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Breakout Art World Star Gio Swaby Brings Exhibition ‘Fresh Up’ To Salem

Gio Swaby. Photo by Anthony Gebrehiwot © 2023 Peabody Essex Museum.

Gio Swaby is having a very good year. As her first solo museum exhibition tours North America, the Bahamian-born millennial artist is gaining traction and quickly becoming a rising star in the art world. And for good reason: Her work, which explores the intersections of womanhood and Blackness, is hitting a nerve in the best possible way. She’s getting accustomed to being in the spotlight, too, and routinely finds herself on the pages of Vanity Fair, Essence, Vogue and Ebony. This summer, her much-lauded exhibition Gio Swaby: Fresh Up makes its New England debut at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts. 

From her fabric-filled studio high above Toronto, Swaby meticulously creates portraits that celebrate Black women using a range of textile-based techniques, including embroidery and appliqué. Swaby captures images of women in her life in modes of self-awareness, expression and empowerment. These images are then transformed through the artist’s sewing machine to create her “love letters to Black women and girls.” Recently, the team from PEM sat down with Swaby to learn more.

PEM: Tell us about the title of the exhibition. What does “fresh up” mean? 

GIO SWABY: “Fresh up” is a part of Bahamian dialect. It’s how you give someone a compliment. You get a new haircut, and it brings out a confidence in you. You can say to someone, “Oh, you get all fresh up today,” or, “You’re looking fresh up.” It holds a lot of positivity and joy. It also speaks to the tone of confidence and power that I want to create with these works. I love that it is a way to form connections through a simple phrase.

PEM: How did growing up in the Bahamas affect the color patterns that you work with? 

GIO SWABY:  For fabrics, my choice is always vibrance. I work with a lot of color. Being someone from the Caribbean, color is a part of life in a way that is hard to see or hard to experience in other places. People gravitate toward color. For me, that has been true in my work and my personal life. 

PEM: What does it mean for you to be able to have Black women and girls represented on the walls of galleries and museums? 

GIO SWABY: I want my art to be seen by people who perhaps don’t have a strong background in art. My family was not a go-to-the-museum or art-gallery kind of family. I think seeing this work would have made a difference in how I felt and navigated the world. I could have seen this and saw that that could be something that I could do. Sometimes you need to have an example to really access your full potential. Having that example would have made such a strong impact for me. Of course, I found my way to it.

Hear more from Gio Swaby on Episode 30 of the PEMcast and get more behind-the-scenes content by following PEM on social media @peabodyessex

Gio Swaby: Fresh Up is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) through November 26, 2023. Plan your visit and reserve advance tickets at pem.org.