Framing Black Sisterhood: An Interview with Gio Swaby By Nya Lewis

Claire Oliver Gallery (Harlem, NY) presents debut exhibition by artist Gio Swaby Both sides of the Sun on view April 10 – June 5, 2021

Gio Swaby. New Growth 8, Fabric and Thread Stitched onto Canvas, Claire Oliver Gallery 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

By Nya Lewis

Gio Swaby‘s work seeks to underscore joy and resilience while showcasing the beauty in imperfection and individuality as a counterpoint to the often-politicized Black body. Ranging from creating life-scale black and white sewn line portraits, to polychrome floral quilted works, Swaby is a multimedia textile artist whose figurative work explores the intersection of womanhood and Blackness: celebrating individuality and multiple ways of being rather than a flattened singular narrative. Swaby is a graduate of Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, Canada. She is currently an MFA candidate at OCAD University in Toronto, where she currently resides.

Sunday mornings are for waffle brunch, soulful music, plant watering, and sisterhood. I had the honor of sitting down with artist Gio Swaby, who allowed me to be a slow witness to her practice as we recapped her skyrocket success from her 2018 exhibit in a Vancouver storefront to the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, The New York Times, and beyond. From one Carib transplant to another, she greets me with a warm recognizable accent. We immediately dive into anecdotes about missing home, food, sunny weather, grannies, and colorful contemporary art. After a decade of performance, film, painting, drawing, prominent art collectors enthusiastically receive her textile work, in her major debut show at the Claire Oliver Gallery.

Gio Swaby, Pretty Pretty 6. Fabric and Thread Stitched onto Canvas, Claire Oliver Gallery 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

Contributing to a new wave of bad-ass crafters and quilters, Swaby’s bold silhouettes and fabric on canvas work comes alive, meeting the call of freedom, reckoning, and subtlety that encompasses the ever-expanding definition of Black womanhood. The works are in conversation with each other, as she creates an enclave of safety and healing, framing Black sisterhood. It is inspiring. Like many of her influences, Beverly Y. Smith, Bisa Butler, Sherry Shine, Faith Ringgold, Ebony Patterson, Tavares Strachan, and other unnamed, underrepresented, and under-supported Black women artists that have paved the way for textile portraiture to be considered in galleries and institutions, Swaby uses quilting as a medium to challenge identity politics and relay diverse narratives of Black womanhood, speaking to the splendor and skill of the sewing tradition. The humble 29-year-old artist exhibits like a distinguished archive in her evolved ability to capture detail. The life-scale line works, created entirely from thread, the small-scale, intimate 11 x 14 mixed-media textile portraits, every facial inflection, bend of the knee, and movement in the garment is made real through needlework. The works are delicate, emotionally coded, and strategically minimal.

She is reclaiming the aesthetic values of Caribbean practices; the works straddle African traditions and post-modern European ideas of creativity. Swaby’s creations are bright, colorful, tactile artworks that challenge the impossible possibility of inserting marginalized folk art into the mainstream western canon. Swaby is masterfully skilled and has firmly situated herself within art history’s portrait tradition. Afros, dreadlocks, widespread noses, and beautiful smiles on Victorian florals, laces, and needlepoint rings- Swaby contrasts modern diasporic identity, challenging the visual vocabulary and conventions of colonial history and prestige. The models dressed in their everyday clothing assume organic poses and postures, inviting the audience to a self-proclaimed visual inheritance, the Black feminine. Each work is as unique as its subject and successfully portrays a celebration of strength and vulnerability. Though the subjects and stylistic references for her textiles seem oddly juxtaposed, the exhibit speaks to a long and complex relationship with women and sewing. Embroidery, needlepoint, and sewing crafts historically are intrinsically tied to women’s art. Some of the earliest acknowledgments of women’s art are in religious embroidery script and textile. Stich work is loaded with a heritage of women’s protest, activism, and resourcefulness. Predating the right of Black women to be counted members of society, craft, and domestic arts were central to women’s artistic identity. At the unique intersection of womanhood and Blackness, enslaved Afro-descendants used quilting as an innovative way to record and transfer their knowledge and history, and later as one of the only viable forms of labor in colonized regions.

