In an effort to not be perceived as irrational and emotionally driven, some women push through injury and pain to keep their lives ‘business as usual’, burying their deep-rooted awareness that such a compromised existence is, fundamentally, unsustainable. As the Black American feminist poet and essayist Audre Lorde opined in her 1980 publication The Cancer Journals: ‘I do believe not until every woman traces her weave back by bloody self-referenced strand, will we begin to alter the whole pattern.’ Which is to say that we need to acknowledge our true feelings in order to heal. The tensions that build from the daily pressure to conform and the alienation of difference should not be suppressed but channelled as a force for sustainable change, for our own recovery.
Kenyan-British artist Phoebe Boswell’s first institutional solo show, ‘The Space Between Things’, illustrates this exact predicament. Curated by Renée Mussai, the exhibition collates the diverse elements of Boswell’s multi-disciplinary practice: video, sculptural works in granular materials, still images and poetry. Drawn directly onto Autograph’s 25-metre main gallery wall, On the Line (all works 2018) is an expansive and minutely detailed self-portrait that Boswell produced in willow charcoal over the course of three weeks, allowing the residual carbon dust to fall and skirt the floors. The artist’s nude body elongates, duplicates and contorts in a way that is both impressive and titillating; she twists and bends but does not break. The rendering is so towering that it is easy to overlook the smaller details: African waist beads gracing her hips; a precious stone on a thin necklace nestling in her collarbone; a gold band decorating her arm; an IV drip penetrating her hand. What you do quickly notice, however – unless her right eye is closed or guarded in some way – is that you are staring into a fractured pupil.
A blunt trauma to the face in 2017 caused Boswell’s eye to rupture, instigating sudden sight loss and implicating her otherwise healthy heart. Across Autograph’s second-floor gallery, four new video works – A Broken Heart, Rupture, Rapture and New Moon – are screened against floor-to-ceiling pastel drawings of crashing seascapes reproduced as wallpaper. Using sophisticated medical-imaging techniques and footage filmed by her surgeons, the 30-minute looped videos document her stay at London’s Moorfields Eye Hospital: from her emergency eye surgery to an angiogram of her injured heart chamber; from the transplanting of donor cells into her cornea to layered, blurred images of her torso convulsing and her mouth agape in agony. By foregrounding her body and her voice, Boswell’s work impresses not only for its technical ability but for its emotional sensibility, inciting viewers to slow their pace and engage.
It was while recuperating at Moorfields that Boswell began to formulate She Summons an Army: 35 drawings of bare, full-bodied female figures, each sporting a large eyeball in place of a head and representing the ideality of a legion of women-friends who support the artist through movement, touch and near-tangible floods of energy. Back in the main gallery space, Ythlaf comprises half a dozen floor-mounted monitors simultaneously playing drone footage of Boswell floating in a starfish pose off the shores of Zanzibar, near her family home, where she had returned to recover post-op. The word ythlaf refers to the liminal zone where waves flow back and forth on a shore. This remedial bed of water served as an incubating space for Boswell, leaving us hopeful for her renewed self. Complimenting this is The Space Between Things: a looping soundscape activated by visitors stepping onto pressure-sensitive panels, releasing a harmony of Boswell’s voice and poetry: ‘Take me to the lighthouse / To the hope that exists / In the space between things’.
Initially, this accidental but brutal disruption to Boswell’s physical and emotional health required her to turn inwards to recuperate; only then was she able, with great generosity, to bare her new self to the rest of us. We heal ourselves, and each other, by living and by speaking our truths out loud. It is only in this way that we can thrive, rather than merely survive.
Phoebe Boswell, ‘The Space Between Things’ runs at Autograph, London, until 30 March.
Main image: Phoebe Boswell, Ythlaf (detail), 2018, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Sapar Contemporary, New York © Phoebe Boswell
Rianna Jade Parker is a writer, critic and researcher based in London, UK. She is a founding member of interdisciplinary collective Thick/er Black Lines and is a contributing editor of frieze.
First published in Issue 201