Visual Artist, #AfricaNoFilter fellow
Phoebe Boswell is a visual artist and an #AfricaNoFilter fellow, working as part of the Ford-created initiative to shift outdated narratives about Africa. As a Kenyan who grew up in the Arabian Gulf and now resides in Great Britain, Boswell’s multidisciplinary work explores issues of identity and belonging, common among members of the African diaspora.
How are the issues you grapple with in your work linked to your personal story?
I’m a visual artist and I live and work in London, but I’m from Kenya. My mother is Kikuyu. My father is British Kenyan, and his family settled in Kenya three generations before him.
We ended up moving to the Arabian Gulf and I grew up very rootless. It was a transient kind of childhood. I grew up as an expatriate, very much feeling the freedom of being a person of the world, a citizen of the world, not caring too much about race or class or gender—which was an amazing childhood in a way, but I also didn’t really acknowledge or appreciate how the world perhaps would see me as a woman and as a black person.
My work becomes a place where I can define myself in terms that are mine, not terms that are placed upon me. I’m trying to make work that frees me from the constraints of white supremacy, patriarchy, things that hold us in a kind of social bind.
The notion of “home” is a recurrent theme in your art. What does it mean to you?
Home is something I struggle to define. For me, it’s certainly not a geographical place. It’s not a physical place. The idea of home is constantly in question and in buoyant turbulence. It’s a restless thing that I grapple with.
Not knowing where home is has kind of become a very integral part and an anchoring of my practice, which I would say is rooted in this sense of a diasporic consciousness. I use work to kind of fill that space or to try to imagine what home could be, both geographically but also in a more kind of decolonial way, trying to understand my position in the world—what is offered to me and what is kept from me—and trying to make work that frees me, and us, from those kind of constraints.
My work seeks to tell our stories that don’t sit within the dominant voice, stories that are often marginalized or pushed out or othered by the dominant voice.
Why is it important to disrupt common narratives about Africa and Africans?
History has been written mostly by people who don’t look or sound like us. In order to find some sense of freedom, it’s important to document and celebrate and center our stories in our voices, in the languages that we wish to speak in, so they’re not co-opted by people who, for whatever reason, choose not to fully see us. It’s a way of us regaining a power that is change making.
We don’t need to think about how the West imagines Africa. That doesn’t always have to be the central part of any conversation around Africa. We need to understand who we are individually and collectively. We need to appreciate our nuances and our differences and celebrate them, and fortify ourselves with our truths and our complexities and our multigenerational knowledge and wisdom that are not often accented when we think of history and futurity.
What does equality mean to you?
Equality, to me, means a fair and even distribution of both power and love. It would soothe us all, with the expectation of being heard when we speak and being held when we cry. It would celebrate our elemental right to all live freely and truthfully in the extraordinarily beautiful spectrum of our bodies, our skins, our hearts, and our minds. It would acknowledge how the systems at play have privileged certain people and diminished others, and it would demand a fundamental dismantling of these systems, a snap of uncomfortable self-reckoning, a blinding sacrifice of the status quo, a precise and determined unlearning. It would require that we’re all involved. Equality, honestly, would require all these things in order for women, nonbinary people, trans people, black and brown people, disabled people, working class people, indigenous people, undocumented people, all of us to firmly believe it actually even exists.