Phoebe Boswell and first I met in a bar in Deptford one late sunny afternoon in the fall of 2019. With the warmth of the day rapidly cooling and the staff of Buster Mantis keenly preparing to open their nightly offering, I was in a hurry to ensure that I captured a few portraits of Phoebe radiating in the receding daylight. Luckily, Phoebe and I had been exchanging messages during the preceding days to refine wardrobe choice for our photoshoot (which included a sublimely patterned skirt, designed and tailored by her Mother), so although we’d never met in person, our rapport was strong and I was able to jump straight into moving tables and arranging lighting to optimise our adhoc location.
Commissioned to make a series of portraits to celebrate her becoming a richly deserved recipient of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Awards for Artists - Phoebe and I had also discussed a number of locations to emit different creative vibes - including her studio. So with dusk set in, poses complete, and not wishing to outstay our welcome at the bar, we packed up and moved location.
With a growing body of carefully fabricated multimedia art, deeply rooted in diasporic consciousness and shaped by exquisite draftswomanship, Phoebe’s pencil draws increasingly ambitious, large scale works that consume gallery space and allow viewers to immerse themselves in her intricate sketches and delineation. Layering drawing, animation, sound and video successfully is no easy feat, so I was eager to see whether we could frame Phoebe’s beguiling presence alongside her work-in-progress.
Creative studios are often personal, private spaces for artists to distill and refine their craft, so I’m always guided by the artist’s willing to allow a camera’s focus to reveal their ‘behind the scenes’ processes. Luckily, Phoebe was happy with me entering her studio, so I started to see what material and backdrop(s) I could compose and juxtapose Phoebe with.
I was immediately struck by the studio’s walls being covered in pencil faces and striking red masking tape. Excited by the prospect of Phoebe’s chameleonic outfit change, which featured a serendipitously coloured head wrap and white overalls, I set about optimising the portraits’ symmetry for my composition - little did I know that these walled physiognomies were forming the core of a huge commission forming part of Mire, a public art programme in Geneva, Switzerland.
While all the time carefully moving my equipment around an elaborate stop motion filming rig placed in the centre of the studio, Phoebe explained how she was utilising the drawings, “…each day I film my hand drawing one of the faces; sometimes for 8 or more hours at a time, in which I will try to compute something of who they are are via making marks on a page. Once the camera starts to film, the drawing can not stop. Once stopped though - usually late at night - the recording, more than the physical portrait, becomes a testimony to my commitment to being present with each of the people. To what happens in the process of seeing”. The portraits themselves were drawn from personally invited submissions, whereby people would email their photographic selfie, accompanied by a word to complete this sentence “I am (a) ______”.
Roll forward to summer 2020 and the newly constructed Lancy-Bachet train station in Geneva now features two 30 meter long megascreens lining the platforms. Phoebe’s work, P L A T F O R M (2019/20), illuminates waiting passengers with two opposing time-lapse animation loops that detail her hand drawing each face, and as they appear, and come to life, they start to blink, look around, and interact with each other. Once each portrait is realised, it begins to erase and is replaced by person’s chosen words, “I am…”, before the next portrait begins to take shape. This involving motion happens on either side of the platform, so there is serendipity to who’s facing who at any given moment, as no one’s face appears on opposite platforms at any time, and all the words correspond with each other arbitrarily across the platforms.
As we finished the photoshoot, and to my immense delight and surprise, Phoebe invited me to submit my photographic selfie - which I’m really chuffed to say is included in the final piece featuring 31 faces. Wow. Yes, my face is in collection above and now greeting the public in a Swiss canton - can you guess which one is me?
Thank you for your time and vision Phoebe.