Phoebe Boswell: Here

New Art Exchange, Nottingham

The title for Phoebe Boswell’s solo show at New Art Exchange, Here, speaks of a vague yet present sense of place that permeates the exhibition. Working across media, including drawing, video, sound and sculptural installation, Boswell presents the intangible concept ‘home’, tied to ever-shifting ideas of race, memory, kinships, geographies, colonial histories, multifaceted identities, language, and the space in which you have a voice.

Entering the first gallery space is like slipping into a crowd; twelve life-sized figures, each sketched in charcoal upon boxes are scattered throughout the space in the work Transit Terminal (2014–20). With their back to the viewer, the figures are both turning from and looking towards somewhere – their casual ‘waiting’ posture suggesting the state of limbo experienced at an airport. On the reverse side of the box, a hollow interior contains a sketched bird taking flight. The migrating birds extend to the gallery walls, evoking the sense of freedom that comes from being a citizen of the world. Yet from a different perspective, the figures feel uprooted or in flux – a contradiction which Boswell refers to as the “restless state of diasporic consciousness”.

Phoebe Boswell, Here, Installation view, New Art Exchange 2021. Photo: Reece Straw

The longing gaze of the charcoal figures in Transit Terminal meets I Dream of a Home I Cannot Know (2019), a large-scale video installation which fills the corner of the same space. In the video, daily life unfolds on an East African beach: fires on the sand, fishing boats at sea, children playing ball. Sequences layer over each other, muddling the sense of time and evoking the hazy feeling of a place that exists somewhere between a memory and a dream. Rocks and sand on the gallery floor is a reminder of the physical existence of this beach – a place which Boswell considers to be a sort of ‘home’ – yet it is presented as out of grasp and constantly shifting.

Phoebe Boswell, Here, Installation view, New Art Exchange 2021. Photo: Reece Straw

The absence of faces from the first gallery space is contrasted with the moving image installation I AM (2020) showing pencil-drawn portraits developing in stop-motion animation, playfully coming to life through the blinking eyes of the portrait. Working from photographs sent in by people around the world, accompanied by a self-describing sentence beginning “I am…”, Boswell test the potential of the medium of drawing to capture the essence of a person. Can you represent someone in the way they wish to be seen? What does it mean to see someone without judgement?

Phoebe Boswell, Here, Installation view, New Art Exchange 2021. Photo: Reece Straw

The highlight of the show is Mutumia (2016), an immersive installation in which projections of animated drawing wrap around all four gallery walls. In Kikuyu – the tribe language spoken by Boswell’s Kenyan mother – ‘Mutumia’ means woman, yet also translates as ‘the one whose lips are sealed’. Inspired by women who have used their bodies in protest when they have not been allowed to use their voices, the charcoal sketched animation shows an army of naked women confronting the spectator. Their bodies convey various states of protest – sometimes they are strong and silent, visibly enraged, grieving, desperate, or fighting society’s implied restrictions on their freedom by pushing away obstructions designed to ‘conceal their modesty’. The medium conveys honest emotions in exaggerated movements, allowing the women to transform into new forms, from tree, to rug, to bird. The projection waits silently for the visitor to enter the space, who triggers sensors that make the women’s voices audible. Pacing vigorously around the space, causes a chorus of voices emerge, reading texts, singing song, laughing, or uttering screams or cries. Mutumia feels real and raw, and the sensors make each visit to it unique and intimate, its forms limitless.

Here manages complex and nuanced exploration of the experiences of those who are marginalised or simplified by mainstream narratives. It feels personal, whilst tapping into feelings that are universal. It could not be better placed at New Art Exchange in Hyson Green, Nottingham’s most culturally diverse neighbourhood. After the tumultuous past year, Here is a much-needed presentation of love.

Phoebe Boswell: Here is at New Art Exchange, Nottingham, 18 May – 24 July

04 June 2021