Get Up, Stand Up Now: Q&A with artist Phoebe Boswell

Phoebe Boswell's three channel video 'I Need To Believe the World is Still Beautiful' is one of the most visually arresting parts of the Get Up, Stand Up Now exhibition. Kemi Alemoru interviews her.

I Need To Believe The World Is Still Beautiful - as part of Get Up, Stand Up Now (2019/2019) by Phoebe BoswellSomerset House

Three digital screens project footage on an endless loop. The top shows a woman with a carefree smile, waving arms stretched to the heavens. Just moments later her movements are more constricted, her eyes are fixed to the floor and her expression hardens. On the screens below her naked body writhes mostly obscured by multiple apparitions of her varied movements layered over one another.

Entitled “I Need To Believe the World is Still Beautiful”, the three channel video is one of the most visually arresting parts of the Get Up, Stand Up Now exhibition. “Blackness is not a monolith and I wanted there to be a sense of nuance to celebrate that we are multifaceted, multilayered, complicated and beautiful,” explains Kenyan/British artist Phoebe Boswell.

As we speak over the phone, she explains how and why she set upon “deifying” her subject Bui through the hypnotic visual. Not only did she want her to appear powerful and in control on camera, Boswell has been dedicated to giving Bui agency over her own body long after the footage was originally shot. Bui gets to choose what she wants to say to the strangers that gaze at her. In this way her outlook on life goes on tour with her portrait so her image is never divorced from who she is as a person. It’s a labour of love for Bui, as a writer she gets to have her work displayed alongside Phoebe’s.

We spoke on the phone to unpack the ethos of the Get Up, Stand Up Now exhibit, working to redistribute power in art, and her career so far.

I Need To Believe The World Is Still Beautiful - as part of Get Up, Stand Up Now (2019/2019) by Phoebe BoswellSomerset House

Explain the story of the work you’ve chosen to display in Get Up, Stand Up Now

I previously did an immersive video installation of hand drawn animation called Mutumia. It was an army of naked women surrounding the gallery and then there was an interactive hidden sound floor with lots of different women's voices. When you stand in the presence of these women and you acknowledge them in this white male dominated space - as art galleries are - your presence activates these soundtracks and there's a big crescendo of women's voices, including a gospel choir. The piece was a salute to women who've used their bodies to protest when they're not allowed to use their voices. various women came to my studio and we spoke about protest, as they responded to various provocations from Audre Lorde's The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action. Bui, who you seen in this video, was one of the women and being part of it was an important moment for her journey, she tells me, and her relationship with her own body.

Now, every time I show this work I tell Bui where it's going to be and I ask her to tell me what she wants to say in that particular moment. I can’t tell you all that she has written, it's written to be hard to read on purpose so that you have to do the work to understand her. It's not about pleasing an audience. The writing that's on the wall is black on black and it’s what she wants to say to you at 2019 in Somerset House if you work to find it. It’s become a diary for her. I will say that on this occasion, Bui finished with: “I need to believe the world is still beautiful, for black women. For its only black women who remind me every day that it is.

I Need To Believe The World Is Still Beautiful (2018/2018) by Phoebe BoswellSomerset House

What are the common themes in your work?

I always want to tell stories relating to the diasporic condition - of belonging, or not belonging. I want (my work) to show our complexities in ways that can't be misconstrued or co-opted. I'm constantly trying to create languages that are robust and multilayered enough to house those of us who are often sidelined or marginalised by the dominant voice.

Tell me about your background.

I was born in Kenya, I grew up in the Middle East and I came to England when I was 16. Then I moved to London to go to Art school, I did a foundation course at Saint Martins, then I did painting at The Slade (UCL) and then I went back to Saint Martins to do animation.

It’s interesting that this piece focuses on movement, given you’ve been quite nomadic in life. What have you noticed as an artist commenting on identity while traversing different cultures?