For Gio, there is tremendous ancestral pride and pleasure in crafting. The power is in the doing and in the process of making. The exhibit embodies her connection to the medium, as the artworks are founded on traditions handed down from her mother and grandmother. Swaby’s mother passed away in 2020 and was a lifelong seamstress whose home sewing station was never short of extra fabric and thread. Gio shares that her school uniforms, clothes, and linens were sewn by her mother, who taught her to use the machine. Fabric and tactile work are an ingrained influence that allows for closeness and connection to her departed mum. For her, sewing is meditative, reformative, and revolutionary.

NL: Nassau massive! I have had the privilege of following your career for the last four years, and one of the reoccurring themes for you has been an investigation of displacement and longing. What does Both sides of the Sun vocalize, and are there new concepts in conversation?

GS: My grandmother had a quote that hung in the house, the author always escapes me, but I will never forget the line, “To love and be loved is to feel the sun from both sides” All the women that I have represented and drawn in these works are from the Bahamas, and the physical separation from them (now due to COVID) but in life due to school and other opportunities, has also severed my connection to Black women I love, to the sisterhoods that fuels me. I see the sun as a connector, the spiritual bridge between when I feel the sun and when they feel the sun sustains me.

NL: How have your personal experiences shaped your solo exhibit?

GS: This exhibit needed to feel like joy. It has been a year of working through trauma- and this body of work allowed me to look at resistance through a lens of healing. Love, liberation, joy are all also forms of resistance when enacted by Black communities. There is an emotional labor that goes into Black sisterhood. The adjacency demands work and personal responsibility. On this spectrum of resistance lives restoration. Living in Canada, especially in Vancouver, you are completely isolated from Black community. Finding other Bahamian Black women, befriending them, has been my main support system. That sharing of experiences is important. We hold reflections of love up for one another. Bahamian women show up for you when it is difficult to show up and vocalize fear, pain, stress. They show up with little explanation needed. That is the cultural coding.

Gio Swaby, Love Letter 5. Fabric and Thread Stitched onto Canvas, Claire Oliver Gallery 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

NL: Bisa Butler, whose exhibition at the Institute of Chicago headlines for the recognition of quilting currently, has influenced your work significantly. There is more discourse now about how Black women artists have contributed to the American canon historically, including the very significant aesthetic and tradition of quilting; how has this impacted your evolution?

GS: It is still unimaginable to me that Bisa Butler and I are represented by the same gallery. Her quilting made it possible for me to see a path to institutional engagement. She led the way. Artists like Faith Ringgold and Ebony Patterson, Tavares Strachan (who showed at the Venice Biennale) their technique specifically for Black artists have forged a distinct artistic identity in relationship to textile work and the diaspora. There are a million more writers and filmmakers, and practitioners who have shaped my perspective, Kachelle Knowles, and her minimalism and simplicity. All of these artists helped me to develop my own sense of authenticity.

NL: There has been a noticeable evolution in your work both in scale and medium. My first introduction to your work was with your moon man, which was more performance and film-based. Your show at the Cheeky Proletariat explored more intimately sized needlepoint portraits. At the time, you created by projecting your image onto the fabric and tracing your shadow. How has the articulation of your craft shifted?

GS: I didn’t want to be tied to any medium. I wanted to make sure I had access to whatever skill would be necessary for the work I was dreaming up. Bold silhouettes and fabric pieces are still a part of my aesthetic. I have introduced more line work. They are sewn some by hand, most by the sewing machine. Blind sewn and displayed on the reverse side of the canvas. There is a beauty in the imperfection of the knots and excess threading hanging, and bare stitching. Going home gave me an opportunity to have models sit for me. This shifted my process to a focus on capturing the power and detail from the photo reference to the canvas, this felt monumental, and so the pieces should be monumental in size. I like to think my practice is circular. I come back around to mediums and pieces as I explore different ways of making. I will never be finished; I am always reaching towards new levels.

NL: There is a complexity both in theory and in form that reminds me of Kehinde Wiley. You use the subject’s personal style as a tool to unpack this experience of invisibility and hypervisibility. It is a spectacle to see Black women in their natural form resisting the power dynamics and harm of misogynoir. Black bodies in public space can become overtly politicized. You have subverted the gaze by posturing them in regal-ity, a rewriting of history similar to Wiley, who repositions Black people into spaces of empowerment, inclusion, and unapologetic self-expression. How does your work respond to the times?

GS: This is a love letter to Black women. A celebration of strength, resourcefulness, usefulness, and vulnerability. I am making space to divest from the tropes and imposed imagery of Black normality to share a moment that encourages the audience to see every line detail that makes these individuals special. There is specificity to the work. It asks us to consider multiple ways of being and seeing. To challenge how we observe Black womanhood and to hold room to have primary, more important dialogue about Black sisterhood, which is to ask how do we want to see ourselves and each other?

