Bringing the Black Disabled Artist to the Centre

By Kayla Carter

“Mija, you can’t live your life as if you aren’t disabled. 
Slow down take your time. Be gentle.”

A knowing “thank you” is what I offered her. Knowing what she really wanted, I entrusted her with a “gracias Abuelita’. After hanging up I rushed my way to the Queen and Roncesvalles to catch my street car, in the hopes that the diversion around Queen wouldn’t make me late. Sweating and anxious about conducting my first interview, I searched for the room in hopes that my sense of direction would save me from having to talk to anyone. A task that feels colossal in the face of my social anxiety. After finally finding the room, a sense of finding home came over me. 

I knew that the purpose of the interview was to interview the two of the most recent recipients of the Sharon Wolfe Artist in Residence position at Tangled Arts. However, the home that I felt was one that was filled with an urgency, tenderness, and a specificity that is born out of living and surviving lives that are intersecting and tangled, to say the least. After realizing that Gloria Swain (2016 Recipient) and I had met before at York University and receiving the most heart warming hug from mel g.campbell (2015 Recipient), we all sat down and started to catch up. Eventually, the topic of black art in Toronto came up. This is what followed…

mel begins by poetically speaking about their arrival at the themes that are strikingly present in their installation entitled point of origin which uses text and textile. One of the pieces entitled black matter excellence is embroidered with the names of people that have died and people that have fought for black liberation. mel speaks about their process of meditation on where memory is held in their body. The brilliance that comes from mel’s work is their delicious way of breaking down the assumptions that people have about labels and diagnosis’ around disability. Through their installation the understanding that diagnosis and how we experience our bodies are not by universal design is addressed.“A lot of assumptions get made and a lot of understandings get made about my needs and stuff that aren’t actually in line with how I am”. The intersection of time and being disabled are apparent in their work. With a precision and accuracy that begets mel’s understanding and genius of being black and crip, mel speaks about how one of their pieces looks at and honours the beauty of the central nervous system.

“I wish they understood the pain that goes onto the canvas. Ignore the paint. It’s the pain that goes on the canvas!” With stunning detail and brilliant insight Gloria goes on to explain her process of creation and how it is inextricably linked to disability, chronic illness and depression. “Sometimes I don’t even use a brush, I use my hands!”. She speaks to the fact that where, when and how she creates in tied to her understanding of her body. Part of the greatness of Gloria as an artist is her ability to create in ways that honour her experience as a black disabled female artist; as opposed to making a martyr out of herself. Gloria’s installation which is entitled Mad Room which uses text and visual art, speaks directly to intergenerational trauma, mental health within the black community. Gloria’s work engages disability and what it means to be a woman, with a precision and boldness that is born from being a black disabled artist who is not only practiced, but is deeply steeped in her work.

Insomnia by Gloria Swain

 

Insomnia by Gloria Swain,Self-Portrait #1 on Loom(in progress) by mel g. campbell

One of the things that quickly becomes apparent during our talk is that the experience of what it means to not only be a disabled artist but to be a black disabled artist is on the table. The cultural, political and social relevance of what it means to be a black disabled artist is an experience that is fully encompassing. Gloria brilliantly states “my art and my depression is political”. The political, social and experiential space of being a black disabled artist is one

that we soon come to realize is isolating, frustrating and exhausting to say the least. However, it should be stated very blatantly that the source of this isolation and frustration comes from the ableism, poverty, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and anti-black racism of the Toronto art spaces and wider society. The lack of understanding around funding and ODSP, makes it so that disabled artist can get grants, but can keep next to none of the grants. We speak about the expectations of the particular aesthetic of the black artist, leave little room for black disabled artists to create artist that is honest. So much so that aesthetic overshadows art. At one moment in the interview, I mentally checked out, so I could thank the goddess for the honour of being able to hold space with these artists.

