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Phoebe Boswell's Here is Finally Opening at the New Art Exchange After a Year's Delay

21 June 21 interview: Rachel Willcocks
photos: Emile Holba

Phoebe Boswell's exhibition Here sat half-put together at New Art Exchange from April 2020, unable to open for just over a year while we on the outside battled with lockdown and months of separation. But in early May, the award-winning artist was back in Nottingham putting the finishing touches together, to finally prepare to open her show.

Here is a beautiful accumulation of the nuances and complexities of communities, voices, hearts, and histories which, like her own, are often systematically marginalised, simplified, pacified, homogenised, or side-lined as 'other'. These different perspectives collide and become monumental together. Combining draftswomanship and digital technology, layering drawing, animation, sound, video, and interactivity, the exhibition brings together new and existing artworks, some of which have not been seen in the UK before. Rachel Willcocks caught up with Phoebe to find out about her work, and how she’s found the past year...

Having grown up in Arabian Gulf, originally from Kenya and having studied in London, how do you think this has affected your work?
I had a very nuanced, culturally layered, and international childhood so grew up with something of a naïve and hopeful sense of freedom, in that I was not conscious or concerned about the trappings of nation-state, race, or how I would be perceived by the world at large. I learned this when I moved to the UK, where I had to acclimate to societal and institutional perceptions of what a black woman is, what blackness is, how whiteness is upheld, and a big part of my work now is to celebrate and centre us, to make work robust and open and layered enough to house the whole of us. 

What other themes or stories do you explore in your work?
The other side of the freedom I describe is a rootlessness, a deep longing for a tangible understanding of 'home', and a knowing that I'll never find it, but perhaps I can make it in the process of making. So I always say my work is anchored to a restless diasporic consciousness; it exists in the middle space between here and there, an open space where I can ask questions and seek answers, and where I try to gather as many of us together as I can. In this space I tend to explore themes of memory, belonging, history and coloniality, protest, care, and resistance. 

There is such meaning and depth behind your work too, how do you decide what to draw and what to make art about?
I read a lot and listen a lot, and tend to get fixated on things I come across. So it could be an experience I have, an encounter with a person, a thought, a conversation, an article, a book or a photograph, a social media post, a historical moment, and I'll get an idea in my head and then this will unravel and spawn over time. Often it will involve a call for people to join me, adding themselves to the work and informing it through their collective lived experience. Sometimes I will set myself a working methodology and a time limit and the work becomes whatever occurs at the end of that. I like serendipity and I like time loops. I like to commit to bodies of work as projects that can last anywhere from days to weeks to years, and I like to be surprised by the outcome, to build it over time as authentically as possible. I always like to feel like I'm growing from and into my work.

What has the last twelve months and the pandemic been like for you as an artist and how do you think art can help us to heal?
I don't think any of us could have predicted what the year would be like, how long it would go on for, and how personally and collectively we would have all been affected by it. For me, it began with what was scheduled to be a busy 2020 being effectively cancelled or postponed indefinitely, including my show at New Art Exchange which we had just started to install, and that has lay dormant in the space until now when we've finally been able to open it. I flew back from a work trip to Johannesburg and then New York for the Armory Show, and as I landed back in London, it was a really strange sensation, and everything changed. I was initially told to shield, so I went into immediate lockdown. 

My year seemed to go through stages, from bewildered, to deep grief, to finally, in this most recent national lockdown, being able to actually draw consistently again. Those drawings, a capsule of 49, are now being exhibited in a solo in New York. So yeah, that was my year, I feel elated and grateful to be here, intact. I grieve for all the lives we've lost, and for those whose lives were turned upside down, or who didn't have the time and space to quarantine because they were feeding and healing and holding the rest of us. On the macro level, I think the pandemic has mainly articulated what we already know: that the systems that govern us do not work. They do not hold us. And we deserve so much better. And must imagine so much more. And fight for it. And we can, will, and are.

Do you have any advice for emerging artists?
Trust yourself. Speak. Find your people. Love them. Identify the holes that exist in the world that you can so brilliantly fill with exactly what you wish to make. Decondition yourself from a lot of what you were taught. Find new teachers. Write your own manifestos. Rest. Log off when you need to. Go for everything you want. Become as comfortable as you can with rejection. Know that many paths will lead to the same place. The world is yours.

Phoebe's work does more than make us think – it is like therapy; it makes us feel understood. In a recent video interview talking about opening the exhibition, Phoebe says, “I hope that this show is in some way healing… that we can just come here and see and sense ourselves.” 

Here is open at New Art Exchange until Saturday 24 July.

nae.org.uk

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