I didn’t know what “fresh up” meant until I entered the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg’s Collector’s Circle gallery. This is where I met Bahamian artist Gio Swaby, through her words and portraits.
Swaby defines “fresh up” as “a Bahamian way to describe someone who is particularly stylish – also used to give props to the wearer.”
Walking through the exhibition, I appreciated the myriad ways Swaby celebrates the style and traditions of Black women. From her use of textiles to the subjects who grace her canvases and how she depicts them, Swaby’s portraits remind us that Black is beautiful.
I can’t remember the last time I saw the MFA so full of life.
Swaby didn’t grow up going to galleries and looking at fine art. The daughter of a seamstress, she grew up with textiles. She and her mother used to make church outfits, school uniforms, and clothing for dolls together.
“We cultivated so much love between us through creation,” Swaby said in an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. “Because my practice is an expression of love, textiles feel very fitting and a perfect choice to pursue that.” (Read the full interview in the exhibition catalog, “Gio Swaby Fresh Up.”)
Though we only see her textiles at the MFA, Swaby is a multidisciplinary artist. Each of the portraits in Fresh Up began with a conversation or with a letter, as in her Love Letter series. Swaby then considered how she could translate these letters and conversations into visual art. These conversations and photo sessions aren’t the work we see, but it’s an important part of Swaby’s process.
“Most of the people I represent are people I know very personally,” Swaby said in an interview with the MFA’s Curator of Contemporary Art Katherine Pill. “That practice starts with a conversation, an interview process, and a photography session with the person. This work, for me, is so much about this part of connecting and so much about that initial process of being able to share and to generate this reciprocity between myself and the people I’m representing.”
(Full interview on YouTube)
The work we see are the textile portraits that result from these conversations, letters, and photo sessions. They fill the MFA’s Hough Wing galleries with stylish Black women. They wear colorful patterned dresses, pants, and overalls. They sport hoop earrings and strappy sandals. I can’t remember the last time I saw the MFA so full of life. Standing amongst the Love Letter portraits, I feel transported into a great party.
Speaking of parties, the MFA hosts a tropical-themed dance party with Bahamian-influenced cuisine and drinks this Friday. So put on your going-out clothes and head to the MFA’s Fresh Up Dance Party. (Fri., July 29, 7 p.m. $10-$30.)
Gio Swaby Fresh Up The Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg. 255 Beach Dr. NE, St. Petersburg. Through Oct. 9: Sun., 12-5 p.m.; Tues.-Wed. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. $0-22. mfastpete.org; 727-896-2667.