Gio Swaby’s textile portraits celebrate self-expression, love, and the intersections of Blackness and womanhood. @gioswaby
SALEM, MA – This summer, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) presents the New England debut of Gio Swaby: Fresh Up. Featuring nearly two dozen textile-based portraits, the exhibition celebrates self-expression and the cultivation of love through the work of Bahamian-born, Canada-based artist Gio Swaby (b. 1991). This exhibition, Swaby’s first solo museum show, was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, and the Art Institute of Chicago and is on view at PEM from August 12 through November 26, 2023.
Swaby creates portraits of the women in her life using various sewing techniques. Each portrait begins with a photo shoot where the artist invites women to show up as they are, wearing what makes them feel comfortable and confident. As the subjects relax in front of her camera, Swaby captures them in moments of self-awareness and empowerment. These images of friends, sisters, and herself are then transformed through the artist’s machine embroidery and needlework. Anchored in the desire to represent and celebrate nuanced ways Black women express themselves, Swaby refers to the portraits as “love letters to Black women and girls.”
The title of the exhibition, Fresh Up, 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.”
The daughter of a seamstress, Swaby works with thread and fabric. Her choice in medium aims to celebrate textile’s association with domesticity and femininity historically by highlighting women’s underappreciated and underrecognized work. The portraits Often feature bright, bold Bahamian fabrics and emphasize the artist’s avant-garde approach to piecing, embroidery, and scale. The life-size portraits give a sense of monumentality, whereas smaller works invite close looking. In several examples, Swaby presents the reverse side of her intricately sewn canvases — the side with knots and loose threads — so that the stitching process of her free-motion quilting style is visible. In revealing the reverse side, the artist makes a vulnerable offering to demonstrate the strength to embrace our imperfections and love ourselves exactly how we are.
“In our exhibition, we are excited to share an interactive focused on self-reflection. Visitors are invited to pose in front of mirrors, snap a picture, and post to socials. We
encourage everyone to celebrate individuality, unique strength, and beauty,” said PEM organizing curator Lydia Peabody. “Swaby approaches her art with deep love and connection. At the love letter station, visitors can author letters to loved ones, and the museum will mail them.”
The exhibition brings together seven of Swaby’s series from 2017 through 2021, such as My Hands Are Clean, Love Letters, and Pretty Pretty, along with 15 new works, including her largest work to date, a commission for the U.S. Embassy in Nassau, Bahamas. Concurrent with this exhibition, PEM acquired Pretty Pretty 10, marking the first work of Swaby’s to enter the museum’s collection.
Gio Swaby: Fresh Up traces the debut of the 31-year-old Bahamian-born artist with portraits made in a range of textile-based techniques, such as embroidery and appliqué, celebrating Black women. Gio Swaby’s intimate portraits are unique, highly personal figurative works made from an array of colorful fabrics and intricate, freehand lines of thread on canvas that explore the intersections of Blackness and womanhood. Illustrated with 80 works in full color that span from 2017 to 2021, this 104-page publication is the first book on this contemporary feminist artist who is a rising star in the world of textiles and portraiture. According to Swaby, “I wanted to create a space where we could see ourselves reflected in a moment of joy, celebrated without expectations, without connected stereotypes.” Writers and scholars with multiple points of view take on Swaby’s work and delve into her place within contemporary Black art. This book is available for purchase in-person or online from the PEM Shop.
Saturday, August 12
Gio Swaby: Fresh Up Opening Day &
Salem Heritage Days with Claudia Paraschiv Installation
Join us in celebrating the past and present during the annual Salem Heritage Days! Check out Gio Swaby: Fresh Up and participate in a drop-in art-making activity. See Salem’s Artist-in-Residence Claudia Paraschiv’s Tree of Care + Wonder and contribute to the installation!
Share your impressions with us on social media using #GioSwabyatPEM
The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, and the Art Institute of Chicago organized Gio Swaby: Fresh Up. The exhibition is made possible by the generosity of Carolyn and Peter S. Lynch and The Lynch Foundation, and Leslie and Angus Littlejohn. We thank James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes, Chip, and Susan Robie, and Timothy T. Hilton as supporters of the Exhibition Innovation Fund. We also recognize the generosity of the East India Marine Associates of the Peabody Essex Museum.
Image CreditsGio Swaby. Photo by Anthony Gebrehiwot. © 2023 Peabody Essex Museum.
Gio Swaby, My Hands Are Clean 4, 2017. Thread and fabric sewn on canvas. Collection of Claire Oliver & Ian Rubinstein. © Gio Swaby.
Gio Swaby, New Growth Second Chapter 11, 2021. Thread and fabric sewn on canvas. Collection of The Altman Family. © Gio Swaby.