Ireshaia Bennett is in Chicago to build community.
Ireashia Bennett is a multimedia artist working in Chicago who creates work that captures and visualizes the complexities of Black Queer life. Ireashia sat down in the Vocalo studio to speak about their love of Hyde Park, what led them to pursue arts, finding their place as a Black Queer artist, and their current work as Audio / Visual Productions Manager at University of Chicago’s C(i)3 lab.
Introduce Yourself and briefly describe what you do:
I am a creative producer working primarily in film, photography and sound design. I create work that talks about and visualizes the complexity of black queer life.
Where are you from? Where in Chicago do you reside now?
I was born in Washington DC and I came to Chicago to attend Columbia College Chicago. Right now I live in Hyde Park and what I love most about Hyde Park is its vibrant black culture and artistic community. Even though the University of Chicago is kind of looming over the neighborhood you can still see black excellence as you walk down 53rd St. You can still hear music playing from cars and kids playing and it just seems like life is still happening.
What has it been like living in Chicago? What are some of the triumphs and challenges?
I don’t have any family in Chicago. I came here completely alone and that was super daunting to me as an 18 year old. I had to push beyond a lot of limits, a lot of anxieties. Chicago really pushed me to be resilient and forthright in what I want to do and what kind of career I want to build.
I come from a working class family and I’m the first generation of college graduates so there was no outline of what it meant to be a creative black person or a successful black artist. I had to come up with that own… so it was super isolating but also one of my greatest triumphs, I could not have done that anywhere else but Chicago.
What do you love about Chicago?
Chicago is a place where you just do it yourself, you figure it out. Yes it’s snowing and hailing but you still go out and grind. You still go out and get this money or connect with people, and I really love that about the city and about the people who are driving the city and the culture here.
Speak about your work, how and why did you get involved in this mission?
I first wanted to be an artist because I wanted to express myself. I grew up really shy and I grew up a little sheltered because of being disabled and being chronically ill so art was my pathway to expressing and expanding and exploring different parts of myself.
I first picked up the camera to shoot self portraits of myself because I didn’t see representations of what a black, queer, disabled kid looked like. You know? So for a long while art was my way of saying “I’m here” to the world and to myself. But I also use my skills in terms of film photography and sound design in service of other stories that aren’t like mine. The stories that amplify the complexity of black queer life. Like, what it means to live in the deep South and figuring out your gender identity and sexuality. Or what it’s like to be chronically ill and have chronic pain and you isolate yourself to kind of cope. So how do you deal with that and how do you deal with the lack of representation around that.
I want my work to go deeper than visibility or representation. I want my work to adequately capture that messiness of black queer life. I do some of this work as the audiovisual production manager at C(i)3 Lab which is the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation and Sexual and Reproductive Health at the University of Chicago. CI3 is a research center that addresses the social and structural barriers that often times prevent young people from making informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.
In my lab, the transmedia story lab, we co-create digital stories with young people where we amplify their voices through different media forms. We ask them to speculate what the future of health on Chicago’s South Side looks like. We also ask them to design and conceptualize technologies and objects that address and alleviate social oppression and the impact that structural violence has on the health and wellbeing of their community and of themselves.
How has the city shaped you?
Chicago’s racial and class disparities cause me to face some really uncomfortable truths about what it means to be a black American in this society right now. It made me even more forceful to state “this is who I am” and not be afraid of taking up space, and being unapologetic about the life I want to live. I think I attribute that freedom of expression to the DIY culture here. The black queer activists and artists here who are just a force to be reckoned with. It’s something that I find pleasure as well as pride in when I say I live in Chicago.
What would you like to give back to the community?
I would love to give back space where black and brown queer people and young people and folks who are living with disabilities and chronic illness to come and unload and take off their armor and just connect with each other. I just would love to curate, co-create a space where people can just be and find joy and find pleasure, and find a sense of home.
I think that’s one of the reasons why I stayed in Chicago, to build home, to build community, to build strong lasting relationships with myself but also with others. I’ve been really lucky to have found that here.
Photography by Tom Gavin
In our ongoing series, This Is What Chicago Sounds Like, we feature the voices and people who contribute to our city’s rich cultural diversity. This month we celebrate women in Chicago who are doing incredible work in the city they love. Check back here for more interviews with amazing Chicagoans.