Following Gio Swaby's exhibition at UNIT/PITT, SAD's Sarah Thompson interviewed the artist via voice notes on Whatsapp to discuss Gio's chosen media, her first solo show, and the big things ahead.
SM: There are so many different creative practices and media in the world, each uniquely suited to communicating particular inspirations. What are some of your preferred modes or media, and how are they suited to act as the vehicle in your projects?
Gio Swaby: Recently I’ve been working a lot with fabric and textile, but my practice is very interdisciplinary in the way that I go back and forth between different media. I have an associate’s degree in Fine Arts, so I kind of have a basis in painting, drawing, and ceramics—so, like traditional aspects of art-making. Then I studied film, video, and integrated media at Emily Carr, so I also have that media-based side of skill that I like to use. But for me, medium is one of the last things that I think about. I guess concept is really the premier sort of driving force behind my art-making, and I will kind of start to fill in the blanks once that’s fairly solid. So I may want to use a medium that’s better suited for my idea, rather than vice versa.
I think that’s why I’ve been so interested in dabbling in a lot of different skills, just so that I have more avenues to be able to communicate my ideas. But I feel like fabric and thread were just really fitting for the We All Know Each Other show, just because of the reference to what’s traditionally thought of as domesticity, or female-centred activities like sewing, or crocheting and knitting. Which I think relates very heavily in my work, draws on pretty heavily—the passing down of tradition. And that’s also echoed in the theme of hair and hair care, black women passing that tradition on to one another through generations. I feel like that’s why the medium of thread and fabric was so fitting. And the fact that they’re portraits, using the thread versus pen or charcoal—I think it really communicates to the viewer a sense of labour, a sense of process, time, and length. And that it’s fairly painstaking, you look at it and feel that a lot has gone into creating the work, a lot of time, a lot of energy, and also a lot of love and care. I felt like that was a very appropriate medium for this exhibition.
SM: How was mounting We All Know Each Other, your inaugural solo show, and how do you feel now that it has happened?
GS: The experience of having my first solo show at Unit/Pitt was really really fantastic. They pretty much gave me the leeway to do whatever I wanted to do. Decision making was very much in my hands, which is an environment that I thrive in. So that, off the bat, was a fantastic environment for me to start art-making in. All this work was made over the course of a year specifically for this exhibition. It was really good to just keep in mind that they were extremely open to having me experiment, and even possibly make mistakes. It was just an opportunity for me to explore my practice outside of an educational institution, because I’d just finished Emily Carr when I was approached with the idea of having this exhibition.
I would say the experience of working with the gallery was fantastic, and also, this is probably the largest single body of work I’ve made as an artist—I found that that process was extremely taxing but the reward was equal, which is a strange thing to say. Even before hanging the work, just the process of sitting with the work and being a maker, I felt, was extremely rewarding. Also being able to have conversations with the women who are featured in these works, women that I know from Nassau, the Bahamas, and also women that I’ve met in Vancouver—the work itself is a kind of physical representation of that relationship, I say, and the conversations that go behind asking a person to be featured in your exhibition about black hair, and the importance of it. I feel like overall it could have gone either way, but it felt like it was a very positive experience.
Also just being at the exhibition and seeing other black women come in and finally seeing themselves in a space that we are so, so, so often excluded from… that was a very emotional experience for me, and also for them. I could just see it on their faces. The wonder of being able to see yourself represented is very powerful, so that was hugely rewarding for me as an artist, and as a black woman living in Vancouver as well. As for after, it’s feeling really great... I feel like a lot of conversations have spawned from the work, for me, just in dialogue with myself and with my practice, and with other people who have seen the show. And it’s definitely connected me with more black women in Vancouver, which is a fantastic experience. I would say it’s still kind of got some momentum even though the show has been down since October. I still really feel it as a strong driving force right now, for me. I would say that it’s very much still present in my life.
SM: Can you tell me about Nassau, and how both it and the move to Vancouver have influenced your work?
GS: About Nassau—obviously hugely influential in my work, because it’s so hugely ingrained in my identity. I was born and raised there, I lived there most of my life—I moved to Vancouver in 2014. The move was a very stark contrast, as far as demographic is concerned. I moved from Nassau, which is a majority black population, like, heavily so, into Vancouver, where there is a black population of… I think it’s 1%, right now. So that was an intense, very jarring change. Being a black woman in Vancouver basically means being under a spotlight, and it’s something you can’t really get around. There’s not a lot of avenues, not a lot of spaces in which I can be an anonymous person if I’d like to be, so that was a pretty difficult thing for me to experience for the first time ever. Because I was now thrust into this very small minority, that really forced me to reflect on myself, my physical appearance, what people think, feel, experience, when they interact with me, how am I perceived in public spaces, and a lot of that—a lot of the interaction I have with strangers in Vancouver—is about my hair.
