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“On Love, Language, and Lizards” by Phoebe Boswell

“On Love, Language, and Lizards” by Phoebe Boswell


New York (detail). 2003. Courtesy of the artist.

One of the first times I came to Africa Writes it was to listen to Ngugi wa Thiong’o in conversation with his two sons.

They talked about language. Ngugi, in his thick Kikuyu accent, his voice rich with stories of anguish and of joy, passionately appealed to us all to write in our mother-tongue, indeed to claim back our voices by removing our English robes. His elder son, his accent also thickly, pointedly, purposefully coated in Kikuyu, writes contemporary crime fiction in English, but read a poem that had been translated into Xhosa, urging us to consider that when you are translating from your mother’s tongue, you needn’t immediately reach for English, but rather allow for cross-pollination between African languages. And then there was his younger son, with his laidback American drawl, who seemed altogether less burdened by the identity of his own voice, his own words and his accent.

These three men, bound by love, and words, and the weave of the history of Kenya, all three writers but each marching down their own literary paths, all three Kikuyu but each wearing their own style of Kikuyu-ness, the way it feels right on their shoulders.


Courtesy of the artist.

I sat in the audience with my own parents, my mother Kikuyu, my father fourth generation British Kenyan, who actually came together – quite controversially in Nairobi at the time – when my father, having met my mother the night before when she was on a date with his boss, showed up at the adult education centre where she taught English. He was riding a motorbike, looking like John Travolta, carrying a dictaphone, and he asked if she could teach him Kikuyu.


Born of the Same Red Earth. 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

He had grown up in Kenya, burdened by being born into a colonial ‘kisettla’ household, where the only Africans he met as a child were the servants, from whom he learned Swahili, and all the ways the colonial regime was unjust, absurd, and horrific. Language, he knew, mattered.


The Conversation. 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

He would live his life burdened by the guilt of his ancestors, wearing it on his skin, always questioningly Kenyan even though his heart was resolutely so. Learning the country’s languages must have been important to his sense of self.


This Vast, Mammoth Animal, Opened Up (work-in-progess shot), 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

He wanted to learn Kikuyu, the language that was whispered in the forests by the Mau Mau, screamed in the British-guarded camps during the Emergency, and sung in Uhuru Park in 1963 when Kenya gained its Independence.

So, they started doing lessons, my mum and dad, but ended up paying more attention to the flirty business of falling in love.


Dad’s Head, Looking Back. 2014. Courtesy of the artist.


Dad’s Head, Looking Forward. 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

They married, neither side was particularly enthusiastic, and they had my sister Freddie and I, who they decided to quickly move, I think in part so that we wouldn’t have to decide on which side of the Kenyan landscape we wanted to play.


Land (still). 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

We grew up as expatriates in the Middle East, and I now live and work as a visual artist in London. I don’t speak Swahili. Or Kikuyu. I grew up content to be a person of the world, unshackled by nation state, and all that that entails. Over time though, you begin to realise that the freedom of rootlessness is double-edged. At art school, a tutor told me that you make work to fill a hole, and the difficult thing is to really determine what your hole is. It took me a while, but I realise now that my hole is in fact ‘home’, or the lack of it, and my work now is anchored in trying to somehow determine my own fragile definitions of it.


Transit Terminal (installed at Howick Place). 2014. Courtesy of the artist and HS Projects.

I work across a wide spectrum of media; drawing, animation, and installation, combining these in order to create new languages, languages layered and expansive enough to be able to house stories, complex stories, stories that can’t be told in a single drawing, or a single screen film, stories that explore and celebrate the middle points, the passages of migration, the deep holes in the identities of us children of the diaspora.


The Matter of Memory (installed at Carroll / Fletcher Gallery). 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Carroll / Fletcher Gallery.

Of course, my language is visual. When Ngugi told us all we need to be writing in our mother tongue, perhaps I needn’t have felt the surge of inability that I felt, because I don’t need to use words. I don’t need to learn how to place my tongue in order to correctly roll Kikuyu rrrs or click in Xhosa or rise and fall in Amharic. But the surge was strong, nonetheless, and filled with anxieties, hesitations, and resentments that I somehow cannot make truthful work about ‘home’, that I don’t have the means to. Because there are still translations to be made when creating visual languages, there is still necessity to consider how we as artists are speaking, who we are speaking to, who is listening, and what we want to say. In order to truthfully, authentically communicate what it means to be me in the world right now, my language needs to be pliable enough to squeeze into Kikuyu corners and also eek itself into English edges.


Wanjiru (In Transit). 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

But what’s love got to do with it? Yes, yes, I was asked to come here and talk about love, this wild beast that I’m afraid I feel entirely unqualified to talk about, to tame, or tease, or trust. I could talk about lust, I suppose, but instead I think I’ll talk about lizards.


Squabble. 2003. Courtesy of the artist.

I ended up, last summer, sitting on a mat in front of a mganga – a witchdoctor – in Zanzibar. I was researching another story, a story of a young girl I know who went missing for a few days and came back, panicked, saying that she had been taken somewhere by the ‘spirits’. And then how adamant the community was that she wasn’t to go to the police or to the hospital, but to the mganga, because the spirits were obviously angry and she had to appease them. What was fascinating to me was how the belief in the power of the spirits meant that she could place a very real, presumably horrific trauma in an illusionary box, and deal with it in an illusionary way, and the trauma would disappear, in a way that no amount of ‘justice’ – the way we know it – would be able to do.

