When your words draw attention from bystanders around you, when your work draws attention from those who come across you, when your energy draws people in and make them interested in your opinions. All of these things is what will happen when you spend time with Isa Benn. The 27-year old multidisciplinary visual artist has spent years living in New York and time in Detroit but was raised in Toronto’s east end. Happily back residing in TO, she admits the community aspect is not the same as the American counterparts, but with her ever-emerging gallery pop-ups with her partner by her side she intends on making community come alive.
Check out the exclusive interview where Isa talks being a black woman in the creative world and how her work is used as an escapism from most things she deems boring.
How would you like to introduce yourself?
My name is Isa Benn and I’m a multidisciplinary artist, which essentially means that at a very young age I just loved making things; if you put anything in front of me, what my mother noticed is that I would make something out of it or take it apart and make