16 Aug 2021

    3 Questions for 3 Black Canadian Artists Addressing Mental Health in Toronto

    Photo: Jacquie Comrie, Apanaki Temtayo Minerve (Credit: Neri Media), and Gloria C. Swain (Credit: Kwasi Kyei)

    Mental health and wellness is a hot topic these days. Rising depression and anxiety sound like a natural side-effect of living through a global pandemic caused by an insidious virus that uses our human interconnectivity to attack us. For months, the people you would normally turn to for solace became the source of a potential household outbreak that could endanger you or others. Then, just as some hope comes along in the form of a vaccine, the more conspiracy prone among us decide it’s a good time to not vaccinate themselves and create a cellular incubator from which mutated versions of the virus can emerge; throwing off their masks as if throwing off the chains of their public health-mandated oppression. Of course, if you’ve been paying attention at all the last year, there’s still good old-fashioned racism to contend with. The death by a thousand cuts of daily microaggressions from the producers of your least favourite neverending television series, “systemic racism doesn’t exist and, hello police? A Black person is scaring me with their existence.” This, the very visual representation of rising poverty in the form of tent cities, the unruly weather fluctuations caused by climate change and, personally, stupid people, all take a toll on our mental health. As with all of life’s challenges, artists seem quite adept at addressing mental health through their respective mediums. Why not? They're ultimately just people who are susceptible to the same stressors in life that we all share. But some carry the extra burden of chronic mental illness. I spoke to 3 Black Canadian artists about how they channel their personal mental health challenges into their art and how they hope their work changes perceptions and stigmas around mental health in the community. 

    Jacquie Comrie

    Jacquie Comrie immigrated to Toronto, by way of Panama, in 2001, in the dead of a Canadian winter. Her earliest memories were of a snow-blanketed, grey city; that colour still being her least favourite. Comrie pulls bright polychromatic tones from her memories of Panama, a city of vibrant colours, a response to her negative feelings around spaces devoid of colour. She graces the public with large-scale murals and installations. The importance of being vulnerable and open about one’s mental health is evident from the onset of our conversation. Comrie, who is a new mom, has been working through postpartum depression and was insistent on making that known. Because like her work, she advocates for it being okay to talk about mental health issues. On this day, she appeared to be in good spirits and ready to talk about her art. 

    Jacquie Comrie Art design

    Photo Courtesy: Jacquie Comrie, "A Streetcar Named Toronto" (2019)

    How does your art address mental health issues in the community and why is it so important to you?

    When I was in university (OCAD University) I was in a class called the psychology of colour, and while sitting in that class I had an epiphany. I was starting to exhibit work in private spaces and galleries but I wanted to find a way for my work to have a social impact of some sort and that’s when I started learning about the effect of colours on our bodies. Colour is absorbed through your skin, not your eyes. It’s energy and light combined. It changes our thoughts and emotions and is known to improve mental health. I became obsessed with this because ‘colour’ had been such a huge part of my life in Panama. I’ve been using it as a tool to bring wellness through colourful installations where people can see and feel better. Especially right now with the state of the world. I also feel like, in our community, mental health issues are a myth to not be taken seriously. Being in therapy and taking medication for depression myself, I know that’s not true. So mental health has been at the forefront of everything I create. 

    What is a specific stigma or misunderstood perception people have around mental health?

    Things like talking about your feelings or crying in public are a weakness because you should keep your business to yourself, or strength comes from not being vulnerable. I’ve learned that vulnerability is strength. I think, culturally, a lot of us have grown up with this misunderstanding. I’m here to say I’m proud. I feel like I’m breaking generational curses just by being vulnerable, in therapy and addressing my mental health. Now I’m a mother, I feel like that curse needs to end with me. Mental health really is health. 

    What do you want people who come in contact with your work to take from it?

