New York, US
Known for her work as a visual artist and a fashion model, Goldsmiths graduate Phoebe Collings-James has excelled in both industries. Born in London but now living and working in New York, Phoebe has modelled for labels such as Burberry, Gucci and Louis Vuitton and has also exhibited her work at several galleries around the world including Company Gallery NYC, Arcadia Missa and The Tate in London and Cookie Butcher in Antwerp. Using illustration, sculpture, poetry and painting to address and understand the collective experience of blackness, ‘womanism’ and cultural identity, Phoebe aims to decode the diaspora she has experienced as a mixed-race woman through her West-Indian British roots. Sitting down with her in her Brooklyn studio before a poetry reading in downtown Manhattan, Phoebe is even more beautiful and passionate in person. Keen to know more about the woman behind the powerful and poignant work, we talk with Phoebe about her experiences as a black woman, the different ways her work has taken shape since leaving school and why finding your own community is an important part of being an artist.
Words by Sabina McKenna & Photography by Jacqueline Harriet
Did you always know that you were going to be an artist?
I imagine a lot of artists recognise that they’d always been especially creative throughout their childhood, so I say that in the sense of playing and using your imagination in creative ways. Those things are important to nurture when you are young. My mum always said my first art piece was an ‘orange juice pond’ that I made in my aunts bed when I was six. Apparently they came upstairs and caught me lavishing the pond with floating ‘animals’. It’s funny that she connects that act of ‘creative rebellion’ with being an artist, and I am sure she didn’t think it was so creative at the time – she would have been mad as hell. [Laughs] So in a way I can say I’ve been an artist forever.
What is it about New York that made you want to live here after growing up in London?
In a lot of ways, it was a very easy move because they’re kind of close, weirdly, even though it’s pretty far across the Atlantic. They’re also similar enough in their nature that it doesn’t feel like a very dramatic leap from one to the other. But at the time when I was making art in London, I felt like I was yet to find a scene that wasn’t just very white and kind of stagnant. There have probably been big changes over the last few years, but I guess sometimes you just get stuck in a funk somewhere, and that was how it felt, so I just needed to leave.
Did you find many differences between the two art scenes in terms of how it felt to work as an artist?
The things you’ll find in common between both of the places are the things that you will probably find within any kind of career path or industry. But in London, there is massive socioeconomic disparity, and it’s all still heavily controlled by a class system The people running galleries, dealing art, and putting things into action are the ones with all the money and occupy the majority of that in society. There’s also a lot of family money and all that kind of stuff, so it’s more difficult to break into. In New York, you have a history of the hustler; who is the person who just makes it work, shines, and works really hard to ‘make it’ or at least make something! And I feel like that energy is still there. You are constantly seeing other people around you really going for it with whatever they do and living in a way that is really ‘now or never’; It has a certain immediacy and urgency to it which can push you to be that too. Having said that, I also hate the idea that art can only be made in these two places, or only in major cities and metropolises. I think there is potential for art and artists to exist anywhere.
“In London, there is massive socioeconomic disparity and it’s all still heavily controlled by a class system.”
What inspires your practice in terms of concepts and themes?
In the broadest sense, it is a reflection of how I’m feeling at the time internally, but also in response to the external events happening socially or in my personal life. When I am researching I am interested in the process of working through thoughts and feelings simultaneously. I find there can often be friction between the two. So much of the work ends up being about an interest in the violences of the world. How and why we experience violence? Who are the perpetrators? How does it make us feel? I have a feeling that a lot of it comes back to the body and sex, not necessarily fucking but the stickiness of wanting to be mashed up with somebody else, and the violence of what we want from the other.
Race is a recurring theme in your art. How would you say your cultural identity is dealt with and portrayed in your work?
In the sense of something being ‘portrayed’, I don’t know if my work is always a reflection of my unique cultural identity. The systemic violences of this capitalist white patriarchy affect all of us; it creates monsters of those who support it and kills the rest of us. Which makes the experience structural as well as personal. Having said that, my personal history has become weaved into recent projects via a kind of mapping of my histories. For example, the sound works I’m doing at the moment are a collection of ‘field recordings’ from my trips back to Jamaica, which are mostly conversations with family members and sounds from the environment and public spaces. So in a lot of ways I’ve thought it was more important for certain works to be un specifically personal and more about a universal sense of blackness and being, rather than only being specific to my West-Indian British roots.
So what are you working on at the moment?
