Author: Ireashia Bennett

Black Monument Ensemble: Looking Back From Now

“Please join me in welcoming the Black Monument Ensemble.” The crowd roars with claps, whistles, loud whoops, and yelps. Applause melts behind wind chimes and bells as the band, singers, and dancers make their way to the stage. The audience quiets in anticipation. The voice of Damon Locks resounds in the room before his body appears. “Knowing what we know now, the mind searches for reconciliation…”  Stationed behind the singers, dancers, and drummers, he stands near his keyboard speaking into a telephone receiver attached to a soundboard. His voice reverberates throughout the space, bouncing against the drum sounds and vibrations as he recites his “Statement of Intent.” The drum intensifies and reaches a crescendo. “Some things never change–Black monuments!”, Locks yells. Angel Bat Dawid begins playing her clarinet. The choir begins.  I become transfixed by the electric synergy that emits from the band to the dancers, from the dancers to the singers, from the collective to the audience. The voices of Ruby Dee, Angela Davis, and Lena Horne coil around and reverberate within our ears. Suddenly …

In Conversation with Artist Jireh L. Drake

Even if you haven’t met Jireh L. Drake (they/them) before, you may have heard their voice bouncing off the walls of a CTA platform–laughing, chanting or freestyling. Always enfolded within the city’s cacophonous soundscape. Always amongst people. Their spirit and energy can be felt even before they are seen. Jireh is a Black trans artist, curator, organizer and non-binary baddie who uses mixed media to explore the interdependency of social structures, salient identities, and history. Through drawing, they illustrate the sensations of movement and texture that overlap to visually evoke the interconnectedness of power, race, people, ideas, and cultural-historical movements. In their work, everyday life, Black queer existence, and experiences are unearthed and unpacked. They are a founding member of For the People Artists Collective, a squad of Black and Artists of Color who also organize and create work that “uplifts and projects struggles, resistance, liberation, and survival within and for marginalized communities and movements.” Their work, it seems, is a reaction to a feeling, a moment, or a conversation. Because of this, it always feels …

Darien R. Wendell, Forging Black Queer Sanctuaries by Any Means

Darien R. Wendell (they/them, ey/em, d) is a transdisciplinary artist, curator, educator, and organizer who uses art as a vehicle to interrogate and excavate Black queer histories, experiences, and moments. They harness their inquiry in pursuit of creating art, spaces and worlds for Black trans and gender non-conforming folks who seek refuge, community and connection. Their work expands over different media and expressions, including performance, sculpture, illustration, and zines. They are also part of several Chicago-based artists and organizing collectives–one of which is A Tribe Called Cunt, a “squad” co-created with Bonita Africana (Shanna Collins) that highlights the many contributions of Black trans and gender non-conforming rappers and cultural producers to hip-hop culture.    It was an art teacher in high school who encouraged Darien to think critically about art as a tool and not just aesthetics. They had a culture jamming assignment that required them to look at an advertisement, research the company that produced it to understand the company’s practices, and then create a counterculture piece of art about it. The main point of …

Abolitionist Sarah-Ji Uses Photography To Reimagine Community Liberation

Sarah-Ji (she/her) is a movement photographer and abolitionist who documents freedom struggles in Chicago. She is also an active member of For the People Artists Collective, a squad of Black and artists of color who also organize and create work that “uplifts and projects struggle, resistance, liberation, and survival within and for marginalized communities and movements.” For nearly a decade she has created a visual archive of liberation struggles for Black, Brown, Indigenous, queer, trans, and intersex lives. She documents and sheds light on the everyday people of Chicago who show up and actively resist systemic, hyper-local and social oppression. Thus, her camera becomes a tool of liberation and a pathway toward envisioning a world without police and prisons, where struggle does not take precedence over love, justice, and community. Her photography illustrates the power of sustaining strong relationships as organizing artists while committing to the heavy lift of resistance and social activism. This interview was shortened for length and clarity.  Ireashia: Tell me a little about how you came to photography and what drew …

Tonika G. Johnson Uses Visual Activism to Combat Distorted Truth

Tonika G. Johnson (she/her) is an Englewood photographer and activist who uses photography and digital media to explore Chicago’s racial and economic disparities. She harnesses the provocative power of photographs and moving image in her latest project Folded Map, where she looks specifically at issues of segregation and housing by juxtaposing images of streets on Chicago’s South Side with their sister addresses on the North Side. The stark difference in the care of buildings, houses, and streets between the two locations is jarring and visually unsettling. The omnipresent nature of structural racism and systemic oppression has never been clearer. But Johnson does more than show these disparities. She creates a bridge and creates space for North and South Side residents to come together and discuss how segregation impacts their lives. In doing so, Johnson urges the Chicago public to continue to have these difficult conversations. I have been an admirer of Johnson’s work since Everyday Rituals, her multimedia project that “asserts the divinity of regular people.” She captures her community with loving precision and pride. …

Archivist Candace Ming Preserves and Uplifts the Cultural Memory of Chicago’s South Side

Candace Ming (she/her) is the current Project Manager and Archivist for the South Side Home Movie Project (SSHMP), an initiative spearheaded by Dr. Jacqueline Stewart at the University of Chicago. SSHMP collects, preserves, digitizes, exhibits, and documents home movies made by–mostly Black–residents of Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods. Candace regularly facilitates workshops focused on preserving digital materials and sharing ways people can create individual archives to sustain their family history, traditions, and heritage. I became aware of Candace’s work with South Side Home Movie Project while attending the Alternative Histories, Alternative Archives symposium in Fall 2017. She participated in a panel and discussed the role of alternative archives–those which exist and function outside of elitist, academic archival spaces. SSHMP is an alternative archive in that it prioritizes the personal narratives of everyday Black folks and creates a visual history of Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods. ‘Alternative archives’ are subjective in nature, (as opposed to “neutral”). They seek to preserve and collect materials from and about marginalized communities and historical moments. In doing so, they amplify the otherwise …

Archivist and Activist Erin Glasco Envisions Rebuilding the Archive—From the Inside Out

Erin Glasco (her/hers; they/them) is an archivist and organizer based in Chicago. They have worked on archival projects with Free Street Theatre, the Chicago History Museum, and a Studs Turkel podcast project with WFMT Chicago and Eve Ewing. Additionally, they are currently a part of No Cop Academy, an effort led by Black youth in Chicago to demand $95 million for youth and communities, instead of a new facility for Chicago police. They received their Master’s in Library Science from UIC-UC and currently work as a Visiting Instructor  and Special Collections Librarian at UIC. I first met Erin at the Center for Black Music Research (CBMR) as a Journalism undergrad at Columbia College Chicago. They were studying the Paul Robeson FBI files while I was studying ethnomusicology and the interconnectedness of Jamaican Dancehall music within Black American Hip Hop culture. I was astounded by how familiar Erin’s presence felt. Immediately, we were joking and laughing as if we were old college friends. Since 2014, our friendship has strengthened and our careers have aligned and intersected …