Black Women, [Inherited] Mental Health and Healing Art

black silhouette of elderly black woman with a headwrap on

by Gloria Swain

When I was first diagnosed with a chronic illness along with the deaths of loved ones, I felt my world falling apart. I fell into a deep dark emotional state for several years. The treatment for my physical illness took a toll on my body which naturally added more stress to my mental health. Finally, I was officially diagnosed with depression in 2004. After being on antidepressants for a few years and struggling with the long list of side effects -suicidal thoughts, anger, weight, hallucinations – I realized I needed a way out. I was on the edge and there was nowhere else to go but down. I was alone. And I felt invisible.

Black women are strong and resilient, but we are also human and mental illness does not discriminate. We are not strangers to depression, anxiety, bipolar or PTSD but Black women continue to suffer in silence because of the shame and stigma surrounding mental illness in Black communities. Growing up I suffered from undiagnosed depression. Being born in the late 50s, mental illness was unheard of and taboo, especially in the Black community. I was born and raised in the southern United States, at the end of segregation and the beginning of integration. My parents and grandmother refused to talk about their histories growing up in Alabama or South Carolina because of the violence and racism they experienced. It was too painful for them to speak on. Sometimes I wonder if they ever had an opportunity to heal. This is intergenerational trauma. Unexplained and unspoken wounds that are passed down to the next generation. When we don’t heal ourselves, we lack the tools to create healing for our future descendants. It’s difficult to talk about mental illness, especially if you’re a Black woman whose ancestors have suffered in silence for centuries because we are constantly told that we are strong. It’s even more difficult for Black women to seek help when the people who are advocating for mental health look nothing like us. Mental illness does not see race, sex, or economical status; yet, certain communities are routinely excluded from mental health conversations.

One day, while going through old photos, I found a picture of me as young girl painting. I remembered how art had brought me so much happiness. I started painting again and never looked back. Art was not only healing for me, but it also led me into researching my own history. I successfully traced my ancestors from Africa to Alabama, one of the largest states that took part in the U. S. slave trade. I learned there is a history of mental illness in my family as well as other illnesses that has now begun to take a toll on my body as I age. Being a descendent of African slaves in America I asked myself, what mental toll has slavery placed on Black people?

My art practice, together with my own lived experiences with intergenerational trauma, challenges the narrative of the strong Black woman and the shame associated with mental illness. My creative journey started at a very young age and it hasn’t stopped. Art pushed me to get back to school and today, at the young age of 60, I have completed my masters.

As a child, art was an outlet for my frustration of trying to fit in. Today, art is a part of my journey of healing. Through art, I face the traumas that come with intersecting histories of slavery, racism, and violence against Black women’s bodies. Through art, I am an activist; I strive to create art that opens discussions around social issues within the Black community. Through art I encourage connection; art brings folks together and moves people to change. Art has become a powerful tool with which I can find healing in my own pain.

Gloria C Swain is a multidisciplinary artist who uses art to explore the history of violence against Black women, the roots of Black mental health and intergenerational trauma. Her work is part of a social movement that seeks to raise awareness for Black female victims of police brutality, anti-Black violence and those who fail to warrant media attention.

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.

Activism and Self-Care

by Gloria Swain

‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’ ~ Audre Lorde

Conversations surrounding disability justice are very important because it puts people with disabilities at the center of the discussion and looks at inclusivity and support systems for disabled people. The disability justice movement targets the rights of disabled people through empowerment and liberation. This movement challenges abled bodied activists and society to create a more inclusive and social justice-based movement that addresses how issues such as race, class, gender and sexuality impact the experience of being disabled. As a Black feminist artist and social justice activist with a disability, I write this article to focus on the importance of self-care practices when doing this work.

As disabled activists, social justice organizers and community members, life can be exhausting sometimes. Activists can sometimes take on too much and burn out entirely and that’s why self care is an important part of activism, especially for people with disabilities. Self care means taking the time to nurture and support yourself. The impact of my own disability has affected my life in various ways, such as debilitating chronic pain, chronic fatigue and anxiety which can sometimes become isolating. My attempts to appear normal and disguise my pain with humor and my anxieties with unlimited energy represents a problem all activists experience. As I reflect on 2016, I am guilty of ignoring my mental and physical self.