I’m not sure if you’ve seen the white cones? They were part of a show I did called Lament for the Walking Dead, after the Archie Whitewater lyric.
“My personal history has become weaved into recent projects via a kind of mapping of my histories. For example, the sound works I’m doing at the moment are a collection of ‘field recordings’ from my trips back to Jamaica.”
Yes I have seen them…
So they resemble KKK hoods and then there are the ‘black paintings’ as well. Both those pieces were meant to be about a broader symbolism of what blackness is or has been. What it feels like, what it looks like to other people and what it looks like to black people. The Ivory Black paintings were so much about me wanting to make something that matched the scale of my body. Something with the blackest and thickest possible paint to create the densest possible environment, and I realise that more as I have distance from them in time. Going back to the KKK hoods, initially I was actually trying to evoke a sense of vertigo – the hoods are waist height and you stand above them high. So I started that process because of an idea I had for the material, which ended up taking the form of the hoods and really intensified what I was trying to create. The terrifying hoods are at once a complete failure because they are fragile, crumbling and easily broken, but still quite ominous and scary.
Can you tell me a little about the recordings?
A lot of the recordings I’ve taken so far have been just of me sitting around with my aunts in Jamaica listening to them chat and share stories. I’ve started picking up on how much gossiping is a part of island life, women’s life in general perhaps, and also how much of the storytelling revolves around the land. In one of the recordings I have so far, they’re talking about an alligator, rocks and the sea. It’s a particular place on the island where there are a lot of alligators, and one time they were walking past and the water had come in too quickly and brought the alligators really close to the house. So kind of really mundane stories that allow you to imagine what the home might look like there and how your life would be.
When did you start modelling?
I started when I was about thirteen or fourteen, and I stopped when I was eighteen. Then later on I started again when I was about twenty-five.
Why did you stop?
I didn’t really like it. It was racist and I wasn’t necessarily going to become a big name or really good at it because that’s just how it goes. I wasn’t the face of the moment or whatever. It was around the time I went to art school and I couldn’t be fucked with it anymore. I constantly felt degraded having to go to black only castings all the time and I eventually realised it wasn’t for me. For a long time I was really, really angry and I feel like that anger has only recently–in the last few years–started to become a bit more of a productive thing that I have a handle on. I think that is probably a similar story for lots of black and brown kids. I was mad. I hated rich people, I hated posh people. I was pissed.
Understandably so! Those are some of the criticisms that the art and fashion industries have in common. How do the two compare in your experience?
As industries they’re pretty similar. They function similarly in terms of the hierarchy of power and the idea of the artist, designer or creative person being at the bottom rung. But who can potentially, if the stars align, earn lots of money and still retain some spurious sense of purity and integrity despite every other element of that success. Even if the idea is to make money to potentially make more work – it’s the same thing. Once you get your head around that it helps a lot. Once I realised that it completely opened up a whole new way of thinking about my work and how I wanted my art life to be over the next decades. I no longer felt intimidated or like I needed to prove myself to people who really aren’t worth it. Now I feel like I need to prove myself to myself, and to the people around me who I have respect for.
“I would love to exist as a face among dark-skinned black girls, Indian girls, Chinese girls. I would love for my face to be one face among many.”
Did you ever consider yourself to be a representative for mixed race women, who aren’t often represented in media? (Along with the many other different types of women) Did you ever feel responsible for that?
It’s really a kind of double edged sword. I would love to exist as a face among dark-skinned black girls, Indian girls, Chinese girls. I would love for my face to be one face among many, that could be representative of all the women who are looking in magazines, who want to be inspired by fashion and magazine culture without having to feel bad. I am happy to represent a familiar face, I guess I just recognise that there are people who are completely erased, they never see themselves in the flood of imagery we are bombarded with daily. I am the only light skinned person in my family and I have seen the physical and emotional scars on the bodies of the women I love most because of the pressures to be as close to thinness and whiteness as possible. Not to say I’ve not been without my own spiralling because of this stuff, but I can’t say that now in 2017 I don’t see myself represented and that’s not the case for most other people. So I don’t even wanna hear that word anymore to be honest. Just fucking do it, stop writing articles about it and getting model activists to cover your bloody diversity quotas while you carry on peddling supremacist shit. Change it.
I noticed you also write and after reading your poem – I Changed My Mind – I thought it encapsulated that whole experience of being mixed and light skinned really well and I found it quite powerful. I wanted to find out how thoses experiences have changed throughout your life?
