In Bahamian artist Gio Swaby’s colorful sewn portraits, an invisible yet integral thread comes in the form of an invitation to celebrate Blackness and womanhood. Through the language of textiles and pattern, her practice centers on accessibility and facilitating connection with the viewer. “I think about people like me and how I didn’t get into art or museums or anything until I was 19,” she tells Colossal, sharing that the historical exclusion of Blackness in art motivates her to make pieces that reflect individuality and joy in a mirror-like way.
The Toronto-based artist began working with sewing and textiles around ten years ago, and her use of the medium acknowledges the intersection of traditional craft and fine art, viewed through the lens of personal relationships. “My mother was a seamstress,” she says. “I grew up in that world, but I didn’t come back to it as an art medium until around 2013. I associated it with a special love between us, and I wanted to share that with the viewer, too.”
Sharing in connection and conversation is central to Swaby’s process, which involves sitting down with her subjects prior to beginning each piece. Most of the portraits represent women in her immediate circle of family and friends. “I already have a sense of who they are, but I learn more about them, and they learn more about me,” she says. The conversations lead to the selection of fabrics, which the artist chooses based on the individuals’ stories and personalities, with an emphasis on exuberant hues and bold designs. In self-portraits, she considers family histories and memories. She says, “I picked out a hummingbird print for my dad because I heard a story that when he was a kid, he was the only one in the neighborhood who could run fast enough to catch a hummingbird.”
In her larger portraits, Swaby incorporates sewing directly onto canvas as a drawing tool, outlining the contours of faces, hands, and hair. Loose threads dangle from the surfaces, suggesting the reverse—typically unseen—side of embroidery and the individuals’ sense of self being perpetually in progress. The titles of her concurrent, ongoing series imply dualities and connections. In New Growth, vibrant silhouettes celebrate Black hair while also alluding to a person who is thriving; Love Letter references a sentiment passed from one person to another—or perhaps even to oneself; and Another Side To Me recognizes the innumerable, intersecting facets of every identity.
Recently exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida, Swaby’s solo exhibition Fresh Up travels to the Art Institute of Chicago and will open on April 8. Find more of her work at Claire Oliver Gallery, on her website, and follow updates on Instagram.
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