Interview: Phoebe Boswell “I always want drawings to be open and moving and shifting”

Do not use the photograph without the authorisation of the photographer if used for the web like blogs etc please contact me beforehand  sylvaindeleu@mac.com  or call me tel: 0044(0) 7 870649 206 Thank you !

Phoebe Boswell, Pieces of a (Wo)man, 2017, pencil on paper, 150 x 120cm. Courtesy of the artist and Tiwani Contemporary

Phoebe Boswell, “Pieces of a (Wo)man”, 2017, pencil on paper, 150 x 120cm. Courtesy of the artist and Tiwani Contemporary.

Phoebe Boswell: For Every Real Word Spoken, Tiwani Contemporary, London, 10 March-22 April 2017.

In her 1977 paper – subsequently published in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (1984, 2007) – Lorde described, how, less than two months previously, after she was diagnosed with a breast tumour and subsequently operated on, she became acutely aware of her mortality and associated regrets: “what I most regretted were my silences” (1984, 2007: 41). She wrote, and this is the source of the title of Boswell’s exhibition: “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences” (1984, 2007: 41).  Yvette Greslé (extract, draft of forthcoming publication, 2017).

About the artist

Phoebe Boswell was born in 1982 in Nairobi, Kenya and raised, as an expatriate, in the Middle East. Boswell, who is now based in London, studied painting at the Slade School of Fine Art and 2D Animation at Central St Martins. Her dialogue with her Kikuyu-Kenyan born mother (Joyce) and British-Kenyan (Timothy) father underpins her first major multimedia installation The Matter of Memory (2014) shown, together with work by John Akomfrah and Rashaad Newsome, at Carroll/Fletcher (London) in 2014. In 2015, The Matter of Memory was shown at the Gothenburg International Biennial for Contemporary Art (GIBCA) curated by Elvira Dyangani Ose. A second major multimedia installation, Mutumia (2016) was commissioned and produced for the Biennial of Moving Images at the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva in 2016. In 2017, Mutumia was exhibited in Kiev for the Future Generation Art Prize for which Boswell was shortlisted; and subsequently awarded the Special Prize which supports a residency program. In addition to The Matter of Memory and Mutumia, Boswell has produced a number of works notably Prologue: The Lizard of Unmarriedness (It’s All About How You Tell It) and The Stranger in the Village (both 2015). She was awarded a Sky Academy Arts Scholarship in 2012 and has been an artist-in-residence at the Florence Trust and the Konstepidemin, Gothenburg (2015). Since 2016 she has been an artist-in-residence at Somerset House (London). Boswell’s film Dear Mr Shakespeare, directed by Shola Amoo, was selected for the Sundance Film Festival in 2017. The medium of drawing, as an art practice encompassing animation, is central to Boswell’s oeuvre thus far. Her drawing work is also situated in relation to audience participation; architectural and spatial environments; video art; sound; and found objects and materials.

Yvette Greslé: What was the impetus for the work produced for For Every Real Word Spoken at Tiwani Contemporary? It is preceded by Mutumia and emerges from this work?

Phoebe Boswell: A friend of mine sent me an image of naked, older African women lying in a dirt path in Uganda. My own immediate visceral reaction was: “What’s happening to these women? What’s being done to them? How are they being violated?” I was horrified by this image. Then, my friend sent me the story of the photograph and I discovered that these were Acholi women. The Acholi people had been fighting for their land rights for a long time. On this specific day, the government had sent in people to physically remove people. The women decided: “Enough is enough, we’re going to do something”. They took off their clothes. It’s a taboo for men to see women naked, to see their mothers naked. So they took off their clothes and lay down in the path. They affected what happened next. They were not removed from the land that day. Actually, the image that I was looking at is a very heroic image but my conditioning made me read the naked female body and black women’s bodies through the filter of my own conditioning. I was so sure that this was a terrible image.

Then, I started to research other historical moments where women had removed their clothes in protest. These small female pockets of history and these heroic actions aren’t always documented properly. They’re not added to the official account of how change happens. I wanted to make a salute to women in history and women who use their bodies in protest and continue to do so. I wanted to make an army of naked women who confront the viewer. I was also thinking of the white cube space and how the art world is so white and so male. I wanted to insist on projecting these women onto this space. I wanted to insist that you stand with them. I knew I wanted it to be a hand-drawn army. I wanted the bodies to be real and nuanced so I put a call on Facebook.

