Navy Pier’s newest installation: Expo Chicago
The international art event is being held in-person this year for the first time since 2019. From Thursday through Sunday, it will feature pieces from 140 galleries across the world.
Inside Festival Hall at Navy Pier, art handlers, gallery employees and artists are busy setting up. Art pieces are delicately unwrapped. Large crates are rolled from one booth to another. Nails are hammered into walls, soon to hold a diverse array of paintings, installations and other artwork.
The preparations mark the return of Expo Chicago, being held in-person this year for the first time since 2019. From Thursday through Sunday, it will feature modern and contemporary art from 140 art galleries across the world.
Booths display art from galleries in Tokyo, New York, Mexico City, and London, with 25 countries and 65 cities represented in total.
In September 2020, with shutdowns and restrictions in place due to COVID-19, Expo Chicago organized a virtual experience open only to Chicago galleries, said Tony Karman, president of Expo Chicago. In April 2021, it expanded its virtual exposition to a worldwide online audience.
This year’s in-person event will still have an online component, and artists and organizers are excited.
Gio Swaby, who’s from the Bahamas, creates art from her home studio in Toronto. She will present a series called “Seeing You Through Her and Me.” Swaby used textiles to sew self-portraits of three Black women, all close friends.
Swaby sewed from the underside of each piece, and will present them from the front. That means the viewer can see some tangles, knots and jump stitches that Swaby left in place, as a way to explore imperfection and vulnerability.
“I feel like for Black women, we don’t really have the space to be vulnerable very often,” Swaby said. “We are expected to enter into this very strong, Black woman archetype, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to release that and move toward a softness. So this exploration of the underside of the artworks and the stitching is how I do that in my work and how I want to share that moment of vulnerability with the viewer.”
In her artwork, Swaby hopes to celebrate the individuality of the women she portrays. Each chooses an outfit they feel beautiful in, as well as a pose that makes them feel like themselves, Swaby says.
Swaby gravitates to textiles because she feels it is a very accessible material, encountered often in daily life. The material creates points of entry into her work, Swaby says, so viewers can more easily connect with them.
In fact, that connection is what Swaby is most excited to see at Expo Chicago, after two years of remote events.
“I love to witness moments of reflection happening. You can see when someone looks at the work and sees themselves, so I’m excited to be able to witness that,” Swaby said.
Thursday is by invitation only, with the Expo opening to the general public starting Friday. Hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $30; a three-day pass is $45. Group discounts are available, as are guided tours at additional cost.
Expo Chicago has organized a variety of programming for its return this year.
Its IN/SITU program will present a series of large works throughout the venue, including sculpture, installations, video and more, curated by Marcella Beccaria of the Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporaneo in Turin, Italy.
The exposition has also organized panels and discussions with art leaders from across the world, such as the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists. Topics will include NFTs and virtual poetry practices.
Part of the value of an in-person exposition, Karman said, is bringing together collectors, dealers, curators, art collectors and others both involved and uninvolved in the art world, to have those discussions.
This year, Expo Chicago’s work will expand even outside Navy Pier.
In partnership with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and the Chicago Digital Network, selected art pieces already are being shown on digital billboards throughout the city.
“It’s an extraordinary opportunity to have this kind of artwork that is scaled to the size of an expressway billboard, and also in the way it’s presented,” Karman said. “It is a flash, it’s a moment, it’s something that allows a viewer to be in their car, or to be standing on one of our great bridges, and looking at a digital experience.”
They went up on Monday and will rotate through April 17.
Karman said he’s looking forward to greeting people face-to-face again this year. There’s nothing like experiencing art in person, he said.
“All I can say is, here we go,” Karman said. “After two and a half years, it’s nice to be able to be back.”