Site Gallery, 1 Brown Street, Sheffield, S1 2BS

  • Painting 03
    Title : Painting 03
  • Paintings 01
    Title : Paintings 01
  • Sonya Becky
    Title : Sonya Becky

Sonya Dyer. Review by Charlotte A Morgan

Site Platform invites artists to create new work in the gallery and open up this process to audiences. This opportunity provided Sonya Dyer with dedicated space and time for a period of focused research into the life of prominent social activist Paul Roberson (1898 - 1976), who used fame he achieved as an actor and musician to write campaign and speak on behalf of civil and workers rights. The Paul Roberson Research Station centred this research on Roberson’s affect in Sheffield, revisiting documentary, legal and anecdotal material relating to his presence in the city.

Visual material presented in the gallery included three watercolour portraits, projected digital images, vinyl text and transcribed legal negotiations, and in an adjacent space, a powerpoint presentation Paul Roberson Strasse, proposed as a study for a film. A bench and table offered space for visitors to read press cuttings and web pages, where another table and desk provide workspace for the artist and an OHP from which to project and study diagrammatic connections, mapped live in the space onto transparency. These assembled elements communicated multiple and tangential routes through Roberson’s significant acts, relationships, legacies and associations, yet are framed as individual works within a work. The result is a potentially problematic hybrid space, tackled by Dyer through a refusal to perform a studio practice or tokenistic gestures towards participation, and carefully re-positioned as a public interface. Using the gallery as an institutional and physical base, Dyer tactically contacted specific local people directly or indirectly influenced by Roberson and opened up this dialogue to audiences with interest in or experience in the breadth of his work, while engaging chance visitors in informal conversation.

Integral to the project were links on the gallery’s website, screenings of Roberson’s films The Proud Valley (1940) and Song of Freedom (1936), both with invited speakers, and an artist talk and discussion chaired by Becky Shaw. Roberson’s challenging position affected his inclusion in American history - some major films such as Showboat (1936) were only made widely available again after his death. Redressing his weight as a public intellectual and influence on personal, social and political levels scrutinises shifts over subsequent years in both the public political consciousness and the public figure of the artist as complicit or reactionary within their political and economic context. The temporary ‘stationing’ of research moved away from a political or engaged aesthetic to deal with the political from an expanded site, suggesting new potentials in exhausted models and calling into question the distinction of a body of work in progress and a process of action research. Conscious of the designation of public or audience, Dyer drew an extended network into a process of shared comprehension and collective re-examination; as one guest noted, Roberson’s audience were his peers. The project closed with a performance of songs, some Roberson’s own, by the Sheffield Socialist Choir. Overcoming a potentially jarring clash of culture and context, the unexpectedly moving performance reminded of the affective capacity of spirit and celebration in collective action.

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