Gloria’s and mel’s understanding of the means and mediums of creating as a disabled artist is something that must be more widely understood. In my opinion, these two artists are at the forefront of what is means to not only create, but to do so deliberately and shamelessly. mel and Gloria are facing, surviving , and thriving what most artists would never have to fathom dealing with on a daily basis. Their brilliance is not simply because their work is strikingly honest, deliberate and disarmingly beautiful. Their brilliance as artists comes from the fact that the work, energy, and life that is put into the career of being a black disabled artist is something that requires an infinite amount of brilliance. But above all a belief that the work that you are creating must be created. As someone who has had the honour of bearing witness to their work, I can say that there is a palpable breath, heartbeat and undeniable life in their work. This life is born out of having lived lives that produce work that can only come from magnificent artists such Gloria and mel. Towards the end of the interview, we started talking about the archaic tradition of making art, and how the legitimacy of art is still tied to said archaic tradition. Both of the artists explain that their process of making art is one that works for them because they cater their process to their own bodies. This act is revolutionary in a city like Toronto where struggle is romanticized, but those of us who experience intense struggle are not prioritized. Therefore the act of creating in ways and means that prioritize yourself as a black disabled/crip person is intrinsically and undeniably revolutionary.

After I say goodbye to mel and Gloria, I feel slightly abandoned. A feeling that comes every time I meet an artist or creative that I have a deep and unwavering respect for. A feeling that I know will pass. I rush to catch the approaching streetcar. As I anxiously try to find a seat, I think about the space that was just created. It was a space that I think all of us in the interview wanted, but did not know how much we actually needed.

As the streetcar pulls into Spadina station I think about how the themes that were brought up in the interview will be addressed. Will they remain in the confines of the Tangled Arts office? So to you the reader I ask: after reading this article how will you be prioritizing the experience, voice, and life of the black disabled artist? How will you bring us to the center?


Gloria Swain
Gloria Swain is a visual storyteller and multidisciplinary artist whose work stimulates an understanding of mental illness. She was 2016 Artist in Residence at Tangled Art & Disability and has shown throughout Toronto and is currently completing her Masters at York University. Her practice also includes work as a community arts facilitator and coordinator of art making spaces. She uses art to explore inter-generational trauma and healing.

Kayla Carter
Kayla Carter is a multidisciplinary artist, an educator, a healer and a lover. She is a Toronto based black, queer, disabled, femme who is of Jamaican, Cuban, and Maroon ancestry and believes that her existence is not accidental, but very deliberate.Her work focuses on ancestral and intergenerational trauma, shame, healing, queerness, race, gender, disability justice and what it means to be unabashedly human. As a healer, Kayla’s work focuses on mental health, self-care, self-love ancestral and intergenerational trauma, sustainable forms of healing, and radical reproductive justice/healing.

2 Canes 2 Crips 6 Legs

An editorial essay on Disability art, healing justice, the hustle of the emerging marginalized artist.

by jes sachse

“We begin by listening. We are People of Colour, Indigenous people, disabled people, and survivors of trauma, many genders, ages and classes of people. We centre the genius and leadership of disabled and chronically ill communities, for what we know about surviving and resisting the medical industrial complex and living with fierce beauty in our sick and disabled bodies. We say no to the medical industrial complex’s model of “cure or be useless,” instead working from a place of belief in the wholeness of disability, interdependence and disabled people as inherently good as we are.”

– Healing & Health Justice Collective Organizing Principles, US Social Forum Detroit 2010

‘I have great immunities! I think it’s because I was born in a hospital,’ I say as you unlock the door of the apartment where your cat eagerly awaits our return.

‘What??’ you laugh in confusion.

 It was not what I meant. I remember fumbling with my words and eventually discarding them and hopping on your bed in playful distraction, hopelessly smitten in my first SDQ (sick and disabled queer) relationship.

I meant I was raised in a hospital. The mothership. Among others of my kind. Paranoid of cops and public transit officials trying to return me. One time wheeltrans slowly followed me for a whole block down Sorauren Avenue and I was like ‘aw shit! It’s happening!’ Turns out they were just looking for an address.

When I moved to Toronto with them big city dreams, it was from a smaller town nearby. Disability art was a new and burgeoning thing to me then, and to the Canadian scene, and I was eager to explore it. I resolved that in order to do that I needed to be around people that could grow me. I needed to know what was out there and I figured Toronto could tell me, with its rumours of other disabled queers.

