[Race/Related is available as a newsletter. Sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox.]
For many, art provides a voice for the unheard. It can capture moments of positivity that might otherwise be unrepresented.
The first solo exhibition by the Bahamian multimedia textile artist Gio Swaby, entitled “Both Sides of the Sun,” does exactly that. A love letter to Black women, Ms. Swaby’s work — which will be on view at the Claire Oliver Gallery in Harlem, N.Y., from April 10 to June 5 — aims to redefine the often politicized Black body.
A major aspect of Ms. Swaby’s practice is using her work as a celebration. For her, being joyful as a Black woman, as well as connecting and sharing in that joy with other Black women, is a form of resistance. “What I’m trying to achieve, over all, is to have that moment of joy with the viewer, and understanding that Black joy can actually be a form of resistance to white supremacy,” she said.
I spoke with Ms. Swaby about her inspirations as an artist and why it is important for her to celebrate the Black body. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Why is it important for you to highlight the theme of Blackness and womanhood?
A lot of what I do starts from me as a person, from my identity. I’m thinking about looking at everything through the lens of healing. I’m trying to address these very often traumatic subject matters in my work, but I want to think about healing and pain. My work is addressing that reciprocity of love in the Black community and especially with what I’ve experienced with other Black women in my life who have really been so pivotal in forming my identity and the person that I am today. My work is like a love letter to all of those women and just creating space for us to be us.
Walk us through your exhibition at the Claire Oliver Gallery. What will viewers be seeing?
The pieces that I made for the exhibition are three different series. I have five from a series called “Love Letter” and these works are large, more silhouetted pieces with a lot of pattern and color. The “Love Letter” is expressing my love toward my friends and my family in my life and other Black women. Through the pandemic and also just throughout my life, I’ve just felt an overwhelming amount of support from my family and my friends. I wanted to create this work to extend my gratitude and thanks to them. For me, I’m thinking through my work as an idea of visiting. So the work itself mainly is not necessarily the pieces that I’m making, but that act of thinking about how we’ve cultivated love and care between one another, and these pieces are a tribute to that.
The next set of pieces are called “Pretty Pretty.” That’s also five larger pieces and those works for me are the highlight of personal style and thinking about personal style as a form of resistance. Some people feel so good when they put on an outfit, and I wanted to capture that moment of empowerment. I asked some of the women in my life to choose their favorite outfits to wear or something that makes them feel amazing, and to catalog and document that moment in time and then be able to have the energy be shared with the viewer.
Finally, the last group of pieces are called “New Growth” — thinking about and focusing on the idea of hair care in the Black community. Hair care as love and just celebrating the beauty and uniqueness of Black hair and the way that we have made it into art.
Who do you hope this exhibition reaches?
I would say that, of course, the work is about Black women and is for Black women. That moment of seeing people see themselves in the work is such a beautiful moment of connection for me. That’s why I really like attending openings and going to see people see the work; it’s like another layer of something happening. Another layer of conversation being added on to the works. Even though they’re already considered finished, I think that connection with the viewer is another life for the work. But I think that this work can be for everyone. I would hope that people see the work and just connect with it on a level of perhaps sometimes the surface level of recognizing the beauty, or they can go into it an even deeper and start to generate some empathy around the subject of blackness. Little Black girls as well. I have five nieces, and when I’m making the work I’m thinking about them and want them to be able to see themselves represented in spaces that Black bodies are not necessarily always included or are historically excluded.
What is something someone viewing your work for the first time should know?
What I struggle a lot with — as being Black and exploring that and wanting to think about activism and how I can make an impact — was that idea of joy and rest. I just felt consumed by anger a lot. I approached the work from the lens of feeling angry about everything that happens. But after reading a lot of Roxane Gay and bell hooks, I started thinking through the idea that actually rest and joy can be a form of resistance, because in a system that wants us not to find joy, wants us to not be happy, finding that is a moment of coming into yourself and it’s a moment of power. Sometimes it can feel like the opposite, it’s a moment of reclaiming your own space and reclaiming your own path in life. I want my work to continuously feel celebratory.