Around this time, I read Wambui Mwangi’s “Silence Is a Woman”. That’s where the title Mutumia comes from. Language, or my lack of language, is really important for my work. Mutumia is the Kikuyu word for woman. Some say it translates more directly as “the one whose lips are sealed”. This is really interesting to me because initially when I asked my mother and my aunties they said: “No, it just means woman”.  Then, when they thought more about it they were like: “No, it actually does. It does translate to the one whose lips are sealed”. They never thought about it that way but the new feminists in Kenya have started to really question the language, the Kikuyu language and why Kikuyu tradition is so patriarchal and so misogynistic. That was also a big part of my decision making in the beginning. I explained all this in my call-out and then so many women wanted to be part of the project, and started sharing it. I made a Facebook group called Mutumia.

YG: You already knew some of the women who took part in the making of Mutumia (and then the work on show here at Tiwani Contemporary).

PB: Yes, I already knew some of them professionally and socially. It was really interesting to think about how to bridge this and how not to make this thing uncomfortable (or if it was, the right kind of uncomfortable). As each woman came to my studio, I set out a few things (provocations) that I wanted to ask them. I set the camera up and we talked through all the various emotional states of protest (“what would push you to this point?”). Listening back to the conversations, I thought that it would be so amazing if these could be part of the work (so many important things were being said). The Mutumia Facebook page became a place where I would share articles. Then, I started the long process of animating.

YG: Did you make Mutumia specifically for the Biennial of Moving Images, in Geneva, in 2016?

PB: I was commissioned. This show was curated by Elvira Dyangani Ose and we had a conversation about this at the very beginning. There is also a conversation with Ndinda Kioko online.

YG: How did you work with voice in Mutumia?

PB: I realised that I wanted to make the space not only a silent army. I wanted there to be this potential of the voice. I wanted the viewer to become part of it. The floor is interactive. It’s fitted with sensors. When you stand in this space, when you acknowledge the presence of these women, and you stand in this space amongst them, you activate voices.

YG: In the process of making the work you filmed the women individually (just you and the women). You set up a camera. Did you draw from the original sound and video footage?

PB: I drew from the visual footage. I drew by hand and then I animated using the video recording as visual reference material.

YG: You created the visual source for your work. You didn’t go out and look for the source in a sense. You staged the source?

PB: It’s staged in the sense that I brought the women in and then we talked through things. It wasn’t choreographed though. I provoked them with a few questions and I said “please don’t perform”. What they were saying to me was becoming so important I wanted to add the element of the voice. There are snippets of some of the things that were said. I also then worked with a gospel choir. These were different women of all ages. We came together in a music studio and I asked them questions (as provocations). I asked them, through their voice, to express what it means to protest. I asked them to express the experience of being a woman (in a spiritual sense, through emotions). The soundtrack for Mutumia in Geneva was the women singing and crying, screaming and laughing, added to snippets of the voices of the women I drew. Sound is only present when viewers enter and move around. The more viewers there are the more voices are animated.

YG: Mutumia was shown in Geneva and then Kiev for the Future Generation Art Prize.

PB: In Geneva, Mutumia was a three-screen projection that you walked into. It was all very white and so I sprinkled charcoal over the white carpet. In time, the carpet became marked by the black charcoal. Geneva is a very polite place and a lot of people didn’t want to step on the carpet but by the end it was transformed. The whole carpet was black. I made the work, in after effects, on a long line so that the women are all in a long line. In Geneva, the line was broken into three and it seemed smaller to me, the army didn’t seem like an army, it just seemed like a small group of women. In Kiev, I was able to keep this line, so that there is a line on either side and you walk through the middle. The sensors are much more linear. I had a six-screen projection and I added to the soundtrack (21 soundtracks instead of 8).

