by Nico Wheadon
Take Me To The Lighthouse
SAPAR CONTEMPORARY | MAY 4 – JUNE 20, 2018
As I lay in that hospital bed, attached to the machine, in the high dependency cardiac wing, eye bulbous and blurry, the woman in the bed next to me kept calling out to the darkness, “Take me to the lighthouse,” delirious, and I kept wondering how on earth I got here, where on earth my lighthouse was, and how I was going to begin to process it all. 1
A profoundly layered and probing exhibition, Take Me To The Lighthouse posits a simple yet sage premise—that life cuts, water heals, and light reveals even in the darkest circumstances. Earlier this year, Kenyan-British artist Phoebe Boswell emerged from an unrelenting series of traumatic events that served as the genesis for this new body of highly vulnerable and deeply sentient work. In this selfless survey of loss, grief, and triumph, Boswell presents an interlocking web of artistic gestures, in which her trace and pain are perpetually felt.
Minute rectangular voids are clipped from her raging, charcoal seascapes and strewn about the gallery as remote islands, as in You Won’t Hear Me There (2018); intrepid, figurative marks are cast atop the sea of white walls, illuminating a horizon line along which the artist’s self-image rises and sets, as in her site-specific installation Take Me To The Lighthouse (2018); and intimate self portraits are clustered together amidst vast landscape portraits as if to balance the weight of—and collapse the distance between—the part and the whole.
As the titles suggests, the artworks in this exhibition ebb and flow around notions of homecoming and deliverance, each creating sacred space in which to anchor shared explorations of Diasporic consciousness, cultural inheritance, and ancestral debt. As a transnational, multi-disciplinary artist interrogating the complexities of global citizenship, Boswell embraces technology to help navigate various states of being, becoming, and belonging. From a video installation of her body adrift at sea—whose position on the floor demands a posture of reverence from its viewers—to the immersive and undulating waves of spoken word soundscapes that surround it, Boswell translates digital language into a raw, analog, and fluid aesthetic that conjures the mystery of the deep sea. Even her drawings on paper take on a digital aspect, as the voids she cuts from them come to embody pixels that abandon the image of origin to take refuge in those liminal spaces that characterize diasporic existence.
To truly appreciate this exhibition is to dive deep into the world Boswell generously shares and creates—to weigh the anchor on all we think we know of life’s pain, and transcend beyond the self to interrogate suffering as a shared, global reality. In conversation with Boswell’s gallery Sapar Contemporary, it became clear that these intense life events—which took a significant toll on the artist’s physical, spiritual, and emotional health—inspired Boswell to approach this body of work with a sense of urgency, and duty—not just for herself, but for her communities as well.
Perhaps due to the sheer weight of the load—the loss of vision in her right eye, the loss of a lover, the consequent rupture to her physical and emotional hearts, and the medical dependency on others this produced—Boswell entered into deep philosophical investigation, calling upon folklore, oral histories, and her own body to create a shared language for balancing grief. This exploration is strikingly captured in her video, A Broken Heart (2018), which grants viewers a glimpse into the artist’s pain in the form of an angiogram that illuminates her quite literally broken heart. Through this and other visual languages Boswell creates, she asks: Is grief a language in and of itself? If so, how does it sound and what does it look like? Where is it safe to grieve, to give utterance to grief? And which aspects of grief must we hold dear, and which can we cast out?
In her video Ythlaf (2018), the artist floats weightless amidst converging art, personal, and collective histories at the shoreline between Zanzibar and the Indian Ocean. A persistent soundtrack of intense breathwork—activated by visitors’ footfall on floor sensors surrounding the work—weaves together moving images of Boswell lying, dancing, grieving, playing, escaping, and free-floating on the shore, all of which were shot in collaboration with her father, using his drone. A moving meditation, this video affirms the power of water to bring one towards and drive one from the inner self, and notions of family and home. It celebrates the healing power of water whilst recalling the historic traumas water holds, such as the Middle passage and other sad freedoms, visualized in moments where the artist transcends and abandons her own body at the contemplative space between land and sea. Like all of us, water is in a constant state of becoming, and possesses the innate quality of constant change—it freezes, clusters, flows, steams, and ripples in response to its environment. Here, Boswell summons water as a superpower to freeze her pain, buoy her spirit, and flood the dams of her emotional blocks.
Boswell’s biography reads, “Although Boswell was born in Nairobi, she was brought up in the Arabian Gulf. Growing up as an expatriate, she reveals that she felt, ‘amputated from Kenya, in a way,’ admitting, ‘I do not exist there, it is not my place.’ The fragility of her Kenyan identity, and this rootless aspect of her being, ignites her work with a delicate search for belonging, through which her art becomes a vehicle that drives her on her journey home.” 2 Boswell is not alone in this feeling of disjointed or fractured identity—now more than ever, people live at vast geographic and emotional distances from their homelands. Again, enter the role of technology in Boswell’s practice. Recognizing the many living in Diaspora today that rely on the Internet to maintain familial relationships, Boswell uses selfies to shed light on how handheld technology can allow us to exist in multiple places at once, and belong to something greater than our immediate surroundings. In Sankofa (2018), Boswell puts forth a strong and unapologetic image of her nude form—arm flexed, breasts bare and glance direct, Boswell transcends her hospital room at the speed of light, along fiber optic cables and into the world, reborn.
Boswell is nothing short of masterful at adapting her craft to respond to the pressing issues of our times. She toggles between different modes of artistic representation—from portraiture to landscape painting, abstraction to representation—to reveal just how fragile the constructs of identity and community actually are. And this is not an exercise she performs in service of her own sense of belonging—she asserts, “the most personal things are usually the most universal.” Taking her own life as a case study, Boswell expands her autobiographical exploration of trauma, grief, and healing into a broader survey of the body and its challenge to find a home outside itself. In this challenging exhibition, self-portraiture becomes a tool of self-care and a much needed reminder to look back at paths travelled, in shedding the weight of the past and stepping more fully into the evolving selves we all seek to inhabit more mindfully.
NICO WHEADON is director of public programs and community engagement at the Studio Museum in Harlem. She is also an independent writer, photographer, and cultural producer, and is on faculty at Hartford Art School.