So I went to her witchdoctor. And when I got there, he made me sit down and he asked me my name. I told him. Phoebe. He wrote it in his book. And as soon as I did, I got this incredible, excruciating pain.



It was like nothing I’ve ever felt before and it shot through me like an arrow. I obviously didn’t want to say anything to him, as I was a cynical Londoner there only to delve into other people’s stories, so I took a deep breath and we continued. He told me he never wanted to be a witchdoctor, but that the spirits had come to him at night, convincing him over time that he had been “chosen”. He protested, saying that he wasn’t even literate, how could he possibly be the one. The spirits placated him, they told him that they would teach him to read and write, and eventually he conceded. And he can indeed now read, and write people’s names in his book. He told me that because he had never desired the power of a mganga, he never uses it for his own gains. What he does do most often, he said, was cure women of “female” problems. Like what? I asked cautiously, not sure I really wanted to know. Like unmarriedness, for example. That is a really common one. Ah. So how do you deem a woman cursed with unmarriedness? Does she come to you having struggled to find a husband? Is it an age thing? And he said, no, it’s really simple. When a woman is cursed with unmarriedness, she has a spirit of a lizard living inside her which I can see, and the spirit lives HERE. And he points to the exact point in the tummy that is right now writhing in agony. So I say ummm, okay, so I’m 33, I’m unmarried, maybe I’m cursed with unmarriedness, can you see a lizard? And he says no no no, I can’t check you now, you need to come back with the offering and I will do it properly, but if you do indeed have the lizard, I can remove it for you really easily, no problem. So I fly back to London, still in masses of pain, I go to the NHS and do loads of tests, they find nothing, absolutely nothing, and they put it down to the fact I’ve been in ‘Africa’. So I go to my studio, and start trying to make work. I’m still focused on this story of this girl, but, sitting in London, everything I am trying to make is coming across as very cynical, very much spoken in the language of me, sitting over here, looking over there, saying look at how distant that stuff is.


Madudu (detail). 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

And still, my tummy ached.

And I realised that that is where the truth lay. That’s where a truthful exploration, spoken in a truthful language, could begin, at least an exploration into language itself, if I really wanted to figure out how and why we believe.


Ultrasound (work-in-progress shot). 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

So I flew back to Zanzibar to the witchdoctor, Simanzi. He channels the spirits through Coca-Cola, so you bring him one and he puts it between his feet as you sit before him, and he starts to rub it, moaning. He then rises up, speaking in a language that isn’t quite Swahili. His nurses are perched against the walls, watching you, and they ‘translate’. You are not sure where the concoction of the narrative begins. Does it begin when the spirits in the Coke bottle whisper to him that they know the nature of your complaint, and that he is speaking coherently in this spirit language which his nurses have learned to translate? Or is he putting on an elaborate show, rubbing and writhing and groaning and rolling his pupils to the backs of his eyes, and meanwhile his nurses are watching you, reading you, and then they say things that they think you want to hear?


Courtesy of the artist.

He told me that I indeed have a lizard spirit in me which is preventing marriage. It’s called dJini marhaba, the Passion Spirit. It doesn’t prevent me from meeting men, but it makes me do anything in my power to mess it all up. He told me he could get rid of it very easily. All I have to do is go back to him every day for seven days, and he has to rub my entire body with a specific leaf, and he says, after that, I will be married in a month.


Courtesy of the artist.

I declined.

I came back to London, and started to make work. The work is about storytelling. It is about how narratives are put together with such nuance as to make you believe them, told to you in such a way as to reassure a fragile part of yourself. That’s what religion is. Obviously, he saw me and thought, where are this girl’s weak edges? And in Zanzibar, being my age and unmarried would be a cause for utmost concern. So he placed a lizard on it, and now, every time things go adrift with a fella, a part of me, the impulsive, non-cynical part, the part that is not immune to words and nuance and the power of deep suggestion, wonders whether it might in fact be that lizard.


Which Doctor (An Exploration of Frailty and Belief). 2015. Courtesy of the artist and the Florence Trust.

So, when I think about language, and how to tell truthful stories, and specifically how to tell stories of ‘home’, I think about what it is that connects us, rather than what it is that sets us apart. I don’t believe in spirits, so the idea that you can go to a witchdoctor and be rubbed with a leaf, or given a piece of wood to put outside your door, or be hit in the face with a three-coloured chicken, and it will make you well, I can’t make a visual language that speaks of that without it being heaped by my own cynicism. But when I think of all the things that make me feel weak, or vulnerable, or afraid, and then I think of the power of language and stories to reassure these frailties, I can begin to speak. I don’t think you necessarily need to know or speak in your mother tongue in order to give meaning to your voice. But I will quote something else that Ngugi said, which is, “Connect. Connect. Connect. Phenomena is connected”. There is so much about language that is universal. Just use that.


The Mechanics of Illusion I-III. 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

Born in Kenya, raised in the Middle East, and now based in London, Phoebe Boswell (b. 1982) is a visual artist who uses traditional draughtsmanship and digital technology to create drawings, animations and installations which communicate global, fragmented narratives. A graduate of the Slade School of Art and Central St Martins, she was the first recipient of the Sky Academy Arts Scholarship in 2012, and a Florence Trust Artist-in-Residence in 2015. Her work is currently showing as part of the 2015 Gothenburg Biennial. Visit her website

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