The first soundtrack is Wambui Mwangi reading “Silence Is a Woman”. I asked 16 women from Ukraine to answer the same questions that I had asked the London women. The second soundtrack is all the Ukrainian voices. I then asked Ndinda Kioko to read “The Khanga is Present”.  For generations, the khanga has been a way for women to communicate with each other but it’s not an official historical project. It should be. The essay argues that the khanga should be better documented because it has existed across generations of women. Both this essay and Wambui Mwangi’s “Silence Is a Woman” is a critique of patriarchy. We should continue to work hard to recognise the voices, histories and contributions of women. I asked women to tell me all the women who are important to them. Their voices are recorded saying these names. If you stand in the centre of the space you will hear a rolling list of women’s names. I asked each woman where they thought this connected history of women lives inside of them. When I made the animations I pulled the khanga out of the places they said: heart, womb, brain … They become the khanga and are transformed into a wall of khangas. Then at some point, they become a forest full of trees and then they explode into birds. In the space, I wrote an extract from Audre Lorde’s paper The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action. I wrote it in English, Ukrainian and Kikuyu. People were invited to write on platforms in the space. I asked the moderators to explain to people that every mark made in the space is one of resistance. People started to write on the walls as well as the platforms. I am really excited that it’s become this active space. In Kiev, we built the space. I wanted it to feel active. It engulfs you in all your senses. In Mutumia, you experience the sound of voices overlaid with each other instead of one single voice (it is the power of the collective voice speaking as opposed to one single voice).

YG: What is the relationship between Mutumia and the show at Tiwani?

PB: I wanted to extend the concerns I had in Mutumia into more defined work. I wanted to celebrate the women who had been part of it.

YG: The show at Tiwani focuses on a small selection of the women who participated in Mutumia?

PB: Yes, not all the women wanted to be part of this show, animation is quite anonymous. I wanted to celebrate the women more. I wanted to extend my concern with the actual art world and place this protest in an art historical context. I wanted to really think about what the female nude means and how it is coerced by the male gaze. It’s often more or less passive, or sexual. It’s not empowered in and of itself. The pose, in the drawings here at Tiwani, come from Adrian Piper’s photographic series Food for the Spirit. She had a two week retreat of self-care and everyday she took a photograph of herself. I photographed the women with this narrative in mind. The women interpreted the Adrian Piper work for themselves, I gave them the background to this work.

YG: What drew you to the Adrian Piper work in particular?

PB: I love her work. I am very inspired by the themes that she adopts in her work. We’re both mixed-race. I feel a connection to her work. For me, it was just such a pose of resistance.

YG: Where do the titles of the work at Tiwani come from?

PB: The women chose their own titles.

YG: Why did you choose drawing? Can you talk a bit about your relationship to drawing, in terms of process, your interest in the medium itself? Looking closely at your drawings I get a sense of you mapping the drawing, there are the outlines that you make as you are conceiving the image, and the traces of that process. I notice the smudges and eraser marks.

PB: Drawing is my main medium of communication. It’s an exploration for me and the viewer. I think that I gain so much from spending the time. It’s such a long time-based process. It’s really demanding but it’s also about making mistake upon mistake. That’s why I don’t cover up the eraser marks. Drawing the female body is really interesting because it’s really brought out my own hang-ups and then solved them for me through the process.For these women to allow me to see them, to really see them, and then to take that further by drawing them, every little part of them, was just such a monumental pleasure.

Phoebe Boswell, In Your Eyes, I Am _______, 2017, pencil on paper, 150 x 120cm. Courtesy of the artist and Tiwani ContemporaryPhoebe Boswell, “In Your Eyes, I Am _______”, 2017, pencil on paper, 150 x 120cm. Courtesy of the artist and Tiwani Contemporary

YG: Were they standing in front of you as you were drawing?

PB: No, I drew from the photographs that I took of them. I knew the bodies of the women who were part of Mutumia really intensely because I animated them for 9 months. I animated them for 30 minutes of animation (that is 20 drawings per second).

YG: Why did you decide to position them in an empty, white space?

PB:  I wanted them to be completely the centre. I wanted the idea of framing in the context of the female nude to matter (or female identity, or identity in general). At the same time, I didn’t want the drawing to feel framed. This is why I extended the horizon.

