Gio Swaby’s Love Letters to Black Women at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg

“How long did that take you?”

If artists had a dollar for every time they heard this question, they would have more wealth than their collectors.

Each canvas, sculpture, basket, quilt, pot, or drawing represents the culmination of years of study, practice, and life experience, whether the finished project took weeks or minutes to complete. Gio Swaby (b. 1991; Nassau, Bahamas) is a case in point.

Her sensitive, nuanced portraits are the result not only of a long practice of artistic research, but also of a deep commitment to her relationship with each observer, a relationship that allows her portraits to transcend mere physical representation into insightful studies of character. In fact, Swaby considers the finished work of art simply a byproduct of the relationship.

“For me, these physical works 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, which now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg (FL). “The work is more about making connections and growing love. These portraits are like a dedication to that work or a remnant of that work.

As anyone can attest, relationships—successful, lasting ones—require dedicated, selfless work to achieve. It’s a job Swaby seems to enjoy. This is the work on which her ground-breaking paintings are based.

Swabi knows each of his caretakers well. She describes her sisters and close friends. Conversation plays a key role in achieving these portraits of beauty and strength, which she calls “love letters to black women.” Her portraits begin with a photo shoot where artist and subject collaborate on a cohesive story told through clothing and poses. Swaby brings their personal style to the fore – visible in detailed images of jewellery, hair and clothing – creating a space for self-definition and casual self-expression.

“I want to create portraits that are full of the essence of that person and who they are, and to be able to do it in a delicate way that brings so much respect and reverence and love to the person depicted,” Swaby told the MFA, St. Petersburg during an online preview of the show.

Thus, combined with her unique range of textile-based techniques, including embroidery and appliqué, made from an incredible array of colorful fabrics and intricate free-flowing lines of thread on canvas, Swaby has found a fresh and fascinating way to make an individual mark on a genre , which has been around for thousands of years and has been practiced by countless artists. But none like Swaby.

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

A decolonizing portrait

Swaby’s works serve a greater purpose than celebrating her inner circle.

“So much of the art that we’ve seen on black people, historically, hasn’t been done by black people. It shows so much suffering and trauma and I think seeing ourselves represented in that way has a huge negative effect on our mental and emotional health because we see a version of ourselves reflected in these images,” Swaby also shared with Hannah-Jones in an exhibition catalog. “What I try to do is use my practice to grapple with these images, to create representations that are nuanced and maintain agency for the viewer. My practice is an attempt to decolonize portraiture in a way that subverts or often directly rejects those images that show us at our lowest moments.’

The MFA, St. Petersburg’s presentation of more than 40 Schwab portraits of exclusively black women remains surprising in a museum context because of its rarity. Forty portraits of white men – nobles, wealthy, military and political leaders – or even 40 photographs of white women – most likely naked, idealized, pleasing, objectified – would not raise an eyebrow. After all, this has been the stock and trade of art museums for as long as there have been art museums.

But placing all these everyday black women together, exclusively—by honoring them, celebrating them—in a prestigious institution not far from its Greek and Roman antiquities and the subsequent series of European fine art masterpieces still feels innovative. Almost subversive.

What are they them doing here?

This impression speaks to the continuing legacy of colonialism on museums. Of culture.

“When you’re a white person growing up in a world where the world of art, media, television, movies, everything reflects you, I think it can be very difficult to understand how humiliating, how obliterating it is to never 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-winning Project 1619, and Swaby admirer, explained in the catalog at the exhibition.

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

Swaby makes no secret of the fact that her work is specifically created for black women and girls. Not that it can’t appeal to everyone, but this work is unashamedly 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 associated stereotypes,” she says.

Of course, Swaby is also a member of this group, and as is often said, one cannot take care of others without taking care of oneself. Swaby’s art does that.

“I see (my art making) as part of the healing process from the traumas I’ve suffered in my life. I’m doing this work to know it’s possible,” Swaby says in the book. “I know it’s a weird thing to say because I’m the guy who does it, but it still reminds me that it’s possible to achieve the greatest things I aspire to despite a system that’s built so that I would never come close to achieving them.”

The portrait as activism.

In her own words

A signature feature of the “Fresh Up” exhibition is that Swaby introduces each series on display through a personal, written introduction.

At the beginning of “My Hands Are Clean,” she writes:

“I don’t care if your ‘hands are clean’ because what you really want is for me to sacrifice my personal comfort to satisfy your curiosity. This is not an innocent request. You don’t know how. You are not qualified. You’re sure to thwart the magical forces that keep either my braids or my flat twists in all their glory to and fro. Caring for my hair is an act of love initiated and mediated by touch. Do not violate, disrespect or dishonor this sacred space.

Black female hair plays a central role in Swaby’s work. 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,” reads the wall text. “I see my hair as a physical connection to my line; it gives me a glimpse into the existence of my ancestors whose personal stories have been buried in colonial retellings. I see caring for my hair as a path to reconnecting. The prevalent colonial standard of beauty can overwhelm us with trauma and shame related to our hair. This series is a way for me to contribute to the ongoing effort to reposition black hair as a beautiful extension of ourselves, to be cared for with love and the highest respect.”

Swabi, refreshingly, makes no effort to be coy about her artworks and their motivations. Although it is complex, it is not mysterious. Deeply meaningful and crystal clear. In these ways, she opens her work up for appreciation to a wider audience among the general public, an audience partially reflected in her portraits, an audience that museums have historically failed to attract or attempt to attract. Or you want to.

“Gio Swaby: Fresh Up” is on view in St. Petersburg through October 9, 2022, followed by stops at the Art Institute of Chicago, April 8 through July 3, 2023, and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts from August until November 2023

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