This cold shoulder of a city has fulfilled its promise and then some. I’ve learned the art hustle of the emerging marginalized artist. Connection across disciplines, politics, and identities. Negotiations between steep rent and steeper poverty transformed into sweet poetry on the social media surface of me. I have made a home and it only took five years to get here.

Here for me is more literally the city’s southwest neighbourhood of Parkdale. I suppose Parkdale is as good a place as any to think about being disabled. Poverty and gentrification coming in from all sides. A place where scrappy meets yuppie in an elbow of streets just before the lake. Years learning the sidewalk dance of dodging the wheelie cart bubbies of a still very Polish Roncesvalles Village cuz no they don’t see your shared crip identities and they will RUN YOU DOWN.

The word disability has a lot of whiteness to contend with. It comes from institutions, which have an inherited colonial history: the medical industrial complex and the academic industrial complex.

I receive a lot of speaking engagements from academic institutions. The academy did not create disability art, but it did brand it. With the brand comes the decree of legitimacy. (I was once asked to give a presentation at a conference at Yale. It didn’t matter that no one paid me; it was Yale! Yaaaaale. Although when trying to board the campus shuttle, right on cue, I was asked if I was looking for the hospital shuttle).

I think I really did believe that a growing interest in disability art meant a growing care for disabled people. But that is a harsh untruth of being a marginalized artist contending with institutionalized power. With the apparent success of my own growing brand, I feel a growing emptiness. Hunger pangs that the McD’s value menu never seems to fill, despite repeated attempts at slinging toonies at the problem.

In a Canadian art context, marginalized identities ask for commodification in order to sustain an emerging artistic practice, while the work produced is often valued for only that: its marginalized quota. In the process of naming oneself over and over as marginalized artist, for funding, for work, for survival, an oppositional isolation is deeply felt. As though that is all one’s work is or is doing: marginalizing.

I can remember my first review in NOW Magazine, during my very first solo show for CONTACT Photography Festival. The images spanned the work of two years of vivid, visceral, queer and erotic digital self-portraiture; early photographic attempts at visually locating myself across my identities and communities. Although positive, the paragraph written about the series amounted to ‘These photographs show sachse just living life!’

Since that time, I have been given several platforms to speak from. And yet I still long for the missing care in my work’s curation. Disability art has in many ways revealed itself to exist to legitimize the very whitewashed disability studies academy. The disability studies academy will engage with disabled artists insofar as they prove of value to scholarship.

This problem is further perpetuated by organizational funding structures like the Ontario Art Council’s project grant specific disability art, which insists on a full disability roster (of almost circus-like variety) in order to be considered. If the entire slew of the projects participants are not disabled, the project does not qualify, which is a forced segregation having nothing to do with craft or medium.

Sadly, disability art is not inherently healing justice, as the spaces it takes up do not centre care or healing, but commodification. I have at times made bad art that speaks to non-disabled feminists before because it meant getting heard from at all; the ache for intimate artistic engagement is real and fuels the work of survival of artists working from the margins.

Thursday, March 24th, 2016. It’s late. I just left Lynx, horizontal on one of black pleather couches in the lobby of OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design), spoons(1.) low and on the phone with their Vancouver sweetie.


1. Spoon Theory

The word disability has a lot of whiteness to contend with. It comes from institutions, which have an inherited colonial history: the medical industrial complex and the academic industrial complex.

I receive a lot of speaking engagements from academic institutions. The academy did not create disability art, but it did brand it. With the brand comes the decree of legitimacy. (I was once asked to give a presentation at a conference at Yale. It didn’t matter that no one paid me; it was Yale! Yaaaaale. Although when trying to board the campus shuttle, right on cue, I was asked if I was looking for the hospital shuttle).

I think I really did believe that a growing interest in disability art meant a growing care for disabled people. But that is a harsh untruth of being a marginalized artist contending with institutionalized power. With the apparent success of my own growing brand, I feel a growing emptiness. Hunger pangs that the McD’s value menu never seems to fill, despite repeated attempts at slinging toonies at the problem.

