Gio Swaby: Fresh Up

The Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg presents the first solo museum exhibition of Bahamian artist Gio Swaby

When Gio Swaby was a teenager in the Bahamas, adults told her not to go out “gyalavantin” with her friends all weekend. Over a decade later, “Gyalavantin” has become one of the many Bahamian phrases Swaby uses as a title in her new exhibition “Fresh Up,” which opens May 28 at St Petersburg’s Museum of the Fine Arts.


Gio Swaby presents Fresh Up at The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg

“Fresh up,” as you may have guessed, is another phrase often heard in Swaby’s hometown of Nassau. “If you’re dressed really nice or just got a new haircut, your friends might say, ‘You really fresh up today!’” She explains.

“Fresh Up” is the first solo museum exhibition of Swaby’s work, curated by Katherine Pill, Curator of Contemporary Art at the St Pete MFA, and Melinda Watt, Chair of the Textile Department at the Art Institute of Chicago. “Artists like Gio are coming to the fore,” Watt says. Pill adds, “This exhibition is conceptually geared towards increasing representation, particularly nuanced representations of specifically black women.”



The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida

Swaby’s pieces in this exhibition are textile portraits that are based on snapshots that Swaby took of herself, her sisters, and a variety of friends and fellow Bahamian artists. Swaby emphasizes the personal style in these pieces because, “Personal style is a kind of resistance for black women. I feel like black women live in this paradox of hyper-visibility and invisibility. There’s power in dressing in a way that’s unique to you. You’re saying, ‘I’m here, and I am taking up this space.’ A lot of these works are about taking up space unapologetically.”



Gio Swaby discusses her work, Fresh Up, at The Museum of Fine Arts


The pieces in Swaby’s exhibition were created between 2017 and 2021. The oldest, “My Hands Are Clean,” is a series of self-portraits that represent the experience Swaby had of moving to Vancouver in 2013 and, for the first time in her life, having random strangers come up to her and ask if they could touch her hair. “Something people would say after I had said ‘please don’t touch me’ was, ‘don’t worry, my hands are clean!’” It is one of multiple series in the exhibition that highlights the versatility and beauty of Black hair.

“Another Side to Me” is a series that was created by reverse stitching. The viewer sees the back of the canvas, hence the title. “The form follows the function here,” Swaby explains, “Showing the underside where the stitching is not as perfect, where there are tangles and knots and loose threads, uncovers the beauty in imperfections.”

To Swaby, the loose threads from the portrait are also an allusion to the “pulling at the thread” idiom. These loose threads show that the women in the portraits have a lot to be uncovered by the viewer; there are vulnerabilities amongst their strengths. “I’m exploring the balance between strength and vulnerability and how they can exist side by side.” With that said, Swaby implores museumgoers, “Please don’t literally pull at the threads!”



Gio Swaby Fresh Up running May 28 through October 9, 2022

The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg is proud to present the first solo museum exhibition of multidisciplinary artist Gio Swaby (b. 1991, Nassau, Bahamas) whose work explores the intersection of Blackness and womanhood. The exhibition features more than 40 works ranging from intimate portraits to life-size textile panels fabricated from sewn line drawing and quilting techniques. Creating unique portraits through a range of textile-based methodologies, Swaby’s work is anchored in a celebration of the imperfect and complex humanity of Black women. The exhibition was co-organized by the MFA, St. Petersburg, and the Art Institute of Chicago, and will open in St. Petersburg on May 28, 2022.

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