In March, I took part in the fifteen day Black Lives Matter (BLM) Toronto occupation of the Toronto police headquarters at 40 College Street. This was in response to a lack of criminal charges against the police officer who shot and killed Andrew Loku in 2015, a Black man living with mental illness and in response to the refusal of Ontario Special Investigations Unit to release the name of that officer. On the final day, the crowd was preparing to march to Queen’s Park to meet with Premier Wynne to discuss systematic racism within the police department. As chronic pain and anxiety begin to affect my ability to walk, I was given the choice to ride in the back of the truck where I assumed the responsibility of dropping red roses along the route from police headquarters to Queens Park.

With very little time to rest, three weeks later, I was standing in solidarity with Occupy INAC (Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada) at the Toronto office of Indigenous and Northern Affairs office. This occupation, in response to the inaction of INAC in response to the Attawapiskat youth suicides, lasted for nine days and again I ignored my chronic pain. As an elder, I was well taken care of with hot beverages and adequate warm blankets during the chilled night. During the Pride parade, in July, riding aboard Black Lives Matter – Toronto float, enabled me to take part in the historical halting of the Pride Parade where a list of demands from BLM was presented and agreed to by the Pride organizers.

July continued to be a busy time for me where I was moderator at York University for the Black Futures Now Toronto Conference, a gathering of Black women, femmes & gender nonconforming people who came together for a discussion about the identities we hold close to us as disabled/chronically ill/mad/spoonie Black folks. I ended the month talking as a speaker for the Girl Crush conference where I shared my experience of emotional labour and discussed the intersections of race, gender, disability and art.

The month of September saw me creating and curating a Black Lives Matter photo exhibit in the Crossroads Gallery at York University documenting my time at tent city. I also took part in a performance at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), curated by artist and activist Anique Jordan titled “Mas’ at 94 Chestnut Street”, an envision of what Black history would have looked like in Toronto if it had been documented from the early 1990s. With the year ending, in November, I facilitated a series of workshops, Own Your Sexy, at the Theatre Centre where participants created works that represented the best of their sensual side. My artwork and photographs were part of Ryerson University Social Justice Week where I was also spoke about art and disability activism.

My solo art exhibit, Mad Room, at Tangled Art & Disability, was met with critical acclaim and closed the first week in December after a three-month run. The exhibition on Black women’s mental health had successfully raised awareness, opened conversation, and promoted effective self-care through art. With over fifty art pieces, installations and a filmed artist statement, the exhibit symbolized institutionalization, forced medication, domestic abuse and the stigmas that come with Black depression and disability.

I finally realized that the year’s activities had consumed me physically and mentally and in the end, I found myself alone and completely exhausted. As a disabled activist and sufferer of depression, my activism had taken a toll on my mental health. I now realize how easy it had been for me to forget to take care of myself and I was suffered through the pain.

By mid December, during the Christmas holidays, anxiety and chronic pain had completely exhausted me. I was in dire need of self-care and disappeared inside my tiny one-bedroom apartment for the remainder of the year to rest and regroup mentally.

In the new year, after three weeks of self-care, I was back in full force and successfully launched an online #BellLetsActuallyTalk campaign which successfully became one of the most shared posts on social media. The faces of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign are wealthy white people who are not able to speak for people of colour or people who live in poverty and experience mental health issues. Every year, the Bell Let’s Talk campaign puts up billboards encouraging people to talk about mental health but these billboards are far from inclusive. It’s difficult to talk about mental health when you don’t see yourself represented in these conversations. I am hopeful that Bell will respond by including people of colour in their future mental health campaigns. Back in full protest mode, I took part in the Toronto Water is Life protest at Trump Tower in solidarity with Standing Rock and in February, I marched in the #NoBanOnStolenLand protest that occurred in response to the American travel ban, that saw thousands of people take to the streets, chanting in support of refugees and migrants, and against Islamophobia.

During this hectic and emotional time at the hands of a greedy, racist, sexist, homophobic and Islamophobic Trump government that has clearly made a negative impact in Canada, it is easy to get caught up in moments where you neglect your own needs. As an activist with an unseen disability, I had to learn to take time to rest which helped me to be a better activist and a healthier person. I am fortunate to work with organizers, protesters and allies who are sensitive and accommodating. My advice to other disabled activists and artists is to take care of yourselves and find people/movements that do not discriminate against people with disabilities and who are willing to assist and find ways to include disabled activists in movements.


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.