Mad Room: Black artist lays bare struggle with depression, anxiety

Tangled Art Gallery in Toronto is opening its first-ever installation, featuring the work of local artist Gloria Swain and focusing on her experience as a Black woman in the mental health system.

The gallery is supported by Tangled Art + Disability which sponsors disability arts across the country. Tangled Art Gallery just opened in the spring this year and bills itself as the first in the country dedicated to showcasing disability arts.

The inaugural season launches September 22 with Artist in Residence Swain.

"My hope is to reduce the stigma of mental illness through art," Swain, who has spent 30 years working in real estate and among at-risk youth, told rabble. Swain, who came to Canada from the American South, is determined to forge her way into territory that is often repressed, such as the stigma within the Black community regarding depression.

"[It's] simply 'we don't get depressed, we went through slavery'… yes, my ancestors were slaves and I believe that some of that trauma is passed down from generation to generation," she explained.

"We need to look at how slavery affected the Black community and why it's so difficult for us to discuss mental health without people thinking you're crazy."

The exhibit, Mad Room, has a bed, a monitor, a small table with empty pill bottles and a coat hook with some clothing hanging on it. It is a deliberate and obvious environment that invites the public into a space called mental illness.

"I'm aiming to raise awareness, open conversation and promote coping strategies and self-care for mental health," she added.

The room will feature more than 40 striking paintings and sculptures by Swain, divided into sections: healing space, stigmas, traumatic, perseverance, demeanour, secrets, violence and mental illness.

Images courtesy of Gloria Swain

"Secrets" by Gloria Swain

"I'm telling a story, my journey with depression… each section represents what affects my mental health," she said in an email. "For example, my genealogy reveals an inheritance of SECRETS, VIOLENCE, and MENTAL ILLNESS. My art is a result of an inheritance of TRAUMATIC lived experiences and passed down struggles from three generations. STIGMAS of mental illness remain hurtful and one of the most challenging aspects of living with an unseen illness."

Vibrant hues and geometric shapes

Swain's works have deep, vibrant hues of red, cobalt blue, greens, oranges and faded pinks. Some contain dark geometric shapes (trapezoids, pointy triangles, squares) that punch into the colour scheme, or violet swirls or patches of squares that seem smudged on.

I asked about those angular shapes.

"I like using geometric [shapes] because the process of creating various shapes takes time and patience which seems to calm me down when I'm dealing with heavy issues and can't find words to express what I'm feeling."

Images courtesy of Gloria Swain

"Insomnia" by Gloria Swain

The art pieces are remarkable and jump off the canvas. Swain says she deals with chronic pain and doesn’t use a paintbrush. She uses her hands.

"The side effects of the medication [for the pain] took a toll on my body and mental state," she pointed out. "My return to art saved me."

In addition, Swain has included an interactive piece. She's putting names of Black cis and trans women who have been killed by police in North America on a long sheet of paper and is inviting the public to add more names.

"[I wanted to] address the ongoing violence against Black cis and trans women that doesn't get media attention," she said. "And as a Black woman, I feel a great responsibility to address this issue because it's a part of my history, starting with slavery. Violence has a great deal to do with the mental health of Black women."

Launch night is September 22, 7 p.m.

Swain will be giving an Artist's Talk at the gallery on September 27, 5:30- 7 p.m.

Mad Room is on display until December 3, 2016 at Tangled Arts Gallery, Main Floor, 401 Richmond St. West, Toronto

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

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