The Art Institute of Chicago unveils the first solo exhibition by Bahamian textile artist Gio Swaby.
When you think of the Art Institute of Chicago, names of old masters like Monet, van Gogh, Picasso and Dalí might be the fi rst that come to mind. This spring, though, the venerated institution shines a spotlight on an exciting new talent: 32-year-old Gio Swaby, a Bahamian multidisciplinary artist whose intricate textile-based works celebrate Blackness and womanhood through the lenses of hair, clothing, jewelry and more. Here, exhibition curator Melinda Watt, the Art Institute’s chair and Christa C. Mayer Thurman Curator of Textiles, shares some of the highlights of Gio Swaby: Fresh Up. Through July 3, 111 S. Michigan Ave.
"New Growth Second Chapter 11" (2021, thread and fabric applique on canvas), 16 inches by 20 inches, collection of the Altman Family
“Regular but regal—a friend of the artist described her this way, and I think this comment applies to ‘New Growth Second Chapter 11.’ The bun/updo topping the beautiful, long-necked profile of the sitter is undoubtedly regal. The elegance of the silhouette contrasts with the pretty floral cotton fabrics—cheerful everyday textiles.” Editor’s note: This work will be on view in the exhibition starting May 15.
“My Hands Are Clean 4” (2017, thread and fabric applique on canvas), 20 inches by 16 inches (unstretched), courtesy of Claire Oliver and Ian Rubinstein
“‘My Hands Are Clean 4’ is a self-portrait, and it was chosen as the cover of the exhibition catalog Gio Swaby: Fresh Up in mid-2021. It was a quick conversation and a unanimous decision among the publishing and curatorial team. It’s a relatively small work and appears on the cover at an almost one-to-one ratio. The directness of her gaze and her luxuriant hair and brilliant fl oral outfi t represent the unique beauty and confi dence of the artist and what she aspires to communicate through her portraits of Black women and girls.”
“Pretty Pretty 9” (2021, thread machine-stitched on reverse of canvas with fabric applique), 84 inches by 36 inches, The Art Institute of Chicago, Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke Endowment Fund, 2021.400
“The Art Institute acquired ‘Pretty Pretty 9’ early in 2021—the Pretty Pretty series of full-length, nearly life-sized portraits is admittedly my favorite series of Gio’s work to date. This piece appealed to me immediately because of the subject’s crouched position within the full length of canvas. She has the space to move if and when she chooses, but this portrait represents a moment of contemplation. She could spring into action at any second.”
“Pretty Pretty 8” (2021, thread machine-stitched on reverse of canvas with fabric applique), 84 inches by 38 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, museum purchase in honor of James G. Sweeny, 2021.2
“‘Pretty Pretty 8’ encapsulated Gio Swaby’s goals for this series. The subject, a close friend of the artist, is caught in a moment of adjusting/checking her hair— perhaps the final touch to her look. Each element is rendered with such care and attention to detail that we can feel the texture of the stylish ripped jeans. The pop of color provided by the fabric of her bralette anchors the composition.”
“Another Side to Me Second Chapter 3” (2021, thread machine-stitched on reverse of canvas with fabric applique), 36 inches by 28 inches, private collection, Israel
“The presentation of Gio Swaby: Fresh Up at the Art Institute begins with a series of six self-portraits, titled Another Side to Me Second Chapter; this is the third of that series. The change in poses between each work is fairly subtle, and it gains significance when all of the works are installed together.”
“Another Side to Me 4” (2020, thread machinestitched on reverse of canvas), 36 inches by 24 inches, collection of Jason Reynolds
“Another Side to Me is the first series in which Swaby deliberately worked from the reverse of the canvas, only turning the work to see the face when the stitching was complete. The economy of line, the variation in its thickness and the dangling threads result in portraits that are simultaneously delicate and powerful.”
“Going Out Clothes 3” (2020, thread and fabric applique on canvas), 42 inches by 32 inches, courtesy of Claire Oliver and Ian Rubinstein
“Swaby writes about the celebratory feeling of wearing one’s ‘going out clothes’ or special occasion clothes, and she describes how dressing up is an opportunity for ‘joy and self-fulfillment.’ I think this is a universal experience, but in this series, and throughout her work, Swaby illustrates what is unique about the style of Black women in her tightknit circle of friends and family.”
“Gyalavantin” (2021, thread and fabric applique on canvas), 114 inches by 90 inches, courtesy of the Claire Oliver Gallery and the United States of America Embassy, Nassau, Bahamas
“This is Swaby’s largest work to date and her only multifigural composition. Here, she uses this major commission as an opportunity to reunite three dear friends in one work, despite their physical separation during the depths of the COVID pandemic. And now, as the friends go their separate ways in life, this work also serves to capture a moment of connection in their lives.”
“New Growth 2” (2021, triptych, thread and fabric applique on canvas), 14 inches by 36 inches, collection of Rasheed Newson
“The New Growth series foregrounds the variety and beauty of Black hairstyles. This triptych, and the series overall, serves as a lexicon and celebration of style.”
Photography by: PHOTO COURTESY OF GIO SWABY