    I want people to feel better. It’s about advocacy and awareness. When people are in the presence of colour, how does it make you feel? You feel colour. When you’re in the presence of something colourful and larger than yourself, it’s an opportunity for the public to feel better. If you’re on the way to work or school and you see a colourful public art installation, that’s going to interrupt whatever’s going on in your mind and allow you to take a mental break from things. Creating in public spaces creates an opportunity for everybody to access the work, versus galleries, which are amazing, but were only accessible to a certain demographic and the people who could afford that work were the one percent and those with the money to spend on it. I love being able to revitalize community space to make it better by allowing everyone to experience colour. 

    Apanaki Temitayo Minerve

    Apanaki Temitayo Minerve is a visual artist, art teacher, mental health advocate and mother, who believes “art is life.” The Centre for Mental Health and Addictions (CAMH) first Artist-in-Wellness, she acts out that belief through community workshops and works with grassroots organizations, using art as therapy for her mental wellness and the wellness of others. While she combats mental health stigma through her work by directly addressing trauma, she inadvertently combats tropes around what an artist with mental health issues can be by also addressing other topics or art for art’s sake. After all, the artist is a human being first; by creating work that sometimes does and doesn’t reflect her trauma, she reflects the reality for many people living with trauma and mental health issues but going on with their lives despite it. 

    Apanaki Art design

    Photo: Apanaki Temitayo Minerve, "Numb" (2021) Photo Credit: Sean Patenaude 

    How does your art address mental health issues in the community and why is it so important to you?

    Because I’m a Black artist with a lived experience of mental health issues, my art process started as art therapy. I did a workshop with the YWCA Breakthrough program and they introduced me to the idea of using art as therapy to deal with my trauma. When I started my art journey, I felt the need to use my art as personal therapy and share aspects of that within my work with inpatients at CAMH as the Artist-in-Wellness. The relationship with CAMH came about as a facilitator for the Workman Arts Art-Cart Program, which is funded by CAMH Gifts of Light. As a result of the positive feedback from inpatients, CAMH approached me to become the first Artist-in-Wellness. They wanted to make sure that inpatients had access to art programming not structured by CAMH. So other than an occupational therapist being present, I would give them an hour where they had full freedom to express themselves artistically. I’m not a licensed art therapist, and at the intersection of art therapy and art, so I was able to do a lot more for the inpatients with my programming. I also hold workshops within the community like a youth shelter group and organizations like Across Boundaries, a centre that helps newcomers and immigrants get access to art-based programming to help as therapy. 

    What is a specific stigma or misunderstood perception people have around mental health?

    Generally speaking as an artist, the stigma is that people with mental health can’t focus enough to be creative, their artwork can only have a lens on mental health or they’ll be caught up in their psychosis which will come out in their art and make people uncomfortable. I believe I’m an artist first, that just happens to be a survivor of trauma, mental health and PTSD. When you start saying you’re an artist with mental health issues instead of an artist who happens to have that, people tend to want all your art to be a direct exploration of your mental wellness and think it needs to have a message, either positive or negative, with regards to mental wellness. Though some of my art addresses mental health, not all of it does, nor does it need to.  I’m a person with different facets of myself that I’m expressing through my art. As a Black person, the conversation tends to be that we are sometimes not allowed to express ourselves as fully evolved individuals. It’s not always about our Blackness, mental illness or day-to-day trauma. Sometimes it’s just about art. Fun art, mediocre art and art for art’s sake. 

    What do you want people who come in contact with your work to take from it?

    I want people to feel the freedom to truly express themselves in whatever medium or genre they feel attuned with. To be unapologetic about how that shows up. If it makes people uncomfortable, maybe it’s supposed to make people uncomfortable? Art is a representation of what’s going on in the world today and sometimes artists are more in tune with the changes of the world than other people; they’ll show people things they're missing, give a different perspective so things can be understood, or just call out injustices in the world. That’s how I see myself and my work and hope that my work inspires others to do that as well. 

