In her salient text, In The Wake: On Blackness and Being, scholar Christina Sharpe delves into the multiple definitions of “wake,” which span from “the path behind a ship, keeping watch with the dead, (to) coming to consciousness.” “In the wake,” Sharpe writes, “the past that is not past reappears, always, to rupture the present.” Largely focused on conversations around anti-Blackness and continued violence, the book is rooted in the afterlife of slavery and what sentiments, practices, and memories linger into the current moment, questions that similarly ground the work of artist Nastassja Swift.
Through fiber-based figures often arranged in larger gatherings, Swift explores various narratives tied to Blackness, particularly those that relate to water and ancestral presences. “I’m interested in taking those things as starting points and imaging a space or happening that involves my sculpture and allows me to think through a hypothetical rooted in that memory or history,” the Virginia-based artist says. She derives these stories from texts like Sharpe’s, discussions with friends, and in one instance, a conversation with an older Black woman at a Toni Morrison film screening.
While there are multiple narrative threads in each of her pieces, Swift doesn’t strive to disclose each one, preferring explicit gaps in the connections. “I love knowing that there’s more to what’s being made and imagining other characters or continued happenings around what’s being made,” she says. “That’s not something I’m attempting to convey, rather information that I’m okay not sharing.”
Many of the faces evoke imagined subjects, not relatives Swift has met or seen in photographs, but rather somewhat of “an ancestral presence that allows my hands to make the face in any particular moment without my mind being aware of it.” She always begins with the supple shape of the face and then sculpts the facial details and hair from dyed wool and felt, a process that’s intimate and that’s evolved with two more recent works.
“With ‘Passage, when momma lets my braids flow down my back’ (2021) and ‘Your Banks are Red Honey Where the Moon Wanders-Self Portrait’ (2020), everything changed,” Swift says, describing the shift in the process to that of a ritual. The first of these two works, “Passage,” is a bubblegum pink figure sporting a collar marked with smaller heads arranged in a gradient. Long braids descend down the torso and pool on the floor. Second is Swift’s self-portrait, which features a calm face shaped in deep red wool that’s silhouetted by braids and figurative tendrils. Both interpret specific subjects as West African masks and sculptural forms in order to question “what it means to worship someone, and how that word could be reshaped to allow us to honor those around us,” the artist says.
Swift will have a satellite exhibition titled Canaan: when I read your letter, I feel your voice at the Contemporary Arts Network in Newport News from June 5 to July 3, 2021. Thanks to the Art as Activism Grant from the Black Box Press Foundation, the pieces will then travel for a stay at the Galveston Arts Center. The artist sells some felted dolls and other goods in her shop, and head to Instagram for glimpses into her studio and a larger collection of her sculptures.