In a Canadian art context, marginalized identities ask for commodification in order to sustain an emerging artistic practice, while the work produced is often valued for only that: its marginalized quota. In the process of naming oneself over and over as marginalized artist, for funding, for work, for survival, an oppositional isolation is deeply felt. As though that is all one’s work is or is doing: marginalizing.

I can remember my first review in NOW Magazine, during my very first solo show for CONTACT Photography Festival. The images spanned the work of two years of vivid, visceral, queer and erotic digital self-portraiture; early photographic attempts at visually locating myself across my identities and communities. Although positive, the paragraph written about the series amounted to ‘These photographs show sachse just living life!’

Since that time, I have been given several platforms to speak from. And yet I still long for the missing care in my work’s curation. Disability art has in many ways revealed itself to exist to legitimize the very whitewashed disability studies academy. The disability studies academy will engage with disabled artists insofar as they prove of value to scholarship.

This problem is further perpetuated by organizational funding structures like the Ontario Art Council’s project grant specific disability art, which insists on a full disability roster (of almost circus-like variety) in order to be considered. If the entire slew of the projects participants are not disabled, the project does not qualify, which is a forced segregation having nothing to do with craft or medium.

Sadly, disability art is not inherently healing justice, as the spaces it takes up do not centre care or healing, but commodification. I have at times made bad art that speaks to non-disabled feminists before because it meant getting heard from at all; the ache for intimate artistic engagement is real and fuels the work of survival of artists working from the margins.

Thursday, March 24th, 2016. It’s late. I just left Lynx, horizontal on one of black pleather couches in the lobby of OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design), spoons2 low and on the phone with their Vancouver sweetie.

We’d gone shopping for art materials. We were both running creative writing workshops around that time and were looking for ways to stretch our modest budgets into the nicest supplies. One hour in a stair filled supply store later and all 2 canes 2 crips 6 legs of us were TIRED. Like, need to sit down somewhere on a ticking clock kind of tired. Initially, I had offered that we go to The Rex after, due to its close crip proximity. I know the area like the back of my claw hand. Filed under: ‘A place to sit and jazz.’

Wheeltrans had messed up and wouldn’t be arriving till 10:30pm. But when we reached the bottom of the ramp Lynx, in their Capricorn rising steadfast charm, stopped and announced ‘Nope.’ Which is how we found ourselves camped in the university’s lobby instead.

‘Do you have a [phone]charger?’ they ask, a chuckling metaphor of our current energy levels.

Surprisingly I did. We find a nearby bench and corner with an outlet.

With hours to go before their ride, we seize the opportunity to hang out. Scatter their new supplies on the well-lit concrete floor for a future social media post to promote #BlackSpoonieSpeak, a workshop by Lynx Sainte-Marie, trying to sculpt the aesthetic jusssst right for Insta.

The hustle.

(It feels like this great secret that when two or more spoonies who centre care with each other come together, access needs don’t actually double but decrease, because bodies inform each other. A deep balance of limits & desired outcomes.) 

At 9:30pm, after twenty different conversations & a relocation to the black pleather couch, Lynx insists that I start home. My body has begun its nightly shut down. I’ve taken to referring to it as ‘kitten hour.’ If I don’t get on transit within kitten hour I will be too sleepy. Falling asleep in public is an unsafe thing in the world.

At the stop, it starts to rain. Streetcars crawl toward me in the great damp distance of Queen Street, their green-lit antennae making a Gatsby out of me. It aches of unfulfilled promise. As access wages, the same ancient stress on my bones so begins again the calculation of steps to home. The wince of what happens when home was other people. The funerals step onto the streetcar with you, sidle into front seat to rest; blue, sideways, a marker of loss incomplete. Pain, but also Love.


jes sachse
jes sachse is a Toronto-based poet, artist & curator obsessed with disability culture. Living across the blurred lines of whiteness, poverty, lifelong disability, genderfluidity and madness, they are currently working on their first illustrated novel, Gutter, which will portray these dilemmas through a multi-modal narrative form, reflecting at once on both a crip navigation of contemporary culture, and the permeation of traumas in spaces of invisibilized violence.