    Gloria C. Swain

    A survivor of cancer (she beat it in 2018), mental illness, and successful single motherhood, Gloria C. Swain is an elder with a griot’s inventory of stories to tell. How lucky for the world that she’s chosen art as the medium to tell her story. The master’s degree graduate (earned at the age of 62) is the living embodiment of the saying, life begins after forty; she’s an inspiration on several different levels. Whether the art Illuminati and millennial art circle cliques in Canadian art and the Toronto art scene give her the recognition she deserves while she’s still here or not, the prolific Black woman artist has carved out her legacy in oral and written histories for generations to come. Like the other artists listed here, her artwork and life contradict the stigmas around those who suffer from mental illness. She’s known as much for her energetic dance skills on her Instagram profile as her art. Mental illness or not, Swain proves that there is no retirement age for artists and when they’re gone, the work lives on as a testament to their brilliance. 

    Gloria C Swain Art design

    Photo Courtesy: Gloria C. Swain, "Inspirational Journey" (2020)

    How does your art address mental health issues in the community and why is it so important to you?

    During the summer before the lockdown, I would have a group of young kids and we would create art in different locations like parks etc. I thought it was very important for them because many came from low-income communities and have experienced things they don’t have the words to communicate about. Art was a creative way to express themselves without words, and eventually, they would start to open up and talk about their experiences. I think art should be part of a kid’s life because many kids don’t have the words for the trauma they’ve experienced. I grew up in the South in the ’60s and when all that stuff was happening, we would hear the conversations but didn’t know how to address them. I started doing art when I was younger because it was a creative outlet for what I was going through and made me feel better. As far as Black elders go, no programs are addressing what they’ve experienced. Some of that stuff we carry with us and take to the dirt. I would love to be involved with Black seniors in an art program. It’s difficult to find them because we don’t come from a generation that talks about mental health. I believe this goes way back to slavery. Slaves couldn’t let the slave masters know what they were going through. 

    What is a specific stigma or misunderstood perception people have around mental health?

    I can only speak to it through a Black woman’s lens. We can’t erase the stigma within the Black community if we’re afraid to ask for help. When I have an episode where I know I’m going to be feeling low, I just stay inside and don’t tell anybody because I don’t want anybody calling the cops for a health check. As you know, when they come, we don’t always end up alive. We have to create a community of support. When I was growing up we had elders who were community leaders, like my grandmother, who would talk to young people dealing with mental health issues. We never called the cops. My mother came from South Carolina where you didn’t tell people your business, and there’s a generational trauma a lot of older Black people have which they unintentionally pass on. But I’m happy to see young Black women are coming together in groups to support each other’s mental wellness, but I still don’t see mental health getting as much attention in the Black community as it needs. 

    What do you want people who come in contact with your work to take from it?

    I want them to ask me questions about my work. That opens the conversation. There are things within my work that I don’t speak on but I know some people need to hear. That’s why I like doing workshops with young people. Here’s a quick story. A young girl, around 13 or 14, stopped talking and her mother didn’t know what was wrong with her. This young girl came over to my place and I put out a big piece of paper. After a few of these sessions, she started talking. It turns out she was being abused by three other girls at school. That freedom to express herself through art opened her up to have that conversation. We all need a creative outlet. I’ve been stuck at home the last sixteen months and have turned my bedroom into a little studio. I’ve got everything I need in there. I’ve got my art and my dance, and when I need to rest my body, I sleep. I have a sofa bed in my living room. Dance for me is like art. When I’m dancing to the old school stuff it brings back memories of happy times. People see me dancing and smiling, even though I may be going through stuff, like the art, it helps me deal with it. 

    Read 1158 times Last modified on Friday, 25 March 2022 13:17
    Byron Armstrong

    Byron Armstrong is a Toronto-based writer who focused on the intersections between art, society, and politics. Byron's reviews, think pieces, and in-depth profiles of creatives, have been published in Cuisine Noir, The Globe and Mail, The National Gallery of Canada Magazine, ELLE Canada, NOW magazine and NUVO. You can find a portfolio of all his work to date at www.byron-armstrong.com.

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