Depending on what style it is, and also that the style changes so frequently. Black hair is just so unique in that you can do so many different things with it in just a short period of time. Like I really enjoy getting braided extensions, or I’ll just leave my hair out in an afro, or I’ll braid my real hair, or I might want to get it in long twists—so it can look very different from day to day. That’s always a pretty big conversation. It became a huge aspect of my life, moving to Vancouver. It became something that I talked about so much more than I did previously. Hair has always been so important to me, as a black woman. I think for most black women, hair is a big deal. I think that would be probably the biggest part of my body, and I can say for a lot of other black women, that requires or receives the most maintenance—it’s labour intensive, and it’s a process. It’s always been a big part of my life, but moving to Vancouver was the first time I experienced so much curiosity about it, so it forced me to reflect on it. Why are people just so curious about it? And that’s kind of where the theme of my show is rooted, in black hair. So the move to Vancouver heavily influenced my exhibition, and my upbringing in Nassau, I would say they’re probably equal. My upbringing in Nassau instilled the importance of hair in my life, and then moving to Vancouver kind of reinforced that. So I would say they both had a huge effect on my work for the show.
SM: Do you have any particular creature comforts that may help soothe or ground you?
GS: Creature comforts, oh, certainly. I would say, in line with the exhibition, hair care is a huge, huge one for me. Taking care of my hair and maintaining it feels like such a direct link to my family and to other black women, it’s hugely grounding, and very therapeutic for me. Any process of washing or styling, or detangling, all of it feels like a comfort, like something so familiar, so engrained, like down to the DNA. Practicing something that’s passed down from ancestors all the way down to me from centuries ago… You’re really just sitting there braiding your hair, but it’s so, so, so much bigger than that, when you think about the lack of connection a lot of black people in the Caribbean, in the United States, in North America, have to their ancestors due to slavery, because those connections were mangled. It’s now difficult to achieve, but there are some things that are just a part of you, and hair is just one of those things. I can meet black women from any part of the world, and one thing we can bond on is hair care. It’s obviously not going to be the exact same process, but it can be a very similar process. I think that’s really interesting.
Another big one for me is food. Bahamian cuisine is, I would say, impossible to come by in Vancouver unless you’re getting it from a friend, going to another Bahamian person’s house to have food, so being able to make a specifically Bahamian dish, like Bahamian mac and cheese, or peas and rice, is extremely comforting to me. It tastes like home, y’know? And food is a huge part of Bahamian culture. So eating it and making it also feels like a connection to people that are miles and miles and miles away and probably won’t see for another few months. Just that process of knowing that my mother gave me this recipe and makes it the same way, it’s just a really really big comfort to me.
SM: What is next for you, as well as for your work?
GS: I would say, up next is to show my work in Nassau, and that one I see happening very soon. I have been active in the art community since being based in Vancouver since 2014, I participated in the last two biennial regional exhibitions, at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, a few other exhibitions as well, but I’d like to do something more substantial just because I want to show my work to fellow Bahamians and show people what I’ve been doing here, and what I’ve been working on. Also for the change of context—the work I make completely shifts in narrative, in concept, between being shown in Vancouver and being shown in Nassau, which I’ve done previously. And that was… it’s such an interesting process, just to see how viewers are affected by the work in a completely different way, depending on where it’s shown, who it’s shown to, even just from gallery to gallery. So I’m excited to be able to start that dialogue with other Bahamians, to be able to have that experience with a more substantial body of work, as I’ve had the amazing opportunity to do in Vancouver. I’m hoping to be able to do that next, as well as just continuing to develop my art practice, just to keep working, keep exploring, keep developing… it’s a lot tougher than it sounds. It’s easy to step away from art-making, and then step away and not realize you’ve been away for months and months at a time, but I’m hoping to be able to consistently revisit and be in constant development, as far as my artistic practice is concerned. I’d also really really enjoy the opportunity to be able to show again in BC or elsewhere in Canada, if the work starts to head in the direction of being a full body of work. I guess none of that is extremely concrete plan, but I’ve found that I work a lot better that way. I guess overall, it’s just… what’s next for me is to continue development. I would say that’s my overarching theme.