PHOEBE BOSWELL The Space Between Things
By Lisa Andrine Bernhoft-Sjødin, ArtConstructs
Looking at art is a profoundly social act. It has the power to alter social dialectics. It can open a mind and send it beyond the scope of art dichotomies standardised by Whiteness.
The platform ArtConstructs was created to examine, through art, a language for a heterogenous future in Europe, beyond the constructed national state and identity. This year ArtConstructs+Objektiv Journal will question how we consume art: whose narratives are being told? Are we aware of our own prejudice when we look at and deal with art? Which representational spaces are non-white artists restricted to? And how do these artists navigate and negotiate their own voices in this landscape?
I will start this series with an exhibition review, because I want to challenge myself on how I look at art by black artists, and probe deeper than the immediate satisfaction I get when I look at art I can recognise myself in. Recently, I’ve had a feeling that past and imported issues has hijacked my mind and identity in ways that leaves Whiteness unchallenged, and renders non-white artists and their art less nuanced and increasingly static.
Phoebe Boswell is a Kenyan-British artist, born in Nairobi and grew up in the Arabian Gulf, her multi-disciplinary practice is anchored in a restless state of diasporic consciousness, and a deeply rooted emotive interrogation, her new show at the Autograph, just off Shoreditch High Street in London, is no exception.
Entering her exhibition The Space Between Things I feel the pull of Boswell’s mind and simultaneously recognise my own. Though it's more multi-faceted than the obvious ways she and I might share states of being, i.e. we're both black women, with roots extending elsewhere, beyond the country of our childhood. Her art is infused with selfhood and self-healing, lighting a path to self-knowledge beyond limitations both body and mind.
There’s three main installation pieces in the exhibition, the first two, On the Line (2018) and Ythlap (2018), are strikingly white as if bathed in light. I merge into the drawings of On the Line etched on three walls in charcoal, the residue crunching under my feet as I walk and look at her nude body in various states of agony and grief. Her portraits are a study of the many forms trauma manifests and emulates the emotive states of suddenly loosing your eyesight and falling ill.
Located in its midst are screens dotted on the floor, Ythlap, alongside pressure pads, reciting the spoken word poetry The Space Between Things as I thread on them. The lighthouse is a central theme in her poetry, her search for a home in the space between things, the diaspora consciousness.
Ythlap delegates your gaze from the etchings on the wall downward to the ocean, to the sea shore where Zanzibar meets the Indian Ocean. On the six screens Boswell’s body is being both active and inactive. It’s her consciousness were being privy to as she struggles to let her body go and enter her own mind without the stress of the tangible. On one screen she draws a circle in the sand and lies down within it, another screen shows her swimming out against the torrents of a shallow beach. Yet another sees her floating in the calm surf surrounded by uprooted sea weeds, like a piece of driftwood after a storm. There’s a poetics of endurance, giving her body and mind to the formless ocean in hopes of it giving her new life, sending her to the shore, to a home, a safe haven, but, maybe the sea shore is her perpetual home. An exported consciousness rooted in several countries, never settling.
Yet, safe havens can be so many things, and as I watch her adrift in the water, she seems content with being in between things, neither sea nor shore, but in the surf. Moving along with the surf, the Indian Ocean, an ocean defining the sea shores of both Africa and Asia, additionally defined by British colonial histories and violences, she’s a remnant of the past and a future, but also a claim to selfhood and self-healing.
Further into the gallery, there’s a narrow hallway where She Summons an Army (2018) is installed: white sand, compact as a dreamy beach, on the floor and a legion of femme bodies whose heads are rendered as single eyeballs, contemplating Boswell’s own trauma of suddenly loosing sight on her right eye. Theirs, and hers, nude femme forms, run through the exhibition, as a vessel of embodied knowledge, her fragility, and finally an homage to women body activists, as her state of illness and recovery ebbs and flows with the currents of the surf.
On the second floor of the exhibition space, I’m confronted with a dark ocean etched on even darker walls. Surrounded by stormy surfaces, and stones and sand scattered in the corners, I move through the room and enter the adjacent one, accompanied by a faint humming. Three video screens hang on the wall, like a triptych, and a fourth lays on the floor; A Broken Heart, Rupture, Rapture and New Moon. Equally dark writing on the wall, impossible to make out on the black background, but textured by the light from the four black and white screens in the room. The hum continues, as were engulfed in her visceral experience of ocular and cardiac trauma. The works are in tandem with each other, the artist’s eye removal operation looped straight ahead, and her cardiac state pulsing on the screen on the floor directly beneath it. On either side of the dark room Boswell’s emotional state is depicted, her naked upper body in a constant restless state, video frame upon video frame placed on top of each other and in constant flux with one another. The two works illustrates her right and left eye, the former is unclear, seen through her damaged one. The eye alters and infuses the mind, one eye impaired robs the mind of depth of vision, and an aspect of reality disappears and becomes inaccessible. And with the illness, trauma seizes the mind and darkens it.
Boswell's depiction of suffering and healing, emotive force of the femme body and the diasporic consciousness of non-white peoples is multi-faceted and hard to grasp and categorise, the whole being is subscribed to essentialism, but as several states of grief, agony, selfhood and self-healing over the same experience and trauma. Likewise, our consciousness is like a prism, filtering different states of being.And in this the vastness and slowness of identity emerges; in the ways we claim ourselves and others. Boswell lights a path to ownership.
These are important times we live in, in which non-white peoples have seized a moment to name and reclaim their own mythologies. In order to do that we need to create our own language, so that when the winds, the trends, the fixation, the money or whatever you want to call it, turn towards other targets, we won’t get swept out to sea, but remain rooted and voiced by and for ourselves.
PHOEBE BOSWELL The Space Between Things. Autograph London Dec. 14 - Mar. 30, curated by Renèe Mussai.
With essential support from Objektiv Journal and Norsk Fotografisk Fond.