It is not a total surprise that Gio Swaby would base her practice on textiles. After all, her mother was a seamstress.
However, there is more to the 31-year-old artist’s life-size embroidered portraits, characterized by bold patterns and freehand machine stitching. From a distance, the contours of her work appear seamless, but, as one moves closer, the intricate stitching and thread come into focus. This impression pervades “Fresh Up,” Swaby’s first museum solo show, which opened last May at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, and is now on view at the Art Institute of Chicago until July 3.
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Curator Melinda Watt, in a walkthrough before the opening of EXPO Chicago, highlighted the multidisciplinary aspect of Swaby’s work. “We are here in textile but we don’t claim Gio for a particular medium,” Watt said. “For me, it’s important to foreground people who are working in fiber and expanding the definition of what art is.”
The exhibition at the Art Institute features seven selections from seven different series created by Swaby until 2021. Watt intentionally arranged Swaby’s self-portraits in the first room and lowered the hanging height by 5 inches to allow for a closer viewing experience.
“We tried to take advantage of this more intimate space to put together conversations and ideas of community, which are important to Gio’s vision,” said Watt, who added that lowering the hanging height “made all the difference in being able to stand in close proximity with the works.”
At the center of Swaby’s work is a celebration of blackness and womanhood, influenced by her upbringing in the Bahamas as a Black woman and now living as an immigrant in Toronto.
“I wanted to be able to encapsulate that experience through the visual language. What I envision in the studio is Black women stepping into a space, seeing a version of themselves reflected, thus connecting with a community that feels warm, welcoming and familiar,” Swaby said. “I try to remove some of that intimidation that can be present in museum spaces.”
While self-portraiture has been a focus for Swaby, she has started expanding her choice of sitters. For example, the series “Pretty Pretty” includes portraits of her three sisters, on display in the second room of the exhibition.
“In Pretty Pretty 11, I decided to highlight my sister Juranda’s fingernails. She could be in the middle of nowhere, of an apocalypse, she will still show up with a fresh set,” Swaby said laughing.
Each portrait is the result of an extended conversation, where Swaby tries to better understand her sitter, to allow them to choose their own outfit, and to capture their natural movement and body positioning. Then comes the physical part of the creative process — the stitching, the sourcing, and the application of fabric.
“I am a hoarder but during the pandemic, I had to learn how to shop online”, said Swaby.
In her latest works, Swaby chose to reveal the underside of her canvases, the side that she sees while stitching.
“I wanted to have some moments of surprise, a new appreciation for the irregularities, the loose threads, the places where I lifted up the canvas before moving on to another area,” said Swaby. “I think there is beauty in imperfection. Why not celebrate it?”.
This new approach is evident in Self-Portrait I (2022), a new work showcased at EXPO Chicago by Claire Oliver, who became Swaby’s exclusive dealer in 2020. The work is presented alongside figurative works by BK Adams, Oliver’s newest addition to her roster, and Stan Squirewell. All three artists will be featured at Oliver’s New York gallery in the coming months.
“Call it a sneak peek, if you will,” Oliver said.