Phoebe Boswell, 8th GIBCA Göteborg Biennale
Originally published on IAM
Invited to show her immersive multimedia installation The Matter of Memory at the 8th GIBCA, Phoebe Boswell discusses with IAM the process of creating that piece. We met the artist in Goteborg where she evoked the difficulty of representing multiple identities and memories. She opened up doors to show how fragile is the definition of who we are.
Clelia Coussonnet (CC) | GIBCA 2015’s theme is A story within a story and links to the concept of ‘history writing’, its impact on cultural identities and on how we subsequently define our place in the world. How important is it for you to reclaim your own narrative and history?
Phoebe Boswell (PB) | I was born in Kenya but grew up in the Middle-East so I have always had this fragile relationship with ‘home’. I have enjoyed the freedom of being untied to a nation-state. Getting older though, you begin to realise how important roots are. I felt I did not have the right to talk about or claim my identity as a Kenyan, but I wanted to try to find a way ‘home’. I am conscious of current critique about who can talk about Africa, and how. I sensed I needed to find a voice that was my own to claim things that were not my own… It was not a question of placing myself into another’s idea of what being Kenyan means. I simply needed to be honest about everything I do not know. I did not want to do it theoretically or academically so the most meaningful way to find that voice was by exploring my parents’.
I clumsily thought that the childhood memories of my Kikuyu mother, who as a child witnessed the formulation, struggle, and eventual victory of the Kikuyu-led Mau Mau freedom movement, would sit in some sort of polar tandem to that of my fourth generation British Kenyan father who grew up bearing the guilt of a colonial household, much to his dismay. But because humans are complex, their narratives are filled with both links and differences. It helped me understand that the only way I can articulate my own voice, and create a new version of Kenyan history that exists in the middle space between their two narratives, is to use a multiple, fragmented language. The installation is essentially the mechanism of this new voice. It is not my mother’s voice, not my father’s, not a textbook voice, not a colonial voice, not even a voice of dissent. It is a voice emerging in the middle space. Because this is the only way I can truthfully claim history.
CC | The question of ‘who speaks for whom’ is a wide issue. If I understand correctly, you did not feel entitled to talk about those stories.
PB | I did not feel entitled to directly engage with Kenya, no. I felt a bit of a fraud. I knew Kenya only from childhood memories spending time in my grandmother’s house, learning how to play bridge and building card houses by the fire in her living room. I was amputated from Kenya, in a way. I do not exist there, it is not my space. James Baldwin said ‘the place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it’. I am finally finding my way ‘home’ through making work.
CC | And you started digging into your family’s history for The Matter of Memory?
PB | Yes, into the elephant in the room. The things we grow up with but do not talk about. My father told me that when he was seven years old, he saw a Kikuyu man tied to a tree and beaten by the manager at his family’s farm. The scene affected the core of my father. It burnt itself into his heart. I animated the scene and placed it at the centre of the installation projected onto a teapot. I think it troubled my dad that I took such a fundamental memory from him and made a ‘cartoon’ of it. It was hard to explain my intentions as I allowed myself a lot of free-fall in the process of discovering the work, so I could not reassure him that my hands were a safe place for his memories until the installation was physically in the space. I have always been aware of the amount of guilt my father harbours as a consequence of his heritage. He grew up acutely conscious and critical of how unjust the colonial system in Kenya was, and he bears the weight of this history because it troubled him so deeply. Personally, I have never felt the same burden of that history. Of course it is also mine, that burden, I am just the next generation, you know… I realised the artwork became about me taking the ownership of this burden and understanding how I felt about it. When I was working on the piece, I researched the actual extent of the emergency rule the British imposed on Kenya. My mother was surprised, and she would critique my rationale: ‘Everyone knows this; we studied it. It is not ‘new’ knowledge. Why are you bothering to recreate it?’ I had many of these schisms with my parents. There were times when I thought that it was emotionally a huge mistake to try and make work about my family. It was a responsibility to take ownership of my parent’s memories. I could see how hard it was for them. In hindsight I realise that these tensions were necessary, and I am grateful that my parents weathered them with immense personal generosity on their part. The piece is a lot about love, and about keeping those memories safe.
