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‘Gio Swaby: Fresh up’ at PEM — A joyful love letter to Black women

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
‘Gio Swaby: Fresh up’ at PEM — A joyful love letter to Black women

The first thing visitors notice in “Gio Swaby: Fresh Up” at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem is the music. Beyoncé, Chaka Khan and Lizzo pulse from the speakers, subverting the quiet, reverent and frankly stodgy museum experience into a girl’s night out atmosphere. The music is just the beginning. Swaby, a Bahamian artist working in Canada, is all about uplifting and celebrating Black women in her textile-based portraits.

“New Growth Second Chapter 7,” thread and fabric sewn on canvas. PHOTO: COURTESY OF PEM

“Fresh Up” features 40 of Swaby’s works, all portraits of women created using thread and carefully selected fabrics. Swaby starts her pieces with a studio session photographing her subject. She puts on a playlist with songs like the ones guests will hear in the exhibition, and encourages her subjects to dance, dress up and embrace their bodies and themselves. This is the powerful, feminine, self-love energy that Swaby captures in her portraits.

“My work operates in the context of understanding love as liberation — a healing and restorative force,” reads a quote from Swaby in the exhibition. “These pieces celebrate each individual’s personal style and highlight the beauty of imperfections.”

Swaby grew up watching her seamstress mother work, and textiles, sewing and fabric are crucial to the artist’s representations. Utilizing these materials pays homage to Swaby’s childhood and the unique textiles created in her native country, and it also helps subvert the long-held designation of textile craft as “women’s work” historically devalued in the Western art historical canon.

“Another Side to Me Second Chapter 3,” thread and fabric sewn on canvas. PHOTO: IAN RUBINSTEIN

Swaby also shows the underside of her creations, the tangled threads that bunch up under a sewing machine needle, the backside of textile work that’s usually covered up or pressed against the exhibition wall. Here she symbolizes the messy but beautiful interior of women.

PEM Associate Curator Lydia Peabody says, “One of the special fabrics that we call out in our exhibition is her use of Androsian batik fabrics. This is batik fabric that’s made on the island of Andros in the Bahamas. Still to this day, there is a large community of specialized women that are trained to hand-stamp this type of cotton fabric.”

The fabric often has images of shells and sea creatures imprinted on it, pulling from the natural environment of the Bahamas. In Swaby’s hands, these fabrics become skirts, shoes and even hair in her portraits.

The exhibit is a vibrant, joyful love letter to Black women. Swaby takes elements of her subjects that they are often criticized for — hair, clothes, curves — and wraps them in colorful, bold fabrics. This is an act of love. The artist swaddles these women in comfort and acceptance while showing the world their power.

“Fresh Up” is unabashedly feminine. The walls are bathed in pastel colors, the show features a lit-up selfie mirror and the wall text discusses going-out clothes. This exhibition takes those trappings of girlhood and later womanhood out of their societally relegated designations as childish or silly, and validates them.

“I hope that when Black women and girls see my work, they see parts of themselves reflect with reverence, utmost care and love,” writes Swaby. “My practice is reinforced by these beautiful moments of reciprocity. I create this work in celebration of us. Always and forever.”

“Gio Swaby: Fresh Up” runs at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem through Nov. 26.

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