Studio Visit: Sonya Dyer
The future of our earth may depend upon the ability of all women to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference. The old definitions have not served us, nor the earth that supports us. The old patterns, no matter how cleverly arranged to imitate progress, still condemn us to cosmetically altered repetitions of the same old exchanges, the same old guilt, hatred, recrimination, lamentation, and suspicion.
— Audre Lorde, Age, Race, Class, and Sex, 1980
Artist and writer Sonya Dyer has, over several years, developed a rigorous research-led practice centred on adopting speculative and science fiction as critical lenses to explore Black female subjectivities. Working mainly in moving image, text, sculpture and performance, she posits alternative narratives of hope and survival, adopting an approach Amelia Barikin describes in the anthology of collected essay Making Worlds: Art and Science Fiction as “working through overlaps between fiction and non-fiction, the real and the imagined, so that science fiction is here valued for its capacity to construct alternate realities out of the very stuff from which the present is made.” Broadly speaking, Dyer is interested in considering how fiction handles the future so as to challenge the traditional hierarchical binaries of science which throughout history, has left Black women vulnerable to systemic exploitation.
In pre-pandemic times, I imagine I would have visited Sonya at Delfina Foundation’s Edwardian home in Victoria, perhaps off the back of attending one of the institution’s now synonymous Family Lunches, where conversations are shared over a global cuisine cooked by resident artists bringing together other artists-in-residence, patrons, staff and professionals from the UK arts community. Instead, my studio visit took place virtually via Google Meets with Sonya in London, and I in Lagos, amidst a second UK national lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 and in the aftermath of Nigeria’s #EndSARS movement. She admits this year has been challenging, “Everything I had planned for this year has been postponed, and a lot of the large-scale sculptural works I intended to realise haven’t quite happened and although I did explore working digitally on a poster commission for Art Night, the idea that I can transfer my practice solely to the digital isn’t plausible.” For Art Night (a free all-night contemporary art festival that takes place annually across London), as part of their online Trailers commissions – a precursor to their rescheduled event happening in 2021 – Dyer created a downloadable poster titled Message to our children in the Northern Hemisphere, on observation of their deleterious conditions and in respect of their fatigue, dated circa June 2020 (Earth Time). Sent with haste. Location: RA 0h 42m 44s | Dec +41° 16′ 9″. This work expanded on the narrative and textual elements of HFO, featuring an inscription in Morse code supposedly received from the Andromeda Galaxy in June 2020.
In our hour-long exchange, Sonya presented to me in detail her long-term project Hailing Frequencies Open (HFO) (2015-ongoing), which provided valuable insights into her practice, located at the confluence of art and science, drawing influences from Greek mythology to biomedical research, science and speculative fictions, space-time travel and Black futurity. We also talked about some of the challenges that might arise by working at the intersection of these two disciplines. I recently read Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New-Wave Trajectory, edited by Marleen S. Barr, where existing theories of Afro-Futurism are interrogated through writers including Hortense Spillers, Octavia E. Butler, and Steven Barnes “to formulate a woman-centred Afro-Futurism by repositioning previously excluded fiction to redefine science fiction as a broader fantastic endeavour.” I was keen to speak to Sonya about her views on Black futurity and how her practice brings art in conversation with science.
As part of the second cohort of Delfina Foundations’ science_technology_society programme, Dyer, a UK associate artist, has been working remotely and further developing HFO, gleaning into further reimaginings of science and the future from a Black perspective drawing on three main influences: actor Nichelle Nicols’ groundbreaking work in astronaut recruitment activism directed at women and minorities as a result of her work with NASA from the 1970s to the present day; the importance of HeLa Cells to scientific research and space travel ; and interrogating both the misremembering and misrepresentation of the Aethiopian Princess Andromeda from Greek mythology, after whom a galaxy is named.
An iteration of this ongoing project, on view earlier this year as part of the exhibition Rewriting The Future, a group show featuring Sophia Al-Maria, Sonya Dyer, Ursula Mayer and Victoria Sin at Site Gallery, Sheffield (27 Sep 2019 – 2 Feb 2020), presented a conceptually reimagined world via a sculpture, sound and moving image installation. HeLa Cells travel to the Andromeda Galaxy seeking out a new world on the purpose-built Anarcha Mission: Anarcha Prototype II vessel, named in ode to Anarcha Westcott, one of several enslaved Black women whose bodies were sacrificed for the advancement of the medical research of J. Marion Sims, considered by some as the father of modern gynaecology. The vessel painted in the blackest shade of pigment, which, as Dyer explains “is one of a trilogy of space vessels inspired by a mixture of natural and mechanical forms, or forms of measurement.” “It’s painted in what was the most densely pigmented black paint available on the market; it is so black that it photographs grey because it doesn’t reflect any light and so the shadow parts are what the entire sculpture looks like which is a deep deep black.” The vessel also serves as a way to monumentalise and memorialise Sims’ named Black women victims, i.e. the ones we know of, who were Anarcha Westcott, Betsey Harris and Lucy Zimmerman, others were not recorded and thus have been erased from history.
In addition to this sculpture, the project includes compelling and at times candid video conversations with Black women scientists of varied specialisms, including Dr. Miranda Lowe, Principal Curator and museum scientist, specialising in peracarid crustacea and coral taxonomy at the Natural History Museum; theoretical cosmologist Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Assistant Professor of Physics and a Core Faculty Member in Women’s Studies at the University of New Hampshire; and medical physicist and founder of the Ora Lee Smith Cancer Research Foundation, Dr Hadiyah-Nicole Green. All of these scientists answer the same set of questions, responding to the influences of Dyer’s HFO project, giving both personal and professional perspectives on space travel, extraterrestrial lifeforms, the controversy surrounding HeLa cells, the Black Panther movie and tropes of science fiction in the popular TV series Star Trek.
In Age, Race, Class, and Sex, a paper delivered by Audre Lorde at the Copeland Colloquium, Amherst College in April 1980, she stated: “It is a lifetime pursuit for each one of us to extract these distortions from our living at the same time as we recognize, reclaim, and define those differences upon which they are imposed.” Dyer’s practice in centring on Black female subjectivities highlights that whilst race is a fiction conceived by European colonialism and American chattel slavery, its effects still reverberate deeply across generations and geographies today. Against this, she offers us Black futurity, as a way out through the black imagination offering multiple readings for a past we thought we knew and a future we are yet to arrive at.
Jareh Das is a curator, writer, and researcher currently based between Nigeria and the UK. She holds a PhD in Curating Art and Science from Royal Holloway, University of London.
Sonya Dyer is a UK associate artist as part of Delfina Foundation’s second season of the science_technology_society programme, in partnership with Gaia Art Foundation.
 Amelia Barkin and Helen Hughes (eds), ‘Introduction: Making worlds in art and science fiction,’ in Making Worlds: Art and Science Fiction, 2014, Surpllus, p.11.
 See Marleen S. Barr (eds), Afro-future females: black writers chart science fiction’s newest new-wave trajectory, 2007, Ohio State University Press.
 In 1960, HeLa cells were sent to space with the Soviet satellite, Korabl-Sputnik. Later, NASA also placed the cells in the Discoverer XVIII satellite on a mission to space. The main aim of this was to determine the impact that zero gravity would have on human cells.