It's a different proposition everywhere you go, you are read differently according to the context you are in. My identity – and in extension my work – is perhaps read differently here, to how it would be read in Nairobi, or in New York. I don't feel tied to place really, more to people, and I'm more about exploring the ocean of the in-between, the space between here and there. As James Baldwin said, “The place in which I'll fit will not exist until I make it.”

I Need To Believe The World Is Still Beautiful - as part of Get Up, Stand Up Now (2019/2019) by Phoebe BoswellSomerset House

Do you prefer being elsewhere rather than the London scene?

London is a bit like a toxic lover. It treats you badly, but you keep coming back. My gallery is in New York. I do see a difference between the UK and America. I think that there's more black philanthropy in the US which makes it a very different marketplace and different conversations. I've just been in Rome for a fellowship and gave up my studio here because I thought I'd move to New York permanently but I missed London a lot (laughs). I'm not black British, I don't feel my history is here but I also very much don't feel like I can take on the African American-centric point of view in my work. There's still so much we need to do, but I appreciate the conversation here around blackness and what it means here in this space. If you just move to America, all those nuances can be swallowed a little bit.

Get Up, Stand Up Now, is a survey of British black art. Is it important that we keep creating spaces to present black creativity?

I really admire and respect Zak and his dad Horace so I was delighted to be a part of this. It was brave and bold of him to take from the archives - which felt like a very loving gesture - and to then branch that out to people who speak both directly and indirectly to Horace's legacy and hopefully push it forward. I went to the could tell it was full of love. And love is strength, right? It's a powerful force.

I had been curious to see how it would work, who he would include and what that inclusion would mean. I feel like sometimes these things can serve as a distraction rather than progression for working black artists in a realm which is predominantly white.

I Need To Believe The World Is Still Beautiful - as part of Get Up, Stand Up Now (2019/2019) by Phoebe BoswellSomerset House

Can you explain what you mean by “a distraction”?

With conversations around diversity and inclusion, every 10 years or so London does a big Black show. But then they don't feel like they need to do anything else for a long time. There's always the danger of something that should be a progression becoming a placeholder for real change, on terms that are not ours. This didn't feel like this to me. It's also on at the same time as Frank Bowling at the Tate, Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine, Deborah Roberts (Stephen Friedman Gallery), Ima Abasi Okon (Chisenhale), Ibrahim Mahama (Whitworth), Kemang wa Lehulere (Tate), Helen Cammock at Whitechapel, Claudette Johnson at Modern Art Oxford, Joy Miessi at Beers...there's so much energy so it's a really nice moment.

So post-Get Up, Stand Up Now, how do you think the art scene could approach blackness and identity in a way that feels true to our unique British experience?

I would love to get together more, especially on an inter-generational level. We don't utilise our proximity to each other enough. We need to celebrate what is bubbling at the moment together and use this as a catalyst for us to form a network. Then we'll be more of a collective force.

I Need To Believe The World Is Still Beautiful - as part of Get Up, Stand Up Now (2019/2019) by Phoebe BoswellSomerset House

Interview by Kemi Alemoru

Kemi Alemoru is the Features Editor at gal-dem, an online magazine and media platform run by women and non-binary people of colour. She has a penchant for youth and pop culture and seeks to analyse the deeper meanings in the media we consume. She worked for several years at Dazed magazine and since then her byline has appeared in The Guardian, Time Magazine, BBC, Riposte, and Vice. Additionally, in the last year she was contributed written essays to two published books, Mother Country: Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children, and gal-dem's anthology, "I will not be erased": Our stories growing up as people of colour. Besides writing she's fulfilled her passion for talking via her current affairs show on Balamii, interviewing for documentaries for Dazed and NTS, hosting a show on Somerset House Studios, and appearing in a video for BBC 3.

Phoebe Boswell's 'I Need To Believe The World Is Still Beautiful' is featured in Get Up, Stand Up Now at Somerset House, 12 June - 15 September 2019

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