Gio Swaby, Love Letter 3, Fabric and Thread Stitched onto Canvas. Claire Oliver Gallery 2021. Image Courtesy of the artist.

NL: Black Artists in North America are experiencing a heightened interest in their expertise and practice. After the murder of George Floyd, many institutions went into survivalist mode, quickly acquiring Black art and hiring Black practitioners as the lack of representation in their galleries was called into question. How do you navigate tokenism, and do you feel forced to create identity-based work?

GS: Not forced, but honored, part of my identity as a Black artist is that I feel called to this work. I have a strong interest in exploring Afro-diasporic identities in my work. This investigation is just for myself, and I often create without the expectation that anyone is going to see it. It is about the process. The work is in the visiting. I am building a balance between aesthetic and concept by trying to prioritize real connection. I love Blackness so much, the creativity and the uniqueness, the similarities between us, between Black women globally, there is always something inspiring to find there. I am always wary of tokenism. I try to take into consideration the historical evidence of the institution before I work with them. Is there a genuine interest in my work, or are you filling a column because you’re curating something “Black”? I position myself in a way where my work is always closely representative of my message, of my honest lived experience as a Black woman. This usually weeds out the possibility of my work becoming homogenous.

NL:Your series, “She Used to be Scared of Hair Comb” 2017 has found its permanent home in The Current in Nassau, Bahamas. What a homecoming! Though there are so many bridges to understanding Caribbean art as its genre or aesthetic, artists from the islands often do not get the recognition they deserve. How do you work to define yourself as an artist within the Caribbean contemporary canon?

GS: I would almost say I am in between. I go home now, and I am considered too Canadian to some Bahamians. It’s strange. When you say Caribbean art, people think of palm trees and beach landscapes, but The Bahamas has some of the most capable artists the world has ever seen. It’s a melting pot of all of our colonial influences. The color palette is representative of our lands—its flora and fauna, and metalwork, pottery, leatherwork, oil-based paintings, textile, beading, folk traditional art. I could go on. There are so many techniques and styles unique to the Caribbean- That mash of multiple identities. I do my best to embody those things when I create. To use bright colors and prints that remind me of home. I want to make sure I do not lose these parts of myself.

Gio Swaby, Love Letter 6, Fabric and Thread Stitched onto Canvas. Claire Oliver Gallery 2021. Image Courtesy of the artist.

NL: So, the saying goes for Canadian artists, it is not that your work is terrible, but that no one has seen it! How has it been to navigate the US art scene?

GS: It is hard to know. Everything has been digital and at a distance—these weird times. I have not even seen my work in person in Harlem. I have done all the press virtually from Toronto. I have been so removed from the physical process. I am not sure that I would call it navigating. It is hard to reconcile when my body isn’t there. It is been a rollercoaster—it is all so incredible exciting. It feels like my career has moved quickly in a very distinct direction in a short space of time. The gallery represents Bisa Butler and has a small roster including a number of Black Women artists, with a historic reputation of acknowledging and collecting Black artists and marginalized artists so I felt it was a good fit at Claire Oliver Gallery. There is definitely more opportunity for my work to be seen, and out in the world. I have more eyes on my work now. I also feel connected to Black collectors and have been prioritizing selling the works to Black collectors, which may not have been an option in Canada. There is a lot of accessibility to Black community with the gallery being situated in Harlem.

NL: Have you had time to take it all in, or are you already contemplating what’s next?

GS: I want to be present with my work. It is consuming to always be thinking about what’s next. It is hard to balance. I didn’t imagine it would get this kind of attention, so I want to manifest long and hard. How can I make the best work for me? How can I maintain a presence at home in the Bahamas? How can I stay connected?

Gio Swaby’s Work is exclusively represented by Claire Oliver Gallery in Harlem, NY. Works from her debut solo show can be seen online.

Nya Lewis is a Vancouver-based, independent curator and MFA student at OCAD. Moved by the goal of equitable access to art and diverse stories in Canada, her work is the culmination of African resistance, love questions, actions, study, and embrace. Currently, she serves as the Founder and Director of Black Art Gastown, a year-round programmer Vancouver Queer Film Festival, and guest curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery and UBC Museum of Anthropology.

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