YG: You decided on the idea of painting the lower part of the gallery wall black – in line with pencilled ground in which the women stand?

PB: Yes. I wanted them to be integrated completely into the space but have their own space within the space. The frame doesn’t take the women out of the space (I hope). I didn’t want the frame to function in an elitist way, the sense of grandeur that can be attached to a frame. It is about giving them their space and the possession of their own power within that space.

Do not use the photograph without the authorisation of the photographer if used for the web like blogs etc please contact me beforehand  sylvaindeleu@mac.com  or call me tel: 0044(0) 7 870649 206 Thank you !

Installation view, Phoebe Boswell, “For Every Real Word Spoken”, Tiwani Contemporary, 2017. © Sylvain Deleu, courtesy of the artist and Tiwani Contemporary. 

YG: You also bring drawing into a relationship with digital technology. I have come to see this as part of your practice as a whole. There is this curious thing of the object that they hold with a barcode on it. Then you realise it’s the back of a mobile phone and you can choose, as a viewer, whether you want to access the digital space (or archive) or not. An exhibition text suggests that we download an App for a QR scanner to our smart phone in order to do so. When you enter into this digital world you will experience and engage sound, music, film footage, texts.

PB: And it’s alive. It’s not dormant. The reason I love animation is that it feels alive in the way that drawing doesn’t. I always try to wake up drawings with animation (that’s why I put the two together). I always want drawings to be open and moving and shifting.

YG: Do you see the works at Tiwani as portraits?

PB: I see them as portraits. I have such a strong basis in portraiture from childhood. But I have always struggled with the stagnation of a portrait. I have always felt that at some point it’s dead object. What is it doing? Is it essential? Why do we have portraits? I feel like this work has answered some of those questions because it’s alive, it’s going to change, it’s going to change according to the women who it’s about.

YG: Is there a website that’s been set up where material accessed off the QR scanner is housed?

PB: Yes. There’s a central platform.

YG: This is a platform that we can’t see?

PB: Yes, but I can see how many people have accessed it. I can see how many people have connected with each of the works.

YG: The women have complete agency over what is selected?

PB: Yes, and they can change it at any time.

YG: What was the rationale for this? It’s quite spatial for me. There are spaces that are hidden as well as spaces that are visible.

PB:  I think that we exist so much in the virtual, in the digital. We express our identities so much through our on-line presence. I am also really conscious of letting people speak, of not speaking on behalf of anyone. As an artist, I am always delving into other people’s stories. I am aiming for a collaborative communication.

YG: What about the little images drawn onto the wall of the gallery, such as the birds?

PB: The khanga and the birds are extensions from Mutumia. There are also things that seem to come up in all my work.

YG: You have also drawn your sister for the Tiwani show.

PB: My sister is different to the rest. She’s my sister but also because it felt like a very different drawing to me. This one is a really sensitive work. I saw the tree in her portrait (a new tree, a new birth) as related to the new conversation we have started around our bodies.

YG: I liked the details such as rings, manicured nails, the discarded bra, the images in the corner (a barcode in one,  the tattoo in another). That’s also what makes portraiture so interesting for me, these objects that speak to stories, emotions and memories (that we don’t necessarily have to know, and intrude upon, but that we can connect with in our own way as viewers).

I really enjoyed the animation Breaking down the Master’s house. Tell me about it!

PB: It’s a working drawing from Mutumia. Mutumia is a 30 minute long, massive projection. This is a small part of that, a sketch. It’s not the whole event but it’s part of a work. It’s a drawing that exists inside the whole and exists in and of itself.

YG: I love the strand of hair that floats in the corner!

PB: Mutumia starts with an empty room and then these women appear.

YG: How many women are in the animation here at Tiwani?

PB: Three women. It’s about a 6 minute loop. We talked about Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” and that feeling of not being able to go any further.

YG: What’s so unsettling about it is that you can’t even see a wall. You see this white space but it’s impenetrable. It feels claustrophobic. The affect of that claustrophobia is very strong in the work.

There is also this wall of women’s names in the exhibition space.

