
Fiberglass, polyurethane foam, PVC foam board, MDF, mild steel, aluminium, Black 2.0 acrylic paint
182.9 cm height
Andromeda, 2021 HD video
Commissioned by Art Night and Somerset House
Sonya Dyer (b. London, UK)
2021 PhD, Middlesex University
2012 Whitney Museum of American Art: Independent Study Program, New York
BA Fine Art & Contemporary Critical Practice, Goldsmiths, University of London
Selected exhibitions: Alchemy Festival of Film and Moving Image, Scotland (2022), Whitstable Biennial, Kent (2022), Directions: Forward, Karst Gallery, Plymouth (2022); Temporary Compositions, Gallery 31, London (2021); Art Night, London (2021); 13 Ways of Looking, Herbert Gallery and Museums, Coventry (2020); Rewriting The Future, Site Gallery, Sheffield (2019); Another World is Possible, CAMP, Copenhagen (2018); Familiar Strangers, The Luminary, St. Louis
What makes London’s art scene so vibrant? What are the concerns of the next generation of artists? What insight does their work offer in challenging times?
This triennial exhibition showcases a cross-section of the most dynamic artistic talent from across the capital. Established in 1932, this much-celebrated open submission show features 46 London-based artists working across painting, sculpture, moving image, installation and performance.
Since the last London Open in 2018, the city has experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, demonstrations demanding racial and climate justice, and widespread questioning of institutions and their structures.
The London Open 2022 traces the ways in which artists have witnessed and responded to these events with resilience and heart. In times of hardship and crisis, and when exhibitions were cancelled and moved online, these artists experimented with new sites of production and means of dissemination, from the kitchen table to the back garden.
The exhibition is loosely structured as a journey from the personal to the social, moving from individual to collective concerns, the cathartic to the poetic, the political and the environmental.
The artists were selected from over 2,600 entries by a panel of experts including collector Maria Bukhtoyarova, artist Shezad Dawood, curator and art historian Christine Eyene, gallerist Stephan Tanbin Sastrawidjaja, with Whitechapel Gallery curators Emily Butler, lnês Costa and Wells Fray-Smith.
Gallery 1, Downstairs
The relationship between our bodies and the material world kickstarts the exhibition. Rafał Zajko‘s wall-based reliefs appear like hybrid beings, processing the gluten found in wheat and barley flour, leaving us unsure if this is for machine or human consumption.Likewise, Madeleine Pledge‘s stretched fabrics and ceramic boots imply absent bodies and their physical role in manufacturing.
Materiality and belief systems intersect in Candida Powell-Williams’ handmade objects. A unicorn and swing inspired by medieval tapestries are fenced off by a trellis, prompting questions about the divisions between what is mythical and real. Alicia Reyes McNamara‘s paintings feature non-binary, shapeshifting figures drawn from various mythologies, from Meso-America to Ancient Egypt, to consider alternative notions of time and embodiment.
Gallery 9, Upstairs
This gallery features works that delve into the impact of technology, algorithms and quantification on our lives. In his series The Spectre of a World Which Could Be Free 2019, Ben Yau looks at the parallel rise of Neoliberalism and the CIA’s role in sabotaging the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, bringing together both economic data and declassified documents.
Set in a parallel present reminiscent of sci-fi films such as Blade Runner 2049, The Underlying by Ami Clarke considers the implicit role of capitalism in environmental disaster.
Meanwhile, Rory Cahill and George Mackness offer a walk through a dystopian, corrupted digital landscape of the future, with an immersive soundtrack. They consider: what does a digital wasteland look like, what happens there and what is its afterlife?
Gallery 8, Upstairs
The artworks in this gallery reflect on family, identity and community. Seema Khalique travelled to Bangladesh to photograph two communities of transgender people called hijras. In this behind-the-scenes series, she questions the prejudices they face, revealing the economic hardships they endure alongside the strong network of mentorship and care they create.
Pioneering photographer, curator and writer Sunil Gupta took photographs of his neighbourhood on Walworth Road during lockdown. This work celebrates the increased relevance of our localities during the pandemic, as well as reflecting on the processes involved in created photographic images.
On three vintage TV monitors, Hussina Raja‘s short narrative films look at the subject of migration to the UK from post-Partition India, tracing the continued experiences of displacement and exploring nuanced notions of identity.
The works in the last part of the show focus on our relationship to and impact on the environment. In Agrilogistics (2022), Gerard Ortin Castellvi films in an automated greenhouse, in which the growth of tomatoes, tulips and chrysanthemums is controlled by cameras and sensors, in order to question the future of food production.
Having spent lockdown excavating her back garden, Maria Roy Deulofeu meticulously records each layer of soil like an archaeologist, collecting artefacts and ecofacts, before assembling a kiln to fire hand-thrown urns with the different layers of clay. The process is recorded in a video shown alongside the objects. Finally, a flock of parakeets cast in lead are scattered on the ground in Patrick Goddard‘s Blue Sky Thinking (2019).The parakeet exemplifies a non-native species increasingly common in London parks and hints at a mass extinction event, highlighting mankind’s role in the impending climate disaster.
See the full list of works here.
An illustrated catalogue is available to purchase from the bookshop.
Artists have generously made limited editions to coincide with the exhibition to support the Gallery’s education programme.