Connected \\ August 7, 2023
my pretty side frays: Chenoa Baker shares an inside look at Gio Swaby’s creative process
Going out requires preparation: adjusting necklines, swooping edges, applying makeup and sculpting hair, a party punctuated by scuffed heels, haloed flyaways, flaked product and smeared mascara…all indicators of a good time. I’ve done this with my homegirls dozens of times. It is a sacred, ephemeral art that lives in inside jokes and recollections. Gio Swaby reflects similar intimate female friendships in her textile portraits.
Artist Gio Swaby and contributing interpreter Chenoa Baker in PEM’s gallery in front of Pretty Pretty 10, a piece by Swaby that PEM recently acquired. Photo by Ellie Dolan/PEM
The first step of Gio Swaby’s process begins with a recreated party atmosphere: going-out clothes and the confidence-inducing, sonic libation of feel-good 2000s pop and R&B. I witnessed this magic on a research trip to the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg. As the contributing interpreter for the exhibition Gio Swaby: Fresh Up at PEM, my role has involved editing labels, writing additional interpretive texts and shaping the exhibition and its programming – including its celebrations.
For the Fresh Up party, I found the most glittery green eyeshadow to match my dress and bring out the sheen of my golden bamboo earrings, and I preemptively put on a pair of sneakers to dance the night away. During my makeup, hair and getting-dressed routine, I got hyped with an array of pop, rap and reggaeton. “Freakum Dress” by Beyoncé echoed in my head: “I think I’m ready, been locked up in the house way too long, it's time to get it…”
Once I arrived, the central atrium had been transformed with palm trees and the smells of stew chicken, coconut rice and sweet plantains. During the daytime, it was a space for mingling and networking with an exuberant cocktail before looking at the exhibition. I drank a Love Letter: pineapple, orange juice, Malibu rum and cream of coconut. By nighttime, the sounds of Beyoncé, Sean Paul and Rihanna got us into the groove. Dancing was my favorite part of the night because movement as an individual or a collective, with line dances, is liberation; fizziness in the body releases you from inhibitions in a typical work atmosphere.
From that experience, I imagine the unseen first part of Swaby’s process — when she photographs subjects to a curated playlist. With great music, they let their guard down. They are themselves. A photograph captures a moment of authenticity behind the seams.
Gio Swaby. Photo by Anthony Gebrehiwot © 2023 Peabody Essex Museum.
As self-proclaimed “love letters to Black women,” Swaby’s works start with photographs of close friends and family members in their best going-out clothes. She captures a moment of people that she loves. Love letters are equal parts sappy and genuine; these feelings are palpable when the artwork moves from the initial atmosphere in her studio photographs to the final product.
The outline of the photograph is traced by Swaby’s free-motion sewing machine on muslin. Muslin is made up of loosely interwoven cotton fibers that form a lightweight, breathable and porous surface. Free-motion stitching provides mobility by allowing stitches in any direction. Swaby moves around the muslin to direct it as a needle makes incisions along the outline. An exposed glimpse of the canvas frays into dangling threads stretched or unstretched. Fraying and its tautness record the tension in the material.
After drawing her portrait in thread, Swaby goes back into the work, combining swatches of various fabrics from the sitter’s clothing or from her own collection of Androsia Batik. The canvas forms the skin, sometimes with further embellishment of glittery acrylic blend fabric. Glitter is a visual reference to Afrofuturism. Originally coined in Mark Dery’s “Black To The Future,” Afrofuturism blends sci-fi with art, literature and the history of the African Diaspora. It is a lens to understand the past, present and future folded into one.
Cotton is dominant, but against this neutral backdrop, Androsia Batik plays the part of a protagonist. Made on the island of Andros since the late 1960s, this fabric declares Bahamian independence through its status as a product that is unique to the region and made by self-sufficient women. It is the most fashionable way to stick it to past colonial history. The characteristics of Androsia Batik include hand painting with wax pressed into the fabric to create a pattern by repelling the dye.
Swaby’s series Another Side to Me and Pretty Pretty reveal the underside of appliquéd silhouettes with Androsia Batik. The underside refers to the silhouette portraits flipped over, exposing outlined stitching and canvas. Hanging threads display beauty in imperfection and power in vulnerability. Melinda Watt, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, describes the power of this choice: “Lines of thread dangling from Swaby’s Pretty Pretty canvases never quite stop moving, as the slightest breeze can make them quiver, changing the compositional structure of the work ever so slightly... Thus, like the subjects themselves, those thread-based portraits are perpetually in flux.” It brings to mind the hanging thread appearing after a freshly pulled tag. Tendrils of thread and the underside of the canvas map the path of Swaby’s hand and epitomize the craftsmanship in relationship-building.
Paradoxically, fraying shows care and beauty in imperfection. Nothing says love like a “hey-you’ve-got-something-on-your-shirt” or “your-slip’s-showing.” That level of honesty brings me comfort. There is something pretty about that moment. It signals that you can trust your homegirl to not let you walk around looking crazy – the same homegirl you wear the end-of-the-night look with. Only trusted friends can be gracious and real enough to give you what author Brittney Cooper calls a “homegirl hem-up.”
Another Side to Me Second Chapter 3, 2021. Thread, machine-stitched on reverse of canvas with fabric appliqué. Private collection, Israel. © Gio Swaby. Photo by Ian Rubinstein.
The Another Side To Me series exposes the reversed composition of Swaby’s silhouette portraits for the first time. Fabric folds and frays; plaits emerge from the tension of warp and weft (the scalp as a loom). In Another Side To Me Second Chapter 3, Swaby transcribes agency through pose and gesture of the subject. The subject connects with us through her unflinching gaze — confident and poised. It is important to note her off-the-shoulder jacket. She controls what part of her body remains visible — an ode to Audre Lorde’s sensibility to define the self. Her thoughts, while evident, remain a mystery to the viewer. Fraying threads coalesce around her eyes, lips and fingers, grounding the viewer in the reality of an intimate moment. It is an act of vulnerability: a refusal of perfectionism.
Pretty Pretty 11 in PEM’s gallery. Photo by Ellie Dolan/PEM.