By Natalie Willis
For many, textiles and fabric are not often given much place or thought in the arts as a medium, excepting perhaps canvas of course. Giovanna Swaby rejects this notion, making herself known through a particular take on portraiture - sewing her likeness and that of other Black women into fabric as her preferred method of figuring the body and reclaiming Black narratives. This week we speak with Swaby on her experience exhibiting as a Black Caribbean woman in a small town in Germany alongside some heavy-hitting, historically significant artists who have also done wild and wonderful things with fabric.
NW: How long have you been working on these sewing drawings? How do you define them and what has been your thought process in working on them?
GS: I’ve been involved in sewing in some capacity or other for most of my life. My mom is a seamstress and so I’ve always been around sewing machines and sewing. She made all our school uniforms for as long as I can remember, then I learned quilting techniques from Jan Elliot when I was a PopopStudios Junior Resident in 2013. It was kind of happenstance that this came to be, but as soon as I started working this way it sparked the idea to make portraits and to work with sewing as a medium.
NW: And how do you define these works in terms of medium?
GS: That’s a difficult question... I really consider myself to be an interdisciplinary artist and defining medium for me isn’t usually something that’s a huge concern for my practice. I’ve dabbled in a lot of different forms of making - traditional, digital, and new media - but I start with a conceptual basis and work from there. I might call them textile portraits or thread drawings, but nothing really ever feels sufficient enough to fully encompass it. If I really listed every single medium on the label for the work it would be a mile long! But I would say drawing is the foremost element.
NW: Talk to me a bit about the journey to have your work in this very particular context.
GS: In 2017, I participated in an exhibition in Vienna, Austria, organized by Amanda Coulson, the NAGB’s Executive Director; another incarnation—together with contemporary Cuban works—was exhibited in Leipzig, Germany and curated by NAGB’s Chief Curator Holly Bynoe and renowned Cuban curator, Tonel a.k.a Antonio Eligio Fernandez. It just so happened that the coordinator for the “Die Texille” (“The Textile”) exhibition in Schmallenberg, Dr. Andrea Brockmann, actually attended and she saw my works there and reached out to me to display for the textile show. It was a very lucky chain of events and an amazing opportunity for me that I didn’t really expect or see coming.
NW: And what is particular about “Die Textile” in terms of how the exhibition was coordinated?
GS: The “Die Textile” festival and exhibition took place in Schmallenberg, a really small town in Germany with a big textile industry and the home-base for a leading textile company there. The German government has become very interested in bringing art and culture to Schmallenberg as they believe it’s one of the most important bases of development for the small town, and that it will be a big tourist draw for the city. They’ve worked really hard to develop that, and it’s interesting to see artists like Pablo Picasso, Joseph Beuys, and Josef Albers being shown in this kind of context. It made the art really accessible for people when it normally wouldn’t be.
NW: In what way?
GS: You might see these works in a big gallery, behind a rope barrier, and can’t possibly get close to it. But this exhibition was, I don’t want to say casual, but it didn’t feel like something out of reach. Even if you’re not accustomed to looking at art, or if you aren’t a person who is very interested in seeing art in the first place, it creates an environment that allows people to freely enjoy, explore and draw their own conclusions. And it does so without giving too much context or an overwhelming information overload. For some people, in looking at these works, they might not even realise how well established these artists are, which was really refreshing to me.
NW: How do you situate your voice here? Because we know that there are some very high profile European greats and the usual historical hierarchy and deference wasn’t quite adhered to here it seems, like an equal playing field.
GS: “Die Textile” really felt like a showcase of the way contemporary artists have chosen to use textiles in their practice and the way that they’ve interpreted the material to show that it isn’t as ‘limited’ as people might think. All of us have found different ways in which we use and interpret textiles. I think my work fits in as part of that larger conversation of the developing consciousness of this medium. It also provides a really important and often missing or excluded intentionally perspective of the Black woman and especially the Black Caribbean woman - which is not very often showcased. Here, the work is double-layered, because we have artist representation and visual representation of Black women in art (and making art). But we have this representation in conversation with these works from extremely prominent contemporary artists, which is what we need to see. We need to have that. We need that conversation of how these works have previously been missing from the dialogue, and now how they’re still underrepresented. Seeing it there in that space doesn’t allow for you to forget that or to ignore that it happens.
NW: Was this intimidating or a pleasant and exciting surprise?
GS: I found it it to be both. When the work was requested, I didn’t know who would be in the exhibition, I didn’t have a good scope of the artists who would be featured. I just knew it was a really great opportunity and I enjoyed the concept and what they were trying to do by showcasing this kind of work in a smaller town where we might not see it very often. Something I can very much relate to being from a small island myself. As the show developed, I realised this was a very select show, with only 11 artists in this particular exhibition for the festival. It’s intimidating in a way, and that I think all artists have this problem of thinking they don’t belong or that they don’t measure up. It’s common to think that you aren’t good enough to be alongside these very prominent and well-established artists. I had that moment for a long time, but I also completely feel like I belong here, that I am more than good enough to be here, and that I should feel really proud of that and being able to show my work in this context. It’s a form of validation and that’s nice to have that once in a while!
NW: Validation - whether externally or from yourself or both - is certainly incredibly important! And, as you say, it’s nice to feel a little bit of recognition when we generally feel very fragile when we make and display work.
GS: This profession and practice can be very very difficult, there’s a lot of ‘no’s’ and a lot of times when you’re facing mostly rejection, so to have those moments of triumph should be savoured and I feel like I really had that chance to do that and I’m very grateful for. I’m trying to always have a good balance of remembering my worth as an artist... and also not to develop a head the size of Mars.
NW: Ha! Bringing things back to this planet in particular, how do you feel about this rising increase in representation for artists from the Black Diaspora and Caribbean, especially with this wave of activity and attention in Europe and the US?
GS: This one is a bit of a double-edged sword. It is exciting to see the huge increase in Caribbean artists being shown in Europe, and I feel lucky to have been able to take part in a few exhibitions now in Germany and Austria, along with other Bahamian and Cuban artists. The possibilities are exciting and I am hopeful that the growth will continue and multiply. I want to say it doesn’t feel like a tokenised space being made for us, with galleries wanting to say “oh yes we’ve shown Caribbean artists” before continuing to their “regularly scheduled programming” of predominantly white artists. It doesn’t quite feel like that for me, it feels like real, genuine progress which is such a rare feeling I think.
But then the other side of it is to feel like it’s taken so long to get to this point. We’ve been coming to this moment for a while, it’s just happening now? It’s been so long with waiting for this regional recognition I guess? I’m young, I’m just in my twenties, so having this opportunity now it hasn’t been a long road for me personally, but in the larger context of Caribbean artists it’s been really difficult. With our history of being excluded not taken seriously as artists, or when we are shown it’s just a tokenised inclusion, or worse, a homogenized “Caribbean” show crammed into one room.
To see something that I feel like is a step in the right direction, and real progress, makes me feel happy - but then I also feel really disappointed about the lost time. I would almost say a little angry about that too. In general, there is a move toward Caribbean culture being shown on the world stage and often being co-opted with no input by Caribbean people. That is clearly cultural appropriation - taking the parts of the culture you want and leaving the people out of it. So this exhibition feels like a positive counteraction of that other side that we see a lot in the music industry in particular. In the art world, from what I’ve observed, it feels now like a genuine sort of recognition and interest in Caribbean work.