Spotlight

Spotlight artist Phoebe Boswell

Championed by writer and curator Renée Mussai
The Wick - Spotlight artist Phoebe Boswell
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The Wick - Spotlight artist Phoebe Boswell
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Interview
Phoebe Boswell
10 April 2024
Interview
Phoebe Boswell
10 April 2024
Swelling to fill the historic mausoleum at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, as part of the group exhibition Soulscapes, is Boswell’s video and sound piece “I Want to Invite You to Breathe With Me” (2020), and “I Dream of a Home I Cannot Know” (2018) – filmed on a beach in East Africa over the course of several years. Both works grapple with the way our sense of self is constantly shifting and under negotiation.

Meanwhile at Gallery 1957’s London space, at the group show part of the group show Constellations. An expansive new wall drawing depicting a woodland – one of Boswell’s signatures – fills space in a different way, providing a landscape for three new pastel drawings in earthy hues, poetically titled ‘this longing reveals its kernel (2024)’, ‘the most penetrating preachers’, and ‘the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark (2024), where ethereal female figures move in and out of the trees.

Born in Kenya to a Kikuyu mother and British Kenyan father, Boswell was raised in the Arabian Gulf and now lives and works in London. The artist’s remarkable journey has naturally seen her venture into a multitude of mediums, moving seamlessly from large-scale figurative drawings and paintings, to digital technology, all connected by thematic threads of liberation, migration, belonging and loss.

Boswell’s champion for The Wick is the acclaimed curator, writer and scholar, Renée Mussai, who celebrates the expansive, multi-faceted aspect of Boswell’s art.
Mussai explains: “In the realm of contemporary visual arts, Phoebe Boswell is a galaxy – full of light, depth and breath; possibility, vision and courage. Her art – which centres drawing but encompasses writing, moving image, installation, animation, sound, and so much more – is marked by remarkable skill, talent and a unique visual vernacular, and a deep sense of commitment. Forged from a profoundly personal, deeply feminist, decolonial, remedial ‘otherwise’, Phoebe offers us an urgent and exquisite space for collective imagining, healing, resting. Hers is a lived praxis of care, an immersive way of working that contemplates the body as a world, both vulnerable and empowered, cathartic and affirmative.”

Mussai sees Boswell’s figurative, multimedia works, as “collaborative, critical, poetic – potent visual manifestations of diasporic consciousness and embodied strategies of resistance, and insistence, that urge us to not only look, but to really see, and feel the love and commitment of a wonderful artist-alchemist who cares deeply about our collective well-being and futurity. Her work is transformative, an infinitely generous gift.”

Boswell echoes the importance of the human connection in her work, a key motivation and constant inspiration for her immersive, intuitive works. “I find myself buoyed by both the vulnerability and the necessity of our interconnectedness – who we are to one another, how we tend to and care for one another, and how we see – or fail to see – each other. I would say I’m inspired by people, by our relation to each other. How we live in this world and how we imagine beyond it. How we gather. How we love, protest, grieve, remember, heal, rage. How we reclaim ourselves. How we refuse, breathe, open up, get free.”

Boswell relays a pivotal moment in her life and practice, at the time of her solo exhibition at Autograph in 2018, where Mussai was then curator. Having experienced a life-altering injury where she lost the sight in my right eye, she says, “I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make work again.” Boswell recalls that “Artmaking became something different for me then, it took on more meaning. In the lead-up to the show she spent 21 days in the gallery, drawing herself onto the wall in soft willow charcoal. “It was an act of catharsis, to draw myself, in multiple states, and leave myself there, laid bare on that wall. That 27-metre- long drawing brought me back to life in a way.”

As she prepares to install her work “Transit Terminal” (2014) in Venice as part of UNIT London’s group exhibition, In Praise of Black Errantry, Boswell is enjoying the comforting solace and privacy of the studio, working on a new series of paintings in which she is “thinking heavily about mark making, and surrendering to the physical whim of the medium. We’re living a moment that is requiring a level of surrender to all we think we know – and we’re all trying to figure out what this entails. Within the vastness of it, I’m finding that the simple act of being attendant to mark making – to how a pigment marks a surface, begins to feel so liberating, revelatory – it can open up worlds.”

Boswell has also been writing. “I’ve always written, but not always publicly. The Whitechapel writers residency pushed me to centre my writing more as an explicit part of my practice. Writing is like a confidante, or like connective tissue. It provides another space to think and dream in.” And that is exactly what Boswell’s works provide the viewer; a chance to slow down, to feel, and to imagine.

About the champion

The Wick - Renee Mussai 
by Christa Holka

Renée Mussai is an independent curator, scholar and writer with a special interest in Black feminist visual arts practices. As senior curator and head of curatorial collections at Autograph, London, Mussai has organized numerous critically acclaimed group and solo exhibitions internationally and was responsible for a diverse range of artist commissions, publications, and research initiatives for more than two decades. She is research associate at the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre, University of Johannesburg; and associate lecturer at University of the Arts London. In 2023 Mussai served as co-curator for R/evolutions, the 14th edition of PhotoIreland Festival, and artistic director of The Walther Collection. Her publications include the award-winning artist monographs Lina Iris Viktor — Some Are Born to Endless Night (2020) and Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama (2018; 2024); and the forthcoming Eyes That Commit — A Visual Gathering and Black Chronicles — Photography, Race and Difference in Victorian Britain (2025).

“In the realm of contemporary visual arts, Phoebe Boswell is a galaxy – full of light, depth and breath; possibility, vision and courage,”

Place of Birth

Nairobi, Kenya

Education

Painting at Slade, Animation at Central St Martins

Awards, Accolades

Whitechapel Gallery Writer-in-residence, 2022
Royal Photographic Society’s Lumiére Award for major achievement in cinematography, video or animation, 2021
Paul Hamlyn Award for Artists, 2019
Bridget Riley Drawing Fellowship, British School at Rome, 2019
Future Generation Art Prize Special Prize, 2017
Sky Academy Arts Scholarship, 2012

Current exhibitions

Soulscapes at Dulwich Picture Gallery (14 February – 2 June, 2024), Constellations Part 1: Figures on Earth & Beyond at Gallery 1957 (15 March – 25 May 2024), In Praise of Black Errantry, UNIT London, Palazzo Pisani San Maria, Venice (17 April – 29 June, 2024)

Spiritual guides, Mentors

The sea. Trees. Poets. Fellow artists. Black women. People I can think with and belly-laugh with. My sister, Freddie.

Advice

We have so much yet to do. Believe you can.


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