Nastassja Swift is a multimedia artist whose layered installation, Caanan: when I read your letter, I feel your voice, on view at Galveston Arts Center (GAC), explores Swift’s personal experience in navigating her brother Caanan’s incarceration. Addressing themes of absence, erasure and the impact of mass incarceration in an intimate, reflective space, the project includes a 40-foot glass-beaded and fabric quilt looped through a steel armature the size of her brother’s cell. Swift is currently at a residency in Cleveland, working on a community youth outreach project.
Colette Copeland: Your current exhibition at GAC represents a shift in your work both conceptually and materially. Your previous work emphasized fiber-based figurative sculptures and addressed themes of Blackness, the aftermath of slavery, imagined ancestral memories, and performative activism. This current work is much more personal — a collaboration with your brother, Canaan, who is incarcerated. Materially, you are still working with fiber/fabric, but the pictorial plane has been flattened into 2D form.
Nastassja Swift: I originally had a dream about this piece last summer, and it was one of the most vivid dreams I can remember. I could tell you what I was wearing, how my hair was styled, that I had on no makeup, that I told those present that I wouldn’t censor Canaan’s words, and how I reacted to reading the letters out loud. I journaled that dream in July 2020.
I knew that I wanted this work to be the concluding solo exhibition for my residency with the CAN Foundation in Newport News, VA — they just felt like the right group of people to bring about such a personal project. In January 2021, when it came time to start sketching and planning out this project, my thoughts kept pushing me further and further away from wool. I tried to draw felted fiber details with little success and tried to make sense of how to materially make the piece. I started drawing a canopy shape, which led me to thinking about a blanket. And then a security blanket, and the meaning behind that phrase. It felt connected to the question, “What does my cell look like?” The work started to take shape with the idea of Canaan’s prison cell, and eventually the image of the large quilted blanket draped through that structure came to be.
I think deep down, I understood that this subject deserved a big shift from me. As I think back on the planning and sketching phase, I can’t help but think about how much it felt like I was painting with fabric, and how Canaan is most familiar with my art in the form of figurative painting. It was like the work needed something familiar to both of us, while still allowing me to work in textiles.
CC: The security blanket with both of your portraits is such a powerful symbol — one of safety during stressful/anxious times, but also it is symbol of resilience and hope for the future. The images of the quilt evoke so many thoughts and emotions for me; quilting has historically been associated with domesticity and comfort. You’ve created a safe space within the gallery for a visitor to sit and contemplate, read and listen.
The quilt is visually magnificent. The use of color, pattern and non-traditional design elements remind me of some Gee’s Bend quilts, yet, your attention to design is detailed with a cacophony of color, shapes and lines. The regal and powerful depiction of your brother, who is larger than life here, looks like he stepped out of a painting. In addition to the personal narrative, what artists have influenced your work?
NS: Stemming from the question of my personal cell, as someone who’s probably closer to Canaan than anyone else, creating a physical space felt important. Because we’re so close, I feel the responsibility to make sure, by any means, that my brother makes it home, and that he’s okay mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And that’s a lot for one person to hold. Yet, I also feel like I need to hear from Canaan. I can’t know if he’s okay unless he calls, or writes, and I need him to be okay. So communicating with him, as you said, both comforts and consumes me. The quilt is a metaphor for many things, but largely it represents my feelings towards maintaining a relationship with Canaan throughout his incarceration.
Regarding my inspiration, I looked at a LOT of quilts, but also figurative paintings. Gee’s Bend for sure, Bisa Butler, Faith Ringgold, Amy Sherald, Jordan Casteel, Sanford Biggers, Ambrosia Murray, Basil Kincaid, and Theaster Gates became an arts bible for me during the entire making process. I studied their use of color, the subject’s interaction with negative space, sense of storytelling, and the presence of the figure.
To understand what I wanted my quilt and figures to do and how I wanted them to feel, I sourced all of my family photos. Looking at color and print from the early -’90s comforter sets, my grandmother’s wallpaper and couch, old curtains and dresses my mom styled me in, all from 4 x 6-inch photos. The color and patterning from older-Caanan’s pants was inspired by the bedding in a photo that he and I were laying on when we were maybe one and a few months old. Canaan and I are 13 months apart — I’m the oldest.
CC: It adds additional layers of context and meaning to know that the color and patterns were inspired by old family photographs and that you incorporated detailed patterns/design from domestic familiar objects such as wallpaper, couches, curtains and clothing.
