Her embroidered portraits are anchored in the connections she forges with her subjects: each portrait begins with a photo shoot in which her sitters are captured in a moment of self-awareness and empowerment. In her textile interpretations, Swaby foregrounds their hair, clothing, and jewelry—highlighting and celebrating the subjects’ use of fashion as unapologetic self-definition and self-expression.
My work operates in the context of understanding love as liberation—a healing and restorative force. These pieces celebrate personal style, vulnerability, strength, beauty, individuality, and imperfections.
Having grown up in the Bahamas surrounded by the materials her seamstress mother used, Swaby chose to work in textiles—a medium traditionally associated with domesticity and femininity—as a means to imbue her works with both familiarity and labor-intensive care. She upends tradition, however. Not only do her often life-size portraits give a sense of monumentality to the techniques of embroidery and piecing, but she also presents the reverse side of her intricately rendered canvases so that the stitching process of her freehand style—the normally hidden knots and loose threads—is visible. While there’s a vulnerability to “showing the back,” Swaby embraces and elevates these imperfections.
This exhibition—Swaby’s first solo museum show—brings together seven of Swaby’s series from 2017 through 2021, such as My Hands Are Clean, Love Letters, and Pretty Pretty, along with approximately 15 new works, including her largest work to date, a commission for the US Embassy in Nassau, Bahamas. The title of the show, Fresh Up, developed with the artist, is a Bahamian phrase often used as a way to compliment someone’s style or confident way of being. Swaby has remarked, “It holds a lot of positivity and joy. It also speaks to the tone of confidence and power that I want to create with these works. I love that it is a way to form connections through a simple phrase.”
Gio Swaby: Fresh Up is organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.
The exhibition is curated by Melinda Watt, chair and Christa C. Mayer Thurman Curator of Textiles, Art Institute of Chicago, and Katherine Pill, curator of contemporary art, Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. A fully illustrated catalogue, published by Rizzoli, accompanies the exhibition and includes an interview between the artist and Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, as well as essays by the curators and contributions from Swaby herself.
Major funding for Gio Swaby: Fresh Up is provided by Nicholas Antoine and Wanji and Clive Walcott.