The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg presents the first solo museum exhibition of multidisciplinary artist Gio Swaby (b. 1991, Nassau, Bahamas), whose work explores the intersections of Blackness and womanhood. Employing the portrait genre and a range of textile-based techniques, Swaby’s work is anchored in a desire to present and celebrate the complex personalities of the sitters. Interested in restorative forms of resistance, she has stated, “My work operates in the context of understanding love as liberation, a healing, and restorative force. These pieces celebrate personal style, strength, beauty, individuality, and imperfections.”
Swaby works in series form, and the exhibition will feature bodies of work spanning 2017 through 2021. Growing up surrounded by the threads and fabrics of her mother, a seamstress, Swaby chooses to work in mediums traditionally associated with domesticity as a means to imbue her works with familiarity, labor, and care. Swaby upends tradition, however, and gives the sewing medium a sense of monumentality with the life-size series Pretty Pretty. The subjects are intricately rendered in freehand lines of thread, and shown on the reverse side of the canvas so that the stitching process—its knots and loose threads, so often hidden—is visible. There’s a vulnerability to “showing the back,” but Swaby embraces and elevates the imperfections.
Swaby’s art is centered upon the personal connections forged between subject and artist, and conversation is key to achieving these portraits of beauty and power that she deems love letters to Black women. The portraits begin with a photo shoot wherein the subjects are captured in a moment of empowerment and self-awareness. Swaby foregrounds their personal style —seen in the detailed renderings of jewelry, hair, and clothing—creating space for self-definition and unapologetic self-expression.
Swaby earned her BFA in Film, Video and Integrated Media from Emily Carr University of Art + Design, Vancouver, BC and is currently completing an MFA in Interdisciplinary Art, Media and Design at OCAD University, Toronto, ON. She has exhibited internationally, and her work is included in the permanent collections of major public institutions throughout the United States.
This exhibition is co-organized with the Art Institute of Chicago, where it will open in 2023. A fully illustrated catalogue, published by Rizzoli Electa, accompanies the exhibition and features an interview between Swaby and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, as well as series introductions by the artist and essays by Melinda Watt, the Art Institute of Chicago’s Chair and Christa C. Mayer Thurman Curator of Textiles, and Katherine Pill, Curator of Contemporary Art, Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.
Image: Gio Swaby, Pretty Pretty 8 (detail), 2021, Thread and cotton fabric on Muslin, Museum purchase in honor of James G. Sweeny