NS: Yes, it made the history and memory a part of the work in the way using Canaan’s actual clothes would have done. By the way, Canaan would never, ever, let me cut up his clothes. So that was never an option. Being inspired by the photos was the next best thing, offering a stronger sense of nostalgia in my opinion.
CC: It’s salient that this work is currently on view in Texas. It’s well documented: 13% of state residents are Black, yet 27% of the jail population and 33% of the prison population is Black. Texas has the highest execution rate in the country. Since 2015, the state has executed 54 people, 2.5 times more people than any other state.
It’s easy for people to ignore or overlook statistics. Through your brother’s and your family’s story, your project humanizes the issue of the communal impact of mass incarceration. What do you hope the viewer might experience within the work, and how might their ideas about incarceration shift?
NS: I hope that those visiting take the time to sit in the space filled with Canaan’s and my relationship and our love, and reflect on their own families, and loved ones. I hope there’s room to enjoy, laugh and smile at the way in which we interact with each other. I hope that, with an open mind, those visiting understand that Canaan is not his crime, and there’s so much more to him and his life and story than any actions from a few years ago. And that goes for any incarcerated individual.
Someone close to me said, “If we were all judged to the highest extent of the law for the worst thing we’ve ever done, a lot more of us would be in prison.” It’s easy to judge, until it’s someone you love. I hope people take the time to think about all those souls, who are still alive, yet so easily forgotten because of our carceral system, and attitude towards incarcerated people.
CC: Much of your work incorporates a performative element. In Remembering Her Homecoming, you and eight dancers, wearing your sculptural wool masks, walked along Richmond, Virginia’s trails of enslaved Africans. In your artist statement about the current work, you states that the work is a collaborative performance. The work includes both yours and Canaan’s voices, your physical body in the installation photograph and the representation of his body in the quilt. What’s the role of performance and importance of the body/embodiment in your work?
NS: Working with wool over the past six years has widened my sense of material and the way I think about space, and movement and composition. Mask-making led me to think about seeing my work on the body, and loving how the work becomes activated through someone’s movement outside of my own hands. I think overall, fiber has challenged me to think of the number of ways I can push and alter my use of wool.
I never thought I’d consider myself a performance artist, but in many ways, I am. The use of one’s physical space that they consume in this world, in my work, feels like it holds so much power, presence and energy. Watching someone else give that part of themselves — you can literally feel it. And my work conceptually compliments that, so it feels necessary to think through the pairing of the two.
For this installation, it’s clear that I couldn’t have Canaan physically be a part of the work. But his presence is woven throughout in a number of ways. The recorded conversations, taken over the first few months of this year, present a part of me and my brother (but especially me) that we don’t give to everyone. Or anyone, really. I feel like the folks listening to these conversations that know me, are being introduced to a Nastassja that they don’t really know. There’s a lot of vulnerability in that. In the entire show.
Initially, I thought I wanted a blended clip of these conversations to play aloud in the space. But I thought about how they were recorded, how the calls themselves took place — and it was all on the phone. It felt appropriate that visitors would be able to hear these interactions on the same devices that they originated from. There’s also a level of voyeurism and lack of privacy that exists, which is very similar to the reality that these conversations are typically screened anyway.
CC: Tell us about your current residency in Cleveland and what you’re working on.
NS: After such a big project with Canaan, I was no longer interested in having a traditional exhibition to conclude my Cleveland residency. Instead, I am planning a youth-centered parade and performance that celebrates Black youth and community in the city, asking, “How do we bring joy to our spaces?” The project allows me to partner with some local organizations in Cleveland and work collaboratively with youth directly in their neighborhoods.
I’ve begun these pop-up workshops where I visit Black neighborhoods with all my wet felting supplies and invite the kids to take part in the process and see the felted masks being used in the parade. But more importantly, how the masks for the parade are being made. I’ve been writing poetry (inspired by Sonia Sanchez) which is something I’ve never done. The title for the project is a haiku, and a part of the project statement is a poem as well:
singin’ to an old river-
we hear you coming.
The parade route is set to begin at Saint Johns Epispocal Church, also known as “Station Hope,” one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad. And end at Whiskey Island, the site where enslaved Africans set sail to Canada in search of their freedom. With an interest in navigating spaces of Black life, both past and present, the parade will also move through and involve youth living in Lakeview Terrace, one of the oldest Public Housing Projects in the United States. It is set to take place August 28, 2021.
Nastassja Swift’s “Canaan: when I read your letter, I feel your voice” is on view at Galveston Arts Center through Oct. 3, 2021.