Speaking to Phoebe Collings-James, it is quickly noticeable that the 29-year old encapsulates the feminine power of London’s millennial generation. The artist/model/actress has been a name on the London scene for a while, but unlike some of her slash counterparts, it is the genuine achievements in all her fields of work that leaves its mark.
She’s not just a pretty face, but an advocate for human rights through her own art work and through numerous projects such as that with Water for People, where she created a series of works, Everyone Forever campaigning for the basic necessity of clean water. And her most recent exhibition Just Enough Violence in Peckham’s, Arcadia Missa was almost prophetic, telling a fitting story of the current violent climate. Through an infusion of European mythology and the fragility of watercolours, Collings-James managed to subtlety portray the otherness that people of colour continue to face daily, and that is no mean feat: ‘I focused on European myths as a way of mirroring colonized experiences.’
Of Jamaican and English heritage, Collings-James is the epitome of London’s melting pot of cultures, and knows all too well the vibrancy of the city. Yet, in light of the demoralizing Brexit decision, we talked to her about her move to America, gentrification and her experiences as a woman of colour in institutions where racism is surpassing every-day micro-aggressions and manifesting in alarming acts of violence.
Firstly – how has the move across the waters been?
Why did you decide to leave London?
I needed to escape!
You’re also a model. Do you ever find that you have to justify yourself and your artwork because of this?
Yes, a lot in the past. Then I realised that nearly 100% of that was proving myself to white men, who had fucked ideas about the relationship between beauty and intelligence in women, especially women of colour. I felt silly for not feeling more confident sooner but you live and learn. The ethics of modelling still concern me but not in relation to my art work.
Your exhibition in January, ‘Just Enough Violence’ feels quite poignant in relation to the recent apocalyptic-esque events that the world has seen. What did the exhibition mean to you?
Well you know the problem is, we may feel like the apocalypse has just arrived, but for so many people, marginalised people, colonised countries or ones in the throes of war or natural disaster it is nothing new.
That title came from a line I heard on radio 4; I often listen to it in the studio if I am feeling a bit homesick. I have no idea what it was in relation to but it said ‘just enough violence for the whole family’. The phrase to me resonates with the spectacle of violence that has been indulged and heightened by social media. I have been interested in the apathy of violence and how it can be felt and understood in such disparate ways depending on where you are in relation to it. In a way we all have to become slightly apathetic or numbed in order to live with pessimism. Aria Dean, described the relationship we have to ‘black joy and black death’ as ‘pinned to each other by the white gaze’ in an amazing essay published recently. She was looking specifically at our relationship with the black body as a subject and spectacle online.
I like the idea that every story to be told has been told before at some point in history and that each generation of peoples find their own way to express the tragedies and emotions of their time. So using the watercolours in this show I wanted to somehow capture, the tangled discourses I have been thinking about. The works all featured animals most of which were from ancient European myths, horses, the she wolf, a hydra, Pegasus and medusa. They all bring with them a violent story, often misunderstood or complicated characters.
I guess I side with the slain and I focused on European myths as a way of mirroring colonized experiences.
I saw the she-wolf first at the Frick museum in New York; I then looked at the Capitoline she-wolf of Rome with the suckling twins at her breast. I imagined her coming alive, standing on her hind legs, shaking off the infants and I wanted her to come at you, with her tits bare as an affront. There was also a reference to meme language, ‘Tfw…’ is a purple horse (again) on its hind legs, its front legs posed by its chest as it gives a spicy look in your direction. Most of the works feature a stare that locks the gaze between the viewer and the beast, which mimic the gaze in memes that similarly need to be knowing and familiar. So the show really was an attempt to use figurative representation to look at othered bodies and violence as a received energy that has no other potential than to be thrown back. I see that in the Hydra. The strong many headed beast was callously killed in the Greek myth by the brute Hercules, as one of his 12 tasks. Whenever I think of the Stokely Carmichael quote ‘In order for non-violence to work, your opponent must have a conscience’, I think of the Hydra.
The recent slaughter of black men in America and the UK’s xenophobic rhetoric in the Brexit campaign, have shown that our seemingly inclusive and progressive society has reverted back to a time that I had personally thought we were overcoming. What do you feel about the position of race at this current time?
I feel hurt and betrayed, probably the same as my parents felt at my age raising 2 mixed race children in London and the same as my dad’s mother before arriving in a racist London from Jamaica in the 1960’s. Fed up, humiliated and angry. I don’t think I have ever been under any illusion that our society was decolonized or inclusive. There are pockets of UK society where you can feel that, where you can feel free, but I think those can only be bubbles you create. And Brexit just seemed to bring out the worst in everyone, it showed how scared we all are and yet still unwilling to come together – not for the EU I don’t even know enough about it to know if we should be in or out, but for ourselves.
Growing up, did you ever think that you would be where you are now – professionally and emotionally?
I always hoped I would be where I am now, being an artist, being well, getting to make shows and living in a different place. I had no idea what it would actually look like though. Emotionally I am quite good too, I have a lot of mental illness in my family, so for a long time I was really in fear of losing my mind which can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I feel genuinely grateful for my relative levels of sanity.
You were the first in your family to go to University – what were the benefits and struggles of that choice?
The upside was that I had no pressure; I did exactly what I wanted to do. I had friends who were told which courses to pick or had pressure about their grades or what schools they got accepted to. I know that my mum especially would have really got so much out of it had she not left school so young so if anything I wish she could have experienced it so that we could speak about it. To be honest it was so long ago I barely remember my feelings but I do remember being self-conscious at times about my class, where I came from and not having been to very good schools previously. Which is ironic now as I grew up in Leytonstone and it’s now almost unrecognisable to me in its newly gentrified state.
And finally what advice would you give to young women of colour today, like us gal-dem’s?
Surround yourself wherever possible with people who really make you feel good. Who inspire you; make you want to be better, love better, make you feel beautiful inside and out. I dunno that there’s much else to it really.
Published in Gal-dem’s Nov’ print issue