PB: I think to see a wall of women’s names in the gallery is saying: “Fuck you. We’re here and we deserve to be here”. If I am given this space I’m going to make sure that you are all here. Because that’s what this is. We all have that responsibility to each other. It’s women who have inspired the women who inspire me. But it’s also the people who are important to me. It’s also women who should be remembered. It’s also the names of black women who were killed last year, the transgender women who were killed this year, the names of women who bodies have been used to progress gynaecology. How do we remember everyone? It’s impossible.  It took two days to make this wall.

Do not use the photograph without the authorisation of the photographer if used for the web like blogs etc please contact me beforehand  sylvaindeleu@mac.com  or call me tel: 0044(0) 7 870649 206 Thank you !

Phoebe Boswell, wall drawing, “For Every Real Word Spoken”, Tiwani Contemporary, 2017. © Sylvain Deleu, courtesy of the artist and Tiwani Contemporary. 

YG: Your work also has this ephemeral quality, the names, which you write in pencil on the gallery wall, and that are present in this space for the duration of the exhibition. How do you think of History as an artist? When I look at your work I see it engaging with History in all its forms. It explores invisible histories, excised histories, the family experience against the grander narrative, stories that are not normative. There is an ephemeral quality to the work in that it deals with traces, and ephemeral sounds, in the drawing animation there is the single strand of hair that floats, things that are here but only transiently. The wall of names is like an ephemeral monument.

PB: It’s a monument to the act of remembering and the act of honouring (I think). It’s the electricity of remembering, the magnetism of it. When you see your name on the wall it matters. I think pencil is fragile. For me, it’s the communication that is the most immediate. It’s also the most vulnerable. I think that’s how we need to be right now in the way we speak to each other, and communicate. We need to allow each other to be sensitive but we also have to allow for our opinions to be changed. Anything other than pencil feels too much for me right now. There’s something very negotiable but non-negotiable about making extended works in pencil. Mutumia was such an intense, long process (nearly as long as The Matter of Memory to me). This show at Tiwani feels like a breath, a punctuation to the work.

This interview (Yvette Greslé and Phoebe Boswell) was conducted at Tiwani Contemporary, 14 March 2017.

Do not use the photograph without the authorisation of the photographer if used for the web like blogs etc please contact me beforehand  sylvaindeleu@mac.com  or call me tel: 0044(0) 7 870649 206 Thank you !Installation view, Phoebe Boswell, “For Every Real Word Spoken”, Tiwani Contemporary, 2017. © Sylvain Deleu, courtesy of the artist and Tiwani Contemporary. 

Do not use the photograph without the authorisation of the photographer if used for the web like blogs etc please contact me beforehand  sylvaindeleu@mac.com  or call me tel: 0044(0) 7 870649 206 Thank you !Phoebe Boswell, wall drawing, “For Every Real Word Spoken”, Tiwani Contemporary, 2017. © Sylvain Deleu, courtesy of the artist and Tiwani Contemporary. 

Further reading

Ahmed, S. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Greslé, Y. 2014. Phoebe Boswell, “The Matter of Memory”, Writing in Relation (blog), 31 March  https://writinginrelation.wordpress.com/2014/03/31/phoebe-boswell-the-matter-of-memory/ (last accessed 27 March 2017).

Kioko, N. 2016. “The Khanga is Present”, The Trans-African, No.1, January  https://trans-african.com/2016/01/15/the-khanga-is-present/ (last accessed 27 March 2017).

Lorde, A. 1977. “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”. In Lorde, A. (1984, 2007) Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkeley: Crossing Press, pp.40-44.

Lorde, A. 1979. “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”. In Lorde, A. (1984, 2007) Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkeley: Crossing Press, pp. 110-113.

Mwangi, W. 2013. “Silence Is a Woman”, The New Inquiry, 4 June http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/silence-is-a-woman/ (last accessed 27 March 20)

Do not use the photograph without the authorisation of the photographer if used for the web like blogs etc please contact me beforehand  sylvaindeleu@mac.com  or call me tel: 0044(0) 7 870649 206 Thank you !Phoebe Boswell, wall drawing, “For Every Real Word Spoken”, Tiwani Contemporary, 2017. © Sylvain Deleu, courtesy of the artist and Tiwani Contemporary. 

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