Phoebe Boswell: Take Me to the Lighthouse
From May 4 to June 10, 2018, SAPAR Contemporary, New York will present Take Me to the Lighthouse, an exhibition of recent work by contemporary Kenyan artist Phoebe Boswell.
In a characteristically immersive and intimate presentation, this new body of work layers several aspects of Boswell’s varied artistic vocabulary, including small-scale, large, and site-specific drawings, video, interactive installations, and spoken word. Located within a broad history of portraiture and landscape painting, the work weaves a self-referential narrative of trauma, grief, and healing into a wider exploration of the interiority of the female body through nature, the selfie, and the sublime.
The artist’s image resurfaces throughout this project, seducing all present with an evolving narrative of physical fragility and resilience. An introductory thirty-minute video depicts blurry, overlapping images of Boswell’s upper body in motion, expressively experimenting with platitudes that people are often told when in grief. As a whole, this new body of work finds its focus in the personal trauma and collective healing following a recent, unforeseen, and devastating injury to the artist’s right eye and consequently, her heart. Throughout this process, Boswell came to reflect on how Western culture doesn’t easily provide physical outlets to express grief. Thus this is where we start; to discover modes of healing through bodily expression, the artist filmed herself writhing to, and belting out, sad songs – now presented in a loop through a blurry lens, as if imagined through a wounded, slowly recovering eye.
More self-portraits materialize, from medical scans, facial close-ups, and hospital selfies to more triumphant depictions of the artist’s body as a prone horizon, or resiliently flexing. In this last representation, we find Boswell’s fist arced like the neck of the Sankofa bird, who reminds us to reflect on the past in order to move forward – to go back and get what was taken. These likenesses are intimately scattered like a mind-map amongst epic charcoal seascapes – some with waves seizing, other waters still and subdued – yet all sharing one horizon line. The ocean waters further descend into a video lying delicately on the floor, where one may peer down to discover the artist floating in a liminal pool of memories that re-personalize the greater cultural reference to the history of landscape painting. Throughout Western art historical canons, seascapes represent a source of not only technical skill and beauty, but also the power of nature, imagination of mythology, and inexplicable wonder of the sublime. Yet in the episodic videoscape where Boswell’s body perpetually floats, basking in the waters or exploring the sands of Zanzibar where her parents currently live, a deep sense of personal renewal penetrates through the tides of art historical representation. This work is entitled Ythlaf, a literal translation of “water-relic’” in Old English from yth (wave, water, billow) and laf (remnant, relic) – the in-between where waves recede. In this borderland, where reverence and danger meet awe and renewal, a source of healing may be carefully navigated. Water becomes a space of not only the sublime but of play and comfort, escape and melancholy, nostalgia and rebirth – where the power of imagination may heal reality.
Furthermore, amongst the fastidiously rendered charcoal and pastel seascapes, rectangular black voids are literally cut out of the drawings, suspended in time and space. Presently visualized as digital renders, the artist will cut these structures out in situ during the installation – an act of violence in itself. “The voids are the echoes of loss,” Boswell says. These geometric abysses correlate to black mats spread on the floor, which quietly possess interactive pressure sensors that summon the artist’s voice and elicit a moment where individual perception is superseded by collective disruption. Boswell’s soft, alluring, utterances bring to life words written throughout the duration of creating this new body of work, all in response to her fellow hospital inpatient’s call: “Take me to the lighthouse”. While this interactive gesture first enables viewers to assume a moment of immersive control and participatory action, the extemporaneity of these triggers and looped recordings ultimately establish a space of acquiescent immersion, suspended chance, and latent chaos – a space where undulating words recommence and intersect, like crashing waves that will inevitably resume their quiet silence.
Born in 1982 in Kenya, Phoebe Boswell is a multimedia artist who lives and works in London. Born in Nairobi to a Kikuyu mother and British Kenyan father, and brought up in the Arabian Gulf, she combines traditional draftswomanship and digital technology to create layered works anchored to an in-between state of diasporic consciousness. Boswell studied Painting at the Slade School of Art and 2D Animation at Central St Martins, London and her work has been exhibited with galleries including Carroll / Fletcher, Kristin Hjellegjerde, InIVA and Tiwani Contemporary and has screened at Sundance, the London Film Festival, LA Film Festival, Blackstar and CinemAfrica amongst others. She participated in the Gothenburg International Biennial of Contemporary Art 2015 and was commissioned to make new work for the Biennial of Moving Images 2016 at the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva. Boswell was the first recipient of the Sky Academy Arts Scholarship, was awarded the Special Prize at the Future Generation Art Prize for her interactive installation Mutumia, which consequently showed as part of the 57th Venice Biennale, and has recently been made a Ford Foundation fellow. She is currently a Somerset House artist-in-residence in London.
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