Get to Know: Pheobe Davis' Collective Actions

Get to Know: Pheobe Davis' Collective Actions

This interview first appeared as part of Not So Popular and Let's Start A Pussy Riot's '100 Days of Activism' project. The interview was conducted by artist Emely Neu.

Phoebe Davies is an artist and producer based in London. Her project Influences is an inspiring and creative way to engage young people with feminist actions. We find out more:

Tell us about yourself!
My practice is defined by its location and context, investigating and exploring how people perceive their social framework. I mainly work in response to and in collaboration with individuals and communities, which may be initiated by an individual or group but is completed or extended by others. Be it creating wrestling performances in shopping centres,  feminist nail bars, fly postering or public installations on byroads connecting local farm villages. 

My outcomes are project dependent; I work across media, including text, installation, performance, audio, film and photography. My work is often chanced upon, existing primarily in pedestrian spaces as well as in galleries and institutions, including: Tate Britain (London), Whitechapel Gallery (London), Arnolfini (Bristol), Tramway (Glasgow), South London Gallery (London) and Camden Arts Centre (London). I am currently a Social Practice Fellow on the British Council’s International Cultural Exchange US Program.

Alongside showing work as an artist and producing other artists’ projects, I am a trained youth worker and I specialise in working with at risk young women.

How did you get involved with your current campaign/form of activism?

Over the last year I have been touring a work titled Influences. It's a functioning nail bar which exists as a live installation, investigating and questioning what gender equality means to people today. It has shown in various venues from galleries such as Tate Britain to schools and trans gender barber shops (Open Barbers). Through the project I work in collaboration with groups of people exploring current attitudes to feminism, gender equality, expectations and aspirations.

Drawing upon the contemporary culture of nail art, these dialogues and collaborations have resulted in a series of printed nail designs depicting people of personal influence or significance specific to participating groups, nominations range from renown activist such as Aung San Suu Kyi or Jasvinder Sanghera (from Karma Nirvana) to local youth worker workers such as Lucky Nessa (from Streets of Growth, a youth centre in East London). These designs are then applied and distributed from a public nail bar run by participants

This project came about in 2012 when South London Gallery invited me to work with a group of young women in a pupil referral unit.  I worked with them for about two months investigating feminist and activist art practice and how and why art and culture can be used to discuss social and political issues.  

The girls I worked with highlighted that there wasn’t always space for them to voice gender issues that affected them and be taken seriously. They also didn’t necessarily identify themselves as artists or creative, yet every week when I returned to the centre these women were revealing their artistic output by wearing extraordinarily detailed nail art.  So I began to  collaborate with these young women to use their skills to create a series of printed nail designs depicting people of personal influence and significance - which would then be shared with their friends. It became a conversation starter - about what was a relevant female role model today. 

Since then I’ve been collaborating with various groups exploring current attitudes to gender equality / feminism, through the nail bar we have worked directly with 2,000 young women across the UK and reached thousands more through our public events. Each time I work with a new group we design a new nail set relevant to their influences and issues raised. 

What motivates you as an activist?

Predominately I’m motivated by my experience of working directly with people (especially as a youth worker working directly within communities) and hearing a wide range of experiences first hand, its enabled me to see the clear need for spaces to support questioning and discussion surrounding wider social and political issues within unheard communities.   

I’m kept on my toes by my sister, Polly Davies and colleague Sam Trotman – they enable meto be very critical of structures, continually questioning how I chose to develop work within the art sector.

What does it mean to you – to be an activist?

To encourage others to publically and personally question society’s norms - and amplify those not always heard .

How does your work as an activist translate/help or hinder the other work or projects you do? 

Questioning my social settings and access to opportunity is key my work as an artist and also to producing other artists work, it enables me to support diverse ways of showing work outside of traditional structures and spaces. However at times maintaining the confidence to interrogate or speak out against structures within how the arts and cultural industry operates isn’t always easy. 

More and more people seem to be getting involved in Activism (like the Ice Bucket Challenge) in its many forms – what do you think about this trend?

I think that trends / viral campaigns can really hook people in, and have the ability to reach unthinkable amounts of people – however often these zeitgeists obstruct the true information / message so the campaigns get lost / overshadowed by trends…. So I’m unsure of the reality of this impact or the dialogue it creates… 

Top 3 Tips on how to start an activist campaign/ to get involved in activism

Think about who you want to target and how, look at ways that you can hook these people into discussion.

  1. Utilise, manipulate and build the skill sets of those around you.
  2. Be honest and true to what you believe and experience.
  3. Be brave, speak up and encourage others to do the same.

How do you envision the world in 30 years-time?

I saw Andrea Phillips from Goldsmiths University talk at the Creative Time Summit,  she spoke about how curators and artists have impact on the city and wider social issues (as citizens and/or subjects) and highlighted ideas of who accesses these sites of power and the potential for alternatives to organisational and administrative structures (be it a gallery or city council).

This resonated with my thinking about regarding access to opportunity and leadership, I think there needs to be a radical change in how we are governed, who these leaders are and how the diversity of our population can be acknowledges and heard – not sure if this will happen in 30 years though…..

About Pheobe Davis

Phoebe Davies is an artist and producer. Her practice is defined by its location and context, investigating and exploring how people perceive their social framework. Her outcomes are often project dependent, including; constructed social spaces, live performances, video, audio and print works. Often she works with and in response to individuals and communities, generating work through collaboration and collective action. 

Her work is often ephemeral and chanced upon, existing in pedestrian spaces as well as in galleries and institutions, including: Tate Britain and Tate Modern (London), Whitechapel Gallery (London), Arnolfini (Bristol), Tramway (Glasgow), Fierce Festival (Birmingham), South London Gallery (London), Camden Arts Centre (London), Art Licks Weekend (London), Steirischer Herbst (Graz, AUT), Assembly (Portland, USA) and SA-UK SEASONS 2015 (Johannesburg, ZA).  

Phoebe is an Artsadmin artist and is part of the Bedfellows research collective. She is currently a Social Practice Fellow on the British Council’s International Cultural Exchange US Program.


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