Power in purple: Larger-than-life sculpture to spur conversations and connections

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Ellex Swavoni knows her comic books.

And this expertise is one of the reasons a larger-than-life, superhero-esque quality radiates from her sculpture, “Atlantis Rising,” installed Nov. 18 on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus. Until May 15, 2022, its home will be on Vine Street across from the University Center.

“Atlantis Rising” is Swavoni’s first public artwork, originally commissioned in 2019 for Atlanta-based arts presenters Dashboard as part of the PRISM exhibition at Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta.

The larger-than-life heroine commands a physical and psychological presence, standing eight feet tall from waist to crown and weighing about 350 pounds. Constructed from industrial foam, polyurethane and iridescent purple car paint, “Atlantis Rising” appears to emerge confidently from the earth below her. 

Clothed in a futuristic-looking outfit with a solid visor that eliminates her sight and a star-like helmet with LED lighting on its edges, she is clearly powerful.

Like many of Swavoni’s pieces, the woman in “Atlantis Rising” is African and wears her hair in bantu knots, but the sculpture’s intent stretches past racial significance, she said.

“A lot of the times in the work, people can see themselves, especially women, because it’s a female figure embodying that kind of power, that kind of presence, so it extends beyond race,” Swavoni explained. “It’s more like a monument of futuristic thoughts having some type of power over your future. Of being able to write your own narratives.”

Swavoni is a multi-disciplinary, contemporary artist hailing from Louisville, Ky. As a child, she became enchanted by art toy design and the onslaught of information the internet brought. Throughout her formative years, she taught herself the art of sculpting, mold making and other home manufacturing techniques.

Currently based in Atlanta, Swavoni graduated in 2014 with a degree in graphic design from Campbellsville University in Campbellsville, Ky., but kept her hand in artmaking. In 2018, she began her career as a full-time artist and since 2019, when she created “Atlantis Rising,” has made large sculptures that have been placed in publicly owned land, including several locations in Atlanta.

Swavoni uses her love for toy design, sculpting, ancient spirituality and graphic design to create sobering works that speak on her view of the world around her.

Her philosophy: It is the responsibility of artists to translate the human experience into things that the senses can accept even if the mind can’t comprehend. 

The installation of “Atlantis Rising” is part of a new program by The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA@UTC) to showcase a rotating series of contemporary sculpture that will be placed across the UTC campus. Titled “ICA Night & Day,” the program is an effort by the ICA to expand beyond its gallery in the Fine Arts Center.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga launched ICA at UTC, the first ICA in the state of Tennessee, in Spring 2021. It is always free and open to the general public, as well as to the UTC campus community. 

Rachel Reese, director of the ICA@UTC gallery in the Fine Arts Center, first came across Swavoni’s art this past winter. She described “Atlantis Rising” as a “hopeful piece.” 

“I see her as this warrior protectress that’s coming up from the earth, and I think students will definitely respond to it in that way,” Reese said. “We do have a diverse campus community, so I’m going to be encouraged to hear whatever kind of responses people have to it.”

Contrasting reactions that lead to thoughtful conversations are among the important goals for her artwork, Swavoni said. 

Displaying one of her large pieces on a university campus with its wide range of students “was a great fit,” she said. A move that “honors the beauty, genius and strength of black peoples as an omnipresent force that has always existed.”