Gio Swaby’s ‘Love Letters To Black Women’ At Museum Of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg

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“How long did that take you?”

If artists had a dollar for every time they heard that question they’d have greater wealth than their collectors.

Each canvas, sculpture, basket, quilt, pot or drawing represents the culmination of years of training, practice and life experience, regardless of whether the finished project took weeks or minutes to complete. Gio Swaby (b. 1991; Nassau, Bahamas) exemplifies this.

Her sensitive, richly nuanced portraits result not only from a long practice of artistic study, but a deep commitment to her relationship with each sitter, the relationship which allows her portraits to go beyond mere physical representations into insightful character studies. In fact, Swaby considers the finished art piece merely a byproduct of the relationship.

“For me, these physical pieces are not necessarily the work itself,” Swaby told Nikole Hannah-Jones for an interview published in “Gio Swaby: Fresh Up,” the exhibition catalog accompanying Swaby’s first solo museum presentation of the same name now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg (FL). “The work is more making connections and growing love. Those portraits are like a dedication to that work, or a residue of that work.”

As everyone can attest to, relationships–successful ones, lasting ones–require committed, selfless work to achieve. It’s work Swaby seems to relish. It’s the work her innovative paintings take as their foundation.

Swaby knows every one of her sitters well. She portrays her sisters and close friends. Conversation serves a key role in achieving these portraits of beauty and power she calls “love letters to Black women.” Her portraits begin with a photo shoot where the artist and subject collaborate on a cohesive story told via clothing and poses. Swaby foregrounds their personal style—seen in the detailed renderings of jewelry, hair and clothing—creating space for self-definition and unapologetic self-expression.

“I want to create portraits that are full of the essence of that person and who they are and be able to do that in a way that’s delicate, that holds so much respect and reverence and love for the person being represented,” Swaby told the MFA, St. Petersburg during an on-line preview of the show.

In so doing, combined with her unique range of textile-based techniques including embroidery and appliqué made from an incredible array of colorful fabrics and intricate freehand lines of thread on canvas, Swaby has found a fresh and compelling way of making an individual mark on a genre which has existed for thousands of years and been practiced by countless artists. None like Swaby, however.

Portraits of such remarkably individual artistic conception and brilliance they make as much of a statement about the artist, as the sitter. They represent a breakthrough artistically. They give viewers a new way of seeing people, a new way of thinking about the world.

Decolonizing Portraiture

Swaby’s artworks target a greater purpose than celebrating her inner circle.

“So much of the art we’ve seen of Black people, historically, has not been made by Black people. It shows so much suffering and trauma, and I think that seeing ourselves represented like that has a strong negative effect on our mental and emotional health because we see a version of ourselves reflected in those images,” Swaby further shared with Hannah-Jones in the exhibition catalog. “What I’m trying to do is use my practice to combat those images, to create representations that are nuanced and maintain the agency of the sitter. My practice is an attempt to decolonize portraiture in a way that subverts, or often outright rejects those images that show us at our lowest moments.”

MFA, St. Petersburg’s presentation of more than 40 Swaby portraits of exclusively Black women remains startling in a museum context for its rarity. Forty portraits of white men–nobility, the wealthy, military and political leaders–or even 40 pictures of white women–most likely nude, idealized, fawning, objectified–wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. After all, that has been the stock and trade of art museums ever since there were art museums.

But placing all these everyday Black women together, exclusively–honoring them, glorifying them–in a prestigious institution not far from its Greek and Roman antiquities and subsequent string of European fine art masterpieces, still feels groundbreaking. Almost subversive.

What are they doing here?

That impression speaks to the ongoing legacy of colonialism on museums. On culture.

“When you are a white person who grows up in a world where the art world, media, television, movies, everything reflects you, I think it can be very difficult to understand how demeaning, how erasing it is not to ever see yourself reflected back, and how that leads to these internalized feelings of inferiority,” Hannah-Jones, a journalist focusing on civil rights and racial injustice for “The New York Times Magazine,” founder of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project,” and Swaby admirer explained in the exhibition catalog.

“When I think about it on a personal level, there’s a journey that I’ve come through of learning to love myself,” Swaby admits. “I think I will always be on this journey of unlearning and relearning. I’ve internalized so much of what I now recognize as a perpetuation of white supremacy and replaced it with personal practices that are rooted in anti-colonialism, love and care.”

Swaby doesn’t hide from the fact her work has explicitly been created for Black women and girls. Not that everyone can’t enjoy it, but this work is unabashedly by, for and about Black women and girls.

“I wanted to create a space where we could see ourselves reflected in a moment of joy, celebrated without expectations, without connected stereotypes,” she says.

Of course, Swaby takes membership in that group as well, and as has often been said, a person can’t care for others without caring for themselves. Swaby’s art does that.

“I see (my artmaking) as a part of the process of healing from the traumas I’ve endured throughout my life. I do this work so that I know that it is possible,” Swaby says in the book. “I know that’s odd to say because I’m the person doing it, but it’s still a reminder to me that it is possible to achieve the greatest things that I aspire to in spite of a system that is built so that I would not ever come close to achieving them.”

Portraiture as activism.

In Her Own Words

A revealing feature of the “Fresh Up” exhibition has Swaby introducing each series on display through a personal, written introduction.

Prefacing “My Hands are Clean,” she writes:

“I don’t care if your ‘hands are clean,’ because what you are really asking is that I sacrifice my personal comfort to satisfy your curiosity. It is not an innocent request. You don’t know how. You are not qualified. You will certainly disturb the magical forces that hold my fro or my braids or my flat twists in all their glory. Caring for my hair is an act of love initiated and mediated by touch. Do not disrupt, disrespect or dishonor this sacred space.”

Black women’s hair plays a central role in Swaby’s artmaking. Her “New Growth” series serves as an ode to Black hair.

“This series honors the activation of ancestral knowledge through the act of hair care,” wall text reads. “I see my hair as a physical connection to my lineage; it gives me a glimpse into the existence of my ancestors whose personal histories were buried in colonial retellings. I see caring for my hair as a pathway to reconnection. A pervasive colonial standard of beauty can overwhelm us with trauma and shame connected to our hair. This series is a way for me to contribute to the continued efforts of repositioning Black hair as a beautiful extension of ourselves to be cared for love and held in the highest regard.”

Swaby, refreshingly, makes no effort to be coy about her artwork and its motivations. While complex, it is not mysterious. Deeply meaningful and crystal clear. In those ways she opens her work for appreciation to a wider audience among the general public, an audience partially reflected in her portraits, an audience museums have historically failed to attract–or try to. Or want to.

“Gio Swaby: Fresh Up” can be seen in St. Petersburg through October 9, 2022, followed by stops at the Art Institute of Chicago, April 8 to July 3, 2023, and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA August to November 2023.

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