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Burst of life

Toronto artist Gloria C. Swain, whose robust lifestyle is defined by abstract art and activism, is featured in AGO Art in the Spotlight.

Headshot of Gloria Swain with a background of abstract shapes

Image courtesy of Gloria C. Swain.

“All of my art is about lived experiences—mine and my community’s.” – Gloria Swain  

Toronto artist Gloria C. Swain is living a full life. She is a multidisciplinary artist and social justice advocate who’s been creating for the better part of 50 years with installation, painting, performance, writing and photography. Her work examines ongoing colonial violence and centres her own experience as Black feminist artist, with invisible disabilities, navigating through unwelcoming spaces. Her most recent exhibition of abstract paintings, A Burst of Colour, was on view (before the recent lockdown) at 401 Richmond in Toronto. And in an installment of AGO Art in the Spotlight,  Adelina Vlas, AGO Associate Curator, Contemporary Art, connected with Swain to find out more about her impactful work in both the art and community spheres. 

Born in the 1950s, Gloria Swain got her start as an artist at the age of 12, using art as a form of expression and a coping mechanism. She began to explore abstract painting in the early 1980s as she was attracted to its potential for complex messaging. In her words, it allowed her to “put all the issues on one canvas.” Swain’s earlier work utilized mostly grey, white and black paints, and was a comment on the intergenerational trauma faced by the Black community. Her more recent exhibitions, like A Burst of Colour, feature a brighter palette and speak more to the healing processes of trauma. Reflecting on this work during her Art in the Spotlight conversation, Gloria asserted, “This title doesn’t need much explanation—art, for me, is healing, and I think the colours allow people to grow through what they go through.” As well as at with 401 Richmond, Swain has staged solo exhibitions at BAND Gallery in Toronto and the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba

At age 60, Swain received a master’s degree from York University in Environmental Studies. It’s a degree that perfectly accompanies her work as an activist in Toronto. Apart from advocating for Black women artists, seniors' rights and mental health awareness, she also facilitates arts-based workshops with young people in various marginalized communities throughout the city. And to top it all off, Swain is somewhat of a local dance legend, known for popping up at community events and throwing down on big stages like PrideTO’s Blockorama.     

Check out the video below and stay tuned for more from AGO Art in the Spotlight throughout 2021. While you’re at it, take a look at some of this year’s past installments, including features with Rajni Perera, Tanya Talaga and Charles Officer.  

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