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‘Fresh Up’: MFA artist Gio Swaby tells personal stories through textiles

Bill DeYoung



Artist Gio Swaby is in St. Petersburg this weekend for the opening of her exhibition "Fresh Up." Photo: Bill DeYoung.

Gio Swaby, Gyalavantin’, 2021, Thread and fabric sewn on canvas, Courtesy of
the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery, New York

Every picture, it’s been wisely observed, tells a story. And with Fresh Up, the exhibition of works opening Saturday at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, artist Gio Swaby tells a remarkable series of personal stories through an unlikely medium: Stitching and fabric.

“It is meaningful for all audiences to see a show like this,” museum director Kristen A. Shepherd said at a media preview of the exhibit Thursday, “particularly because it is helping us to promote nuanced representations of Black women.

“I have great affection for this show, because when I first encountered Gio’s work at the Claire Oliver Gallery in New York, just a little over a year ago, I just knew it was special. I knew it would be meaningful for this community.”

Swaby, from Nassau, Bahamas, refers to her work as “love letters to Black women.” The lines on her canvases are created with thread, some augmented with brightly colored fabric.

Some are portraits and some are life-sized. Some are self-portraits; others depict the artist’s sisters. “I have a very close family,” Swaby explained at the Thursday event. “And I feel like, even though I’ve known them so well, I still learn so much about them through this process of intentional connection around this work.”

This is her first-ever solo museum exhibition. “Fresh Up is very connected to my Bahamian ancestry, my Bahamian history and culture,” she said. “There’s a saying in the Bahamas  – if you’re dressed up really nice, or you just had a haircut, you’re looking really good, your friends might be like ‘Oh, you’re really fresh up today.’

“I just loved that joyful interaction. That celebration of self and others. And I think this work really encapsulates that.”

Above: Another Side to Me 2, 2020, Thread sewn on canvas. Collection of Claire Oliver and Ian Rubinstein (detail); below: Pretty Pretty 6, 2021, Thread and fabric sewn on canvas. Collection of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Purchase with funds given by Mary and Bob Mersky (detail). The hanging threads, Swaby said, are “showing the part of this practice that’s normally hidden. Things that are really often meant to be covered. So there’s an uncovering and there’s a revealing that happens in this work that’s really connected to an exploration of vulnerability.”


A selection of the art in Fresh Up is displayed as the reverse side of the canvas, brilliantly revealing tangles, knots and loose threads that imply a story that’s not yet complete. “For me, it was about this practice of understanding imperfection as beauty, and embracing that imperfection as part of who we are,” Swaby said. “And some of the most beautiful parts of who we are.”

These create, she continued, a “bit of a journey” for the viewer. “They show the points where I’ve stopped the stitching and taken the canvas off the sewing machine. That’s a part of the physical practice of thinking about what it means …

“And the possibility for more stories to be told. For this person’s story to continue, and for more connections to be made.”

Gio Swaby: Fresh Up opens Saturday and will continue through Oct. 9.

Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg website.























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