"I've always drawn, and I've always drawn people," says Phoebe Boswell. "I've always had an intense fascination with observing people: who you are, what makes you tick, what you believe in, how you survive in the world. And drawing was always a way to explore."
Boswell has made a career from this intense exploration. Her art is a potent blend of both the personal and the universal; from intimate sketches to large-scale installations. Since moving to London from Kenya, to study at both the Slade and Central St Martins, her work has been exhibited globally. She has shown with galleries including the Royal Academy and Tiwani Contemporary and has screened at Sundance and the London Film Festival amongst others.
She revels in working across so many different mediums spanning paint, pencil, animation, video. The artist lives and works in the capital and has a studio near her flat which she walks to along the Thames ("a walk I adore"). Her process feels utterly in flux - sometimes collaborative, oftentimes rigorous and solitary. Time itself can often play into her work. "I like serendipity and I like time loops," she explains. "I like to commit to bodies of work as projects that can last anywhere from days to weeks to years. I like to be surprised by the outcome, to build it over time as authentically and rhythmically as possible. I always want to grow from and into my work."
She sees her ultimate inspiration as freedom - and all the knotty layers associated with this ideal that she has come to understand as a Black female artist. "I had a 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," she says. "I learned this when I moved to the UK, where I was struck by 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, open and layered enough to house the whole of us."
In this way, she believes art can be both profoundly personal and political. Her work is frequently autobiographical - something she believes can often be the most universal - while also acknowledging that pieces inspired by her own trauma or borne of therapeutic moments will always "hold a different sort of weight for me". "All art is inherently political," she adds. "We make work in response to the conditions of our time, even if that response is a refusal, a privileged 'no comment', a segue, or a courageous and compassionate plea towards an imagined future."
Like many creatives, the past year of the pandemic has seen both delay and opportunity for Boswell. Many solo shows and gallery exhibitions were postponed but her first public artwork PLATFORM (2020) was unveiled at Lancy-Bachet Railway Station in Geneva in July 2020.
"For me, it all began with what was scheduled to be a very busy 2020 being effectively cancelled or postponed indefinitely," she remembers. "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: everything changed. I was initially told to shield, so I went into immediate lockdown. My year seemed to go through stages, from numb, to a 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."
This year, Boswell will also be presenting newly commissioned works at Prospect P5 in New Orleans and Hache Noce in Oaxaca, alongside solo exhibitions at New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Sapar Contemporary, New York which both, finally, opened in May.
"On the macro level, 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," she declares. "We must imagine so much more. And fight for it. And we can, will, and are. Art plays a role in this. It enables people to dream, and think through and beyond ourselves."
Phoebe Boswell's "HERE" will be exhibited at the New Art Exchange Nottingham until the 24 July.
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