I Am Still Here: Union Station's new public art exhibition celebrates Black joy and resistance

"I am Still Here: Black Joy is Resistance," a Black History Month exhibition at the Toronto transit hub, is a collaboration between veteran artist Gloria C. Swain and MakeRoom.

The show at the Toronto transit hub inadvertently sprung from an act of racist vandalism

A man walks past two large format paintings.
"Braid Up" by Elicser Elliott and "Skater Girl" by Jibola Fagbamiye on display in Union Station in Toronto. (Spring Morris)

Too often, according to MakeRoom founder Trevor Twells, Black History Month gets cast "as a time of mourning and a time of sadness." I Am Still Here: Black Joy is Resistance, the new public art exhibition at Union Station, is meant in part to counteract that. 

The exhibition contains pieces from six emerging Black artists — Frantz Brent-Harris, Adetona Omokanye, Danyal Barton, Rae Clair, Elicser Elliott and Jibola Fagbamiye — whose work is displayed in the station's main corridor, as well as a three-panel triptych in the station's Oak Room by veteran artist Gloria C. Swain.

The show has a complicated origin story. Last year, a photo of Swain, taken by Anique Jordan, was displayed in the station as part of another public art exhibition. That photo was vandalized, with the vandals drawing a slave collar around Swain's neck, something that Swain said was "traumatizing." Several Union Station staffers, including executive director of programming and special events Syma Shah, invited Swain in to talk about the incident.

"We got to talking about art and I showed them some of my work, and they were really impressed," Swain says. So she and Shah talked about Swain doing something at the station for Black History Month — a project she didn't want to do alone.

A three panel triptych, with two panels featuring black, red, and yellow vertical stripes and one with the silhouette of a woman with an afro.
Gloria C. Swain's "Black Hair" in the Oak Room at Toronto's Union Station. (Spring Morris)

"As a senior artist, I know there's not a lot of spaces for Black artists," she says. "I always try to show with other artists, younger Black artists." 

Shah began suggesting potential collaborators, and when MakeRoom came up, Swain was all in.

"I'd heard about Trevor and was impressed with what I'd seen [from MakeRoom]," says Swain. "So when Syma suggested them I was like 'Yes, that's it.'"

MakeRoom is an arts organization dedicated to finding spaces and opportunities for young and emerging artists of colour. Initially, Twells says, that when the MakeRoom team, the Union Station team and Swain first began discussing the project, the theme was simply "I am Still Here." 

"We asked Union and Gloria, 'Hey, is there room for joy in this theme?'" he says. "And Gloria, being the woman she is, astutely responded, 'Well, Black joy is resistance.' And that kind of blew our minds. We were like, 'Yeah, OK. That's the theme." 

The artists involved all had very different interpretations on the theme. Twells said he wanted the project to interpret joy in the broadest possible sense.

"We really wanted to get beyond the tropes of, like, smiling faces," says Twells. "We wanted to get into what does joy or happiness mean to you?"

Two large format paintings on display at Union Station as commuters walk by.
"All Black People Go to Heaven" by Danyal Barton and "In Between Worlds" by Rae Clair on display at Toronto's Union Station. (Spring Morris)

For Rae Clair, whose painting "In Between Worlds" shows a little girl in silhouette, gazing out at a futuristic cityscape, Black joy means "hope" — specifically hope for a better future. As a child, she used to look out of her bedroom window and try to imagine a future that was different from her surroundings at the time.

"Because I grew up in poverty … I had no real-life examples of a future outside of the one that I had always known," she says. "When I was going through the process of creating this piece, I thought, 'OK when I was a kid and I closed my eyes, what did I wish I could see when I opened them?' And I don't know if it was a combination of my imagination and watching The Fifth Element so many times as a kid, but that's what I saw in my head."

She adds that she wanted to make sure the girl appeared very still, because in this future "you can just coexist in this world without feeling like you need to prove yourself or fight an uphill battle all the time."

For Swain, Black joy in the context of this exhibition comes from getting to work alongside the next generation of Black artists, and seeing them get new opportunities to shine.

"Seeing young people create and stand out, that brings joy to me," she says. 

I Am Still Here: Black Joy is Resistance is on display at Union Station until the end of May.


Chris Dart

Web Writer

Chris Dart is a writer, editor, jiu-jitsu enthusiast, transit nerd, comic book lover, and some other stuff from Scarborough, Ont. In addition to CBC, he's had bylines in The Globe and Mail, Vice, The AV Club, the National Post, Atlas Obscura, Toronto Life, Canadian Grocer, and more.

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