Phoebe Boswell on Acknowledging Women and Dismantling the Male Gaze
London-based Kenyan artist and filmmaker, Phoebe Boswell also embraces drawing, digital technology, animation and installation in her practice. She studied painting at the Slade School of Art and 2-D animation at Central St Martins, both in London. Her work explores layered methods of storytelling, focusing on developing new skills around coding and interactivity. She has participated in the Gothenburg International Biennial of Contemporary Art (2015) and the Biennial of Moving Images (2016) at the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva, Art15 London, 1:54 London and New York, and the 57th Venice Biennale. In this interview with Omenka, Boswell discusses her work and current exhibition Being Her(e).
Congratulations on your ongoing group exhibition Being Her(e). Please tell us about the body of work you are exhibiting?
Thank you. It’s a pleasure to share space with so many women I admire. I’m showing a triptych of video works which are part of a wider, experimental, multiform body of work titled ‘The Lizards Within Us’, in which I explore belief systems, and how the use of language and storytelling upon the frailties of our bodies can inform our personal predilections towards belief. It’s an ongoing project I began whilst on a year-long residency at the Florence Trust, which is a non-deconsecrated church in London. The work itself focuses largely on my visits to a spiritual healer in Zanzibar, and the schism between cynicism and confidence that arose from these points of contact with a spirit world I perhaps do not inherently believe in.
In terms of process how would you describe your relationship to the medium of drawing?
My work layers various media – animation, projection, film, sound, installation and interactivity, but yes, drawing is central to my practice. As a process, it is both immediate – an extension of seeing – and time-based – there is a life to the making of a drawing which is where I, the artist, live. It is deeply personal in that sense. I love the language-making that happens with drawing and that marks on a page can become narratives through which I speak. I want to be present in my work, to touch and, to own it through the graft of making. Drawing does that.
You have embraced your Kenyan identity, having been brought up in the Arabian Gulf, what impact has this had on your work?
I was born in Kenya, but we left when I was two to live in the Arabian Gulf. I now live and work in London, so in a way I have always felt slightly amputated from Kenya. It is home but it is not home, and as such my Kenyan identity has always been a fragile concept, one that relies on rigorous thought, and an active retrieval and ownership of personal histories, both social and geographic. Contemplating belonging is something that anchors much of my work. I am constantly questioning this state of diasporic consciousness, how it is at once liberating and disorientating. It is an identity in constant flux.
Are your subjects randomly selected, or do they share your personal experiences?
I choose subjects that relate in some way to the complexity of the diasporic story, for example, subjects which are multilayered and demand multiple inroads. I tend to work with people close to me, or in any case try to build up trust as I work with people, so that the stories told are intimate, candid, and speak the universal via the very delicate sinews of the personal.
Your exhibition For Every Real Word Spoken, is a heartfelt tribute to women. What is the motivation behind these works and how would you structure them within the wider framework of your practice?
For Every Real Word Spoken was an extension of a preceding large-scale installation titled Mutumia, which is the word for woman in Kikuyu, my mother tongue. However, some say it translates more directly as ‘the one whose lips are sealed’. The piece is a salute to women who have used their bodies in protest when they have not been permitted to use their voices. It is a six channel, 30-minute looped; hand drawn animation of an ‘army’ of naked women, going through various emotional states of protest. They project onto the gallery walls, engulfing the audience. The projections are silent, but the floor is fitted with an interactive sound system of hidden sensors connected to soundtracks of women’s voices – a gospel choir, Kenyan women writers reading their work, a conversation with my mother, a roll call of names of women who have inspired, and so on – so when the audience stands within the space, acknowledging the presence of these women on the walls of the white-male-dominated space of the art gallery, these voices are activated. I made this work over a period of nine months, and worked with real women, who came to my studio and together we explored the idea of protest through their voices and their bodies. For Every Real Word Spoken wants to acknowledge the presence of these women, further dismantle the male gaze which has shaped the idea of the female nude in art history, and give my sitters the agency to gaze back and own their bodies within this space. A series of large-scale pencil drawings, each figure stares directly at you, holding a phone as if to take a selfie. On each ‘phone’ I drew a qr code which the sitters could directly programme to anything online they wanted the viewers to read, hear, and watch, to better understand something about them. So when the viewers held their phone up to the drawing, the sitters could communicate something about themselves directly and actively, rather than being passive entities to be gazed at. Again playing with mixing draftswomanship with digital technologies, the work orbited within the realm of belonging, this time to a notion of womanhood, and the acknowledgement of the silences women have endured for far too long.
You have mentioned Professor Wambui Mwangi whose work helped you develop ideas for a project. In your installation Stranger in the Village (2015), you borrow from James Baldwin to explore the perceptions of Black women in predominantly white space. What other people have inspired you?
Lists like these are never exhaustive, I’ll just give a few. Audre Lorde’s words have been pivotal. Adrian Piper. All the women who gave themselves so graciously to Mutumia. Women who speak out in general. Black women. Our mothers. Chimamanda’s wariness of the single story. Since we first met, Binyavanga has been a critical voice in my head. I’m currently reading Eduouard Glissant. Manthia Diawara. And thinking about the space between. I’m always invigorated by Ndinda Kioko. Emmanuel Iduma. Juliane Okot Bitek. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. John Akomfrah. Kerry James Marshall. Wangechi Mutu. Bouchra Khalili. Zineb Sedira. William Kentridge. Pippiloti Rist. Tabaimo. Carrie Mae Weems. Claudette Johnson. Lubaina Himid…And the artists making work around me. The most inspiring thing is the conversation you have with your peers, across all fields, through the making of new work.
Is there any future project you would like to share with us?
I’m currently making work for my first US solo show, at Sapar Contemporary in New York this May. And I’ve recently been given a Ford Foundation fellowship through which I will have the opportunity to spend more time on the continent this year. I’m heading to Lagos in February, which will be my first time in West Africa. I’m excited.
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