During my childhood my mum did a lot to try to protect both my sister and I from the fawning over our ‘good hair’ and mixedness. She kept our hair short, dressing us in boys clothes until we were old enough to choose for ourselves. She didn’t want our identities to be overdetermined by what we looked like which might seem like a futile effort but I think it definitely shaped us both. I always wanted to look like my little sister, who is darker than me; I adored her and thought that she was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. I feel like I didn’t realise until I got into my early teens what each of our physicalities meant to the rest of the world. I preface this only because the thoughts in the piece are not a static perspective on my experience. It was a reaction to feelings I felt sometimes, evoked by a colonial world that champions being fair, thin, ‘exotic’, and submissive. The poem was written after I’d been in a long relationship with a black boyfriend who had grown up in a very white environment, who I felt privileged the beauty of white women. It was a moment of checking myself: It was like woke up after four years spent wanting to be everything to someone who I let completely fuck up my own sense of identity, because of his own experiences with anti-blackness. It left me in a complete mess, I always think about that scene in Jungle Fever. Have you seen that film?
So it’s a Spike Lee film with Wesley Snipes, and he is going out with the second lead actress who is a light skinned black woman, and he leaves her for a white woman (the lead actress). Their relationship ends with this heartbreaking moment where she screams out “I always knew I wasn’t light enough for you!”. So I think that the poem was written literally in a state of waking up, after I broke up with this person. When I was with him I absorbed all of those thoughts and insecurities. Thoughts about physical qualities I imagined he liked about me, that I found myself liking too and trying to retain. I wrote the piece at a time when I was really waking up and starting to feel very ashamed for having appreciated those qualities about myself, even though it wasn’t necessarily my fault. And it wasn’t like they were omissions of things that I was thinking about all the time, they were tiny little whispers that might have been only lasted for sporadic moments, but I was in a very mixed up space. You know what I mean?
Yes I do.
Thoughts that you pretend you didn’t hear because you don’t want to be a person who thinks those things. Stuart Hall, who was an important activist and cultural theorist, described his experience as a colonised subject: he wrote that much of his life can be understood as unlearning the norms in which he grew up. I hugely identify with that process.
Who are some of the artists that have really moved you or whose work you have connected with?
I love Beverly Buchanan’s work, I only discovered her in the last year or so but it’s the most powerful thing I’ve seen lately. She makes these wooden houses on maquette scale that are not direct replicas but re-imagined from houses that she has seen mostly in the American south. I guess it goes back to my interest in Jamaica, and how this kind of work is interrogating the way black people make things. Beverly’s work really resonated for those reasons, and before even reading up her concepts, I understood the language she was using. That is what’s also interesting with art; there can be so many layers. There can be one facet that’s understood by academics and critical thinkers or artists who are in conversation with other artists. Which is cool. But there is also an element that can be for a public who will understand on an intuitive level. The idea of ‘the dumb audience’ is something that has been perpetuated by the white art system. The salon and the upper classes who have kind of been taught a particular way to look at art and to talk about art when actually anyone who is willing has potential to be moved.
“You need some sort of community and if there is a way of seeking that out, you have to be brave enough to reach out to people you are inspired by. ”
Did you find that studying art it allowed you to think that way? To think critically about art?
I definitely think it set me up to work as an artist as I do now. In a very practical sense, I was able to have a disciplined studio practice; to work through my ideas and to think about them critically. So that was a positive and it was the way the school was set up. From the start there wasn’t much thematic guidance as such, you were given a studio and your work was all self initiated, so for the idea of working as an artist it was a very valuable experience. But the faculty, from what I remember, was mostly white and so were most of the other students, which I’m probably only just recovering from.
Do you believe there are other ways to become an artist outside of studying?
There are definitely other ways to learn especially now. It depends on what you want, but I don’t think institutions are the only way at all. You need some sort of community and if there is a way of seeking that out you have to be brave enough to reach out to people you are inspired by. Artists Victoria Anne Reis and manuel arturo abreu started Home School which I have used as a resource, catching up on their artists talks online, and I have friends who are doing artist led MFA programs in UK, my friend Naima Karlsson is part of the AltMFA in London, which seems like a positive alternative to paying thousands to enter into a white institution. At the end of the day your community is what matters, unless your aim is just totally sadistic and you only want to be an art star to make a shit tonne of money, then this advice isn’t for you. If you are an artist and that is what you feel you need to do then there are going to be loads of different ways to achieve that. There will be ebbs and flows but hopefully you will have your community there with you that will sometimes make you more of a listener and at other times, place you in the forefront.