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,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 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 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.