Swoon, real name Caledonia Dance Curry, recently partook in the Djerbahood Project, a popular street art scheme that sought to project an open-air museum onto the island of Djerba, situated slightly off the coast of Tunisia. The communal project, which could be seen openly by the public, is one attuned to Swoon’s personal ideals. A street artist since 1999, she felt herself drawn to this kind of art through a certain sense of frustration that, were she to tread a path she felt was already laid out for her, her art would either be collected privately, displayed in galleries, or hung in wealthy country homes. In other words, it would be closed off to the public, the very people she wanted to see her work.
Swoon uses a technique known as Wheat paste to transfer her works – often print portraits and paper cutouts of people – onto disused buildings, bridges and street signs. These places of habitat are often located in the centre of a community, engendering a strong curiosity among the locals. In a sense. they bring people together, people who ask questions about the art, interpret it, and, on some occasions, even get to meet the artist herself.
For Swoon is an artist of the people; a collaborator, a talker. Her most recent project at Brooklyn Museum, entitled Swoon: Submerged Motherlands, featured boats put together from salvaged materials. The boats had, a few years earlier, helped the artist and 30 others – many of them activists – to crash the Venice Biennale. The vessels were pieced together from New York garbage. On the way to Venice, Swoon and her crew stopped to meet various locals, engaging with them, picking up curious materials from them to use on their rafts. The journey, undertaken on boats forged from found materials, announced a victory over materialism. It was a victory over pompous gallery owners, private collectors. Swoon’s travelling art-like circus was seen by thousands of locals as it made its way to Vienna; it was by the people for the people. It was performance art at its most unique and inventive.
Such an undertaking, as well as her exhibition at Brooklyn Museum, seems a million miles away from her earlier escapades, where she would furtively wheat-paste her cutout works onto murky doorways and abandoned fire escapes. But whilst she has lost none of her original ideals, her visions have grown stronger, bigger. The centrepiece in Brooklyn Museum is a ‘magical’ 60-foot tree which the artist herself has described as ‘epic.’ It stands proudly on a monumental scale, but what happens to it once the exhibit is over, even the artist herself doesn’t quite know.
Her street art itself by and large consists of human figures. It’s a very detailed type of street art, far removed from the stencils of Banksy, and more at home with comparisons to realist figure painters, such as Lucien Freud. Her subjects appear to be half magical, half human, but always with quietly defined gestures that we can relate to. Their culture is strongly rendered, and if our portrait acts as an X-ray of our experiences, as Swoon decrees, she ably demonstrates this with figures of sorrow, figures filled with love, figures filled with compassion, with loneliness, longing and hope. By placing these experiences and these people inside compact communities, she is giving us people a chance to connect to something, to perceive something differently, and perhaps even make a change.