CC | Now the installation is complete, have you achieved to ‘make your place’ in relation to Kenya?
PB | I don't think I will ever feel truly at home. Using work as a way to go home, metaphorically, is always going to be present. You know, the horse is already bolted. I do not have the memories I need. This is why it was so important to use my parent’s memories. Stories place you in the world, and if you do not have them you cannot pretend. What I have perhaps understood is that my voice is layered fragmented, and it lacks a fixed point, but despite – or perhaps because of – this, in its way, it is relevant.
CC | Your multiple heritages and this mobility made you spoke about a sense of ‘rootlessness’. Could you elaborate on how it has informed your work?
PB | When I studied art, I was painting portraits. Exploring other people was my way of placing myself in the world. Critical conversations with tutors at art school led me to realise that single portraits were never going to be enough to communicate the types of stories I wanted to tell, complex, global stories which require multiple viewpoints and inroads. Parallel to this, I was always impulsively compelled to creep off the limits of the page, onto the walls and into the space. Perhaps I was trying to claim space by creating worlds which inhabited the audience. I stopped painting, and started to explore other methods for storytelling, animation and immersive wall-based work.
CC | The Matter of Memory was first exhibited in 2014 at Carroll/Fletcher. Can we say it marks a turning point in your practice?
PB | It was definitely a seminal work for me. Formally, it was a consolidation of my various practices. Emotionally, it was an important journey of discovery when I was finally ready to confront aspects of my own identity. And it has led to exciting things, like being invited to GIBCA for example.
CC | Elvira the curator included the piece in a section about how we intimately recreate history. How to make a personal approach collective?
PB | I think that the most personal things are usually the most universal. It is when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in our communication, to be honest and generous, that we allow people in. And once they are allowed in, they start to see themselves through you. Communicating that with another person, a stranger, perhaps someone who doesn’t have links to Kenya, and for them to feel it, and learn from it is for sure the ultimate bonus.
CC | When in the armchairs, we can hear your parents tell their stories. It recalls oral transmission processes through generations and how this is getting lost nowadays. Is loss an issue for you personally?
PB | When my dad talks about the fragility of his own Kenyan identity – how he feels resolutely Kenyan but how the colour of his skin will always compel people to question it – and then when my mum talks about feeling so absolutely Kenyan that she does not have the need to get back ‘home’, it was good for me to actively voice both of these sentiments because my identity exists somewhere between the two. When I was making the work, it was mostly about me taking ownership of their words. Then, sitting in both chairs myself and listening again to the stories I was struck by an overwhelming sense of gratitude. When thinking about loss, one of our biggest, most profound fears is to lose our parents. There is going to come an inevitable, inexplicable moment when this piece is going to matter so much more to me on a personal level, even more than it already does. So, yes, I really got that sense in a very strong way just a few days ago.
CC | Is this the reason you decided to overlay your voice with theirs?
PB | When I decided to record myself reading their transcriptions, I could hear their voices through headphones as I talked aloud. There were moments when we were perfectly in sync, and moments when their words or my words came first. There was such an intimate texture in these little ‘accidents’. And at the time, because there were so many tensions between us through the making of the work, it was comforting and powerful to hear this connection.
CC | This work is very personal for you but also for them. It is different to tell your story and to then hear your story. How did your parents react?
PB | The exploratory process of making the work was difficult for them, as I have described. To add to this, I made the work at a time when they were coming back to East Africa after 30 years of living in the strange, bubble-like limbo of ‘expatriates’ in the Middle-East. So the timing itself was symbolic, because they too were contemplating their way back home. I was nervous for them to see the work. It meant everything to me that the piece moved them. They sat in each other’s chairs, tracing all the difference that had historically separated them but also all the commonality, the shared ideals, ideas, and most importantly, love. They re-saw each other and their history and why it has been so beautiful.
CC | We can conclude The Matter of Memory is also the matter of love somehow.
© Clelia Coussonnet