“You’re the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Gio Swaby as she welcomes the audience to her artist talk and to the first day of the “Fresh Up” exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. She should know. Celebrating the universal themes of love, beauty, identity and representation through textile works that serve like love letters to her subjects and the world, she’s all about creating an intentional connection.
More than expressing love visually, Swaby is hoping for an honest reflection of Black people—”an unmediated version of Blackness,” she calls it. The influences of her country’s culture, people and traditions (she’s originally from the Bahamas), her experience as an immigrant (she currently lives in Canada) and her identity as a Black woman have undoubtedly shaped work that exists at the intersection of Blackness and womanhood.
Bringing together seven of her series from 2017 through 2021, including “Love Letters,” “Pretty Pretty,” “My Hands Are Clean,” “New Growth (an ode to Black hair,” and “Another Side to Me,” her first solo museum exhibition of embroidered portraits is colorful, multilayered and bold—Swaby is unafraid to play with scale and texture. Her intention? To provide an honest representation of her subjects.
Each session begins with a photo shoot. The artist will ask you to pick your outfit, your hairstyle, jewelry and accessories, even your pose—all in the name of agency and empowerment. In order for this to work she wants you to feel comfortable and most like yourself. She proceeds to create her intimate portraits, translating the original photograph into life-size textile panels fabricated from fabric and thread on a free-motion sewing machine. Having learned the craft from her late seamstress mother, the artist associates it with love, care and family—her practice could be seen as an extension of that legacy.
This is where it gets interesting: the end result presents the reverse side of her intricately rendered canvases. The backside—tiny knots, loose threads, uneven surfaces and all that are normally hidden or tucked away—becomes the canvas. Swaby embraces and elevates imperfection and she wants you to do the same. “After all, the most revealing light is the one that honors not only one’s finest attributes but the flaws, faults and vulnerabilities that we all have,” she says.
As layers of vibrant printed textiles dress up her full-scale silhouettes, one realizes that the layering extends beyond floral and geometric patterns into a deeper level: rejecting stereotypes and negative representations of Black people so often portrayed as struggling and suffering, Swaby’s work offers moments in which they appear joyful, uplifted, present and powerful.
“Fresh Up,” taking its name from a Bahamian phrase often used as a way to compliment someone’s style or confident way of being, is about creating space for self-definition and unapologetic self-expression. In the grand scheme of things it’s about helping lay the foundation for deep respect for Black women everywhere. Through softness comes strength; through love comes understanding, liberation and ultimately healing. That’s what Swaby’s work is about.
Gio Swaby’s “Fresh Up” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan, through July 3.