For this activist, art is a lifeline — and a way to cope with personal and generational trauma
After battling with mental health and a blood disorder, Gloria Swain uses her work to uplift others
The first time I connected with multimedia artist Gloria Swain was on a cold winter evening earlier this year. In front of the Toronto Police headquarters where Black Lives Matter Toronto had erected the temporary protest occupation Tent City, the now 61-year-old performer, painter and writer held centre stage. Swain sashayed her hips, bounced her shoulders and even dropped down to the splits as the crowd yelled, "Go Auntie! Go Auntie!" When she was done, she turned to me and said, "This is what 60 looks like."
Today, she is called Auntie Gloria by artists and activists across Toronto. She's known for her spontaneous dance performances, provocative artistic creations, fierce support of movements like BLMTO and #OccupyINAC and ongoing uplifting of young artists. Watching her dance onstage at Pride or holding court at the Tangled Arts Gallery, few would guess that less than 15 years ago Swain was diagnosed with a blood disorder that left her at 99 pounds, undergoing 40 months of treatment and given only five years to live by doctors. During this time, art — which has always been a part of her life — became her lifeline. Joint disease made her regular painting practice painful; holding smaller tools was close to impossible, so she began experimenting with other devices like paint scrapers, scrubbing brushes, spray paint and her hands. This experimentation indirectly led her to the world of abstract art.
I saw the results of Swain's often geometric and expansive creations firsthand when I visited her home earlier this week. A one-bedroom apartment in downtown Toronto, every wall in the self-taught artist's home is covered with her work. The bedroom has been converted into a studio that is filled to the brink with canvases of all sizes. Easels hold works in progress; completed pieces lean on the floor or are carefully placed on atop plastic storage containers. Currently completing her Master's Degree at York University in Environmental Studies, Swain doesn't know where to begin when showing me her creations. Her thesis defense includes a coffee table photo book, a short film and a paper that reads like poetry.
She welcomes me to her home with offerings of "snack-y things," presenting a dizzying array of fruit, hummus and chocolate brownies from the fridge. "You can tell I'm from the South, right?" she laughs while making me a cup of green tea. I remind her of our encounter at Tent City and she laughs again: "Oh, Mama loves to dance! Every Thursday I go to the village dancing." Dressed in all black with tattoos of affirmation running up and down her arms, Swain tells me that she is currently on a journey of discovering and telling her own story. "I guess I'm reclaiming negative stuff and making it positive. This here is how we deal with trauma. You can't get rid of it, so you learn to live with it. So I use it for my art."
While Swain underwent treatment, she also battled depression and struggled to find adequate treatment while taking care of her daughter. "I think the system has changed now but [back then] I go to my doctor and I say, 'I'm depressed.' He says, 'I can't give you medication because if I do, I have to report you to Children's Aid." Swain began to recognize her experience as part of a larger societal pattern. When she began researching her family's history and saw the patterns of mental illness in the experiences of her sister, her aunt and her mother, she began to draw the intergenerational threads and recognize her trauma as something that also had historical and political roots. Swain's solo installation last year at Tangled Art Gallery was an exploration into her experience as a black woman in the mental health system, entitled Mad Room. "People say, 'Why do you call yourself a mad artist?' I'm reclaiming the term because it used to be used as a negative. Look around. If I wasn't mad, would I be able to create this?"
People say, 'Do you feel exposed?' I say, 'No.' I feel in control because I'm telling the story. And it needs to be told.- Gloria Swain, artist and activist
Swain shows me a series of black ink sketches done on 3x5 canvasses that bring to mind the early silhouette works of Kara Walker. Swain describes them as her story with mental health, and the images of razor blades dripping with blood, needles and medication bottles provide arresting visuals of her personal experiences. However, she also transcends her individual narrative by imagining the stories of her ancestors, tracing four generations of black women's suffering. Originally from West Virginia, Swain grew up in an era still deeply rooted in segregation. The Civil Rights Movement is often defined in the public memory as a moment history defined by legal battles and activist mobilization but Swain considers it from a more intimate perspective of trauma and violence. "What my parents was fighting, I'm fighting, and this generation is fighting the same thing."
Much of Swain's abstract work is textured using glue guns and fabric to create works that jump off the canvas. She encourages me to feel them, asking me, "Is it cool or what? My stuff is touchable. I think I'm the only artist who asks people to touch. It's very therapeutic too." This practice has a purpose beyond aesthetic, as Swain works frequently with people who have various disabilities and considers how they may be able to engage with her work.
Look around. If I wasn't mad, would I be able to create this?- Gloria Swain, artist and activist
We move from her studio to her laptop so that she can show me a video of a performance art installation she conducted earlier this year at The Theatre Centre called The Gathering. It's an invite-only performance with an audience made up entirely of black women whose names are incorporated into the show. A core theme running through Swain's work is violence against black women, and in this performance, she centres many of them — hanging various dresses on a clothes line, wringing out the fabric and revealing the names written on them before undressing herself. She breaks down the colour palette for me: "White is the colonization. The black is the scars of slavery. And the oppression [the grey] is what's left over — the intergenerational trauma. We still carry it with us. My thing is how do you heal? You strip it away."
She gets up to find and unfurl one of the fabrics used in the installation so that I can inspect it closely. It is a long cloth filled with the names of 210 black women who were killed by police, who died in police custody or who were murdered as black trans women. "So after I do my performance, because I know it's heavy, I come out in my onesie dancing," she tells me with a small smile. "People say, 'Do you feel exposed?' I say, 'No.' I feel in control because I'm telling the story. And it needs to be told."