At St. Pete MFA, Gio Swaby’s textile portraits are a love letter to Black womanhood

'Fresh Up' runs through Oct. 9.

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click to enlarge Gio Swaby - Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery
Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery
Gio Swaby

Gio Swaby, a multidisciplinary Bahamian artist currently based in Toronto, is showing her largest variety of work displayed to date at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg from now until Oct. 9.

The exhibit, titled, “Fresh Up” is Swaby’s first solo museum exhibit, named after a celebratory Bahamian phrase which is often used to describe someone who is looking particularly stylish. Embracing the portrait genre and working in series form, the diverse collection includes a range of textile-based works on canvas which span from 2017-2021.

In an interview with the MFA, Swaby expresses that her practice began with a desire to unlock and experience love in new ways in her life, and to be able to share that love with others, specifically with Black women and girls.

“My work operates in the context of understanding love as liberation, a healing, and restorative force,” Swaby said of the collection to MFA, St. Petersburg. “These pieces celebrate personal style, strength, beauty, individuality, and imperfections.”

The entire collection is both publicly and privately owned. Together, the private collectors and public institutions agreed to lend their pieces to the MFA St. Pete in order to showcase Swaby’s wide range of work all in one place for the first time. Among the various collectors of Swaby’s work is Roxane Gay, notable author of the New York Time’s best selling essay collection “Bad Feminist”.

According to displays in the gallery, Swaby’s art first and foremost serves as a love letter to Black women—each piece is an intentional portrait rooted in the desire to celebrate their beauty and nuances. Most of the portraits represent people Swaby knows very personally, and her method begins with conversation, interviews, and photo shoots. Through this process, Swaby aims to connect and cultivate reciprocity and desires to capture her subjects in a moment of empowerment and vulnerability.

When entering the gallery, some of the initial works viewers will see is the first part of the series, “Another Side to Me” wherein Swaby exhibits the back sides of the canvas for the first time.

“She’s letting viewers see the loose threads,” Katherine Pill, MFA’s curator of contemporary art, told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “It’s almost a map of her process. You can see where she has to tie off and move over to another spot of the canvas. Showing the back can be a very vulnerable feeling.”

Swaby, however, embraces the vulnerability and uses it as a way to elevate imperfections and nuance in herself and other Black women she represents.

As you make your way farther into the gallery, the wall is adorned with a love letter on display from Gio herself for the series, “Pretty Pretty”.

“I want you to know that I see you,” her words on the display begin.

“I see you in the full glory of your existence, apart from the flattened narrative systematically imposed on us. I see you, both soft and strong, vulnerable and powerful. I see you, bright and beautiful, perfectly imperfect, nuanced and complex.”

Swaby grew up in the Bahamas in 1991 where her mother, a seamstress, exposed her to Bahamian fabrics and textiles and taught her to sew at a very young age. Swaby explains how they began by sewing clothes for her dolls as well as matching mother-daughter church outfits in the interview with MFA. It wasn’t until adulthood, however, that Swaby threaded these skills she learned from her mother into her art practice. While Swaby transcends traditionality with her experimental methods, she chooses to work in mediums which are traditionally associated with domesticity—bringing to her art a sense of care, labour, and familiarity.

“When I’m thinking of a general audience, I want people to come in and have to connect with this work in a way that maybe they havent with other artworks before,” Swaby tells MFA, St. Pete. “Maybe they are able to experience a special moment with this work that they will remember.”

But when she thinks very specifically about Black women and girls seeing this work, it’s all about those moments of reflection.

Swaby told MFA that she hopes Black women will, “see themselves in this way that’s rooted in this practice of love, to see themselves represented with reverence and care."

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