Over the weekend I swung by the 156 Art Fair, an annual exhibition of African art at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, N.Y. Among the many strong presentations on display, Phoebe Boswell’s Stranger in the Village stood out.
In April 2015 Boswell, a biracial Kenyan woman currently living in London, was temporarily situated in Gothenburg, Sweden, in a predominantly white area. Boswell set out to explore perceptions of race and sex during her stay by turning to dating app Tinder.
“I thought I might want to explore what my body might feel like living in a space that might not be very welcoming,” Boswell says.
Any black woman who has ever ventured online to look for love—a particularly painful place for black women—should be able to predict the worst of what happened to Boswell next. Reactions to Boswell ranged from microaggressions to flat-out racism. But Boswell turned her lemons into artistic lemonade. For her installation, she sketched portraits of her online suitors with a mechanical pencil and included quotes from her exchanges.
“In the space of day, I go back through microaggressions for a month,” Boswell explained. “It’s like, ‘Oh, my God!’ I’m frightened from the things that I see.” Here, she talks about the experiences on Tinder that inspired the project.
The Root: Where did the idea for your installation, Stranger in the Village, come from?
Phoebe Boswell: I was doing the Gothenburg Biennial, and they give new artists a residency for a month. One of the first things I was told when I got off the tram and met the people who were taking me to my studio was, “You’ve got to know it’s a very segregated society here.” I wasn’t ready for that. Sweden's known to be very inclusive. I immediately thought of James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” essay.
TR: And how did you go about exploring that idea?
PB: I put my picture up on Tinder. I put “Stranger in the Village” as my tag. I put a little radius around me and I started swiping all the men in that radius. When I would swipe them, I would draw them. I would spend hours on these portraits of these strangers and I would get to know their faces. I think it’s really what Tinder is, making intimacy out of nothing.
And then the conversations started. I didn’t instigate them. I would wait until someone swiped me. The first [message] I got was a guy who said, “Heyyyy. I was recently in Botswana on safari, and you remind me so much of it. Lion. Queen of the Jungle. Roar.”
TR: There are varying degrees of racism in the responses. I saw one that said, “I have a big fantasy to be with a black girl!! It’s a compliment! :-) :-) :0( <3” There are lots of microaggressions, too, like so many guys wanted to take you to a reggae club, but you never said you liked reggae music. Or they see your hair and they’re like, “Oh, you look fun!” Did any of the responses shock you?
PB: I asked someone, “I heard that this place is segregated; is it true?” He said, “Yes, it’s true, but you are quite fair skinned and fairly beautiful, so you’re going to be OK. Because Swedish people aren’t actually racist; we just don’t like ugly people.” He said, “For example, I had a friend who was very dark and everyone hated him; then he tells them that he’s from Brooklyn. And then everyone wants to play basketball with him.”
TR: Wow. I think when nonblack people hear people of color talk about microaggressions, the reaction is often, “That’s awful, but it’s not that big a deal.” But your exhibition demonstrates why people of color get so upset. You see all these responses together on the wall and you can see it’s not “just” microaggressions—it’s an all-out assault. How did you feel when this was happening?
PB: When it was happening, it was definitely a kind of weight on me, but it was a progressive, gradual thing. But the physical assault comes when I see the responses on the wall or when I’m going back in my phone after a year and I read them and when I rewrite them for this [project].
TR: Did this project change you at all?
PB: Baldwin states in [“Stranger in the Village”], “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction.” Over time, the more of these instant reactions to me that came in, it made me more conscious. Not necessarily self-conscious, but you understand how the world frames you. I became more aware of that.
Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. She is also a blogger at SeeSomeWorld.com, where she covers pop culture and travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.