Home > Art Institute of Chicago > An ode to Black women

At first glance, Gio Swaby’s artwork can be deceptively simple. Her portraits are marked by thin, black lines that sketch the images of beautiful, confident Black women. But looking closer, you are drawn into a complex composition of stitched, knotted, and dangling threads and colorful appliqued fabric on a raw canvas background. 

Simplicity and complexity coexist in her portraits, and this is intentional. Swaby, who is from the Bahamas and currently lives in Toronto, begins each piece with a reference photo of a Black woman in her life—her sisters, friends, and family members. She translates the photo into a drawing on canvas and uses a sewing machine to trace those lines with free-motion quilting techniques. She achieves this by using the needle like a pen and moving the fabric in any direction to create the image.

Swaby’s work is on view through July 3 at the Art Institute of Chicago in a solo exhibition titled “Fresh Up.” It is the second location on a multistop journey—it kicked off at the Museum of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg, Florida, and, in August, it will go to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. 

Gio Swaby, My Hands Are Clean 4, 2017, Collection of Claire Oliver and Ian Rubinstein
© Gio Swaby

The Art Institute exhibition is a remarkable feat for the 31-year-old artist, who has had a meteoric rise in the past few years. Her 2021 debut solo exhibition, “Both Sides of the Sun,” at Claire Oliver Gallery in Harlem, sold out. Her work is now in several major museum collections, such as the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Almost all of Swaby’s pieces are individual portraits, ranging from a depiction from the shoulders up to full-length, practically life-sized images. Most of the portrait sitters stare out at the viewer with confidence and swagger, asserting their right to take up space. They are dressed to impress. For instance, in Another Side to Me Second Chapter 5, (2021), the sitter looks at the viewer over her right shoulder, where an oversized pink plaid coat is strategically draped. Her locks of hair are rendered with detail, and loose black threads emanate from the corner of her mouth and from the crown of her head, creating squiggles against the canvas.

“Aesthetics are important to my work,” Swaby said. “It’s what makes my practice joyful. I try to give each work what it really needs. I try not to prescribe too many rules ahead of time.”

Sometimes she’ll add vibrant patterned fabric, representative of Bahamian life, through applique, in which pieces of fabric are added as decorative elements on top of the background, or freestyle stitch with the sewing machine. 

Gio Swaby, Love Letter 1, 2018, Collection of Roxane Gay and Debbie Millman
© Gio Swaby

“It depends so much on the person I’m representing what these choices are,” Swaby said. “Does it feel right for their portrait? Is it bringing this work to life, or is it stifling it in some ways? It’s a combination of things.”

Swaby works in series, meaning that she creates art in a grouping that shares concepts, techniques, and subjects, to create a cohesive body of work. At the Art Institute, the pieces are arranged by series with Swaby’s own words accompanying them on wall labels and in the audio guide. The portraits in “Going Out Clothes” celebrate the stylish clothes Bahamian women wear out. The “Pretty Pretty” series achieves an extraordinary level of stitched detail in full-length portraiture, with one element of the subject’s clothing highlighted in colorful fabric. And the series “New Growth” depicts the silhouettes of Black women in patterned fabric. It is “an homage to the unique beauty of Black hair and celebrates the depth of skill and creativity that gives rise to such a vast and ever-growing catalogue of styles,” Swaby says in the wall label.

“Seeing this show at the Art Institute has been really interesting because I’m seeing stuff that I didn’t recognize fully at the time [that I made it],” Swaby said.

The exhibition is a powerful expression of love for Black women and girls. Using an anti-colonialist lens, Swaby aims to represent the Black women in her life as multidimensional and full of life. The care and attention she puts into each piece is also a political act—historically, art museums have rarely exhibited artwork about or for Black women. Her work is in conversation with other Black artists such as Bisa Butler, Ebony G. Patterson, and Kehinde Wiley, who work to reclaim and reimagine the ways Black people are represented in art, and the Black writer and theorist bell hooks.

“For me, at the core, it is about expressing love, creating these moments of joy and creating these moments of reflection for Black folks—and especially for Black women and girls coming into the space and being able to see some version of themselves,” Swaby said.

Swaby began her artistic career studying fine art at the College of the Bahamas, in a program based on traditional artmaking ideas, such as painting, drawing, sculpture, and ceramics. But it was at a residency at Popop Studios in Nassau, the Bahamas, when Swaby met the quilter Jan Elliott, that she pivoted from painting and ceramics to an art practice rooted in textiles. Swaby’s mother taught her to sew as a child, but until that moment with Elliott, she hadn’t connected sewing to her artmaking. She made her first fabric-based portrait in 2013. Now it’s the central feature of her practice and an ongoing way to express her love for her mother.

Another turning point in Swaby’s practice came when she began working on the “Another Side To Me” series. This was the first time she decided to exhibit the back of the canvas, the side typically hidden from view, as the front.

“It’s definitely an exploration of vulnerability. That vulnerability as an artist—to show the part that technically is where the mistakes are, the mistakes and corrections,” Swaby said. “To celebrate those imperfections and understand them as the thing that makes me me.”

Swaby later earned a fine arts degree in film, video, and integrated media at Emily Carr University. Last year she earned a master of fine arts degree in interdisciplinary art, media, and design at Ontario College of Art & Design University. Despite her academic credentials, Swaby wants her work to feel accessible to the viewer without the pressure to have a highly intellectual experience every time.

Gio Swaby, Another Side to Me 4, 2020, Collection of Jason Reynolds
© Gio Swaby

“Sometimes you just want to see this work and feel this moment of joy,” Swaby said. “You want to celebrate the beauty of it. And that is perfectly good. Sometimes . . . you do want to have that very strong heady experience and connect with the work in that way. Both of those things are incredibly valid. I don’t want to hold a hierarchy of how the work is seen or received.”

The Art Institute’s installation was a very collaborative process. Melinda Watt, textiles department chair and Christa C. Mayer Thurman curator for the museum, said that the team working on the exhibition wanted to honor Swaby’s intentions, down to the positioning of dangling threads and how her works on unstretched canvases were hung.

“Those little, hopefully invisible distinctions—invisible to the visitor—have been the subject of long conversations with the artist, the conservators, and myself as a curator,” Watt said. “That was . . . really particularly special to us.”

Swaby often works on as many as three to four portraits concurrently. She shifts fluidly between series, letting her formal training and instinct guide her process. She said her practice combines her head and heart, but love always rules.

“I want to be a girl that thinks with her heart.”

“Gio Swaby: Fresh Up”
Through 7/3: Mon 11 AM-5 PM, Thu 11 AM-8 PM, Fri-Sun 11 AM-5 PM, Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan, artic.edu/exhibitions, adults $25 ($35 Fast Pass, $22 Illinois residents, $20 Chicago residents), seniors 65+, students, and teens 14-17 $19 ($29 Fast Pass, $16 Illinois residents, $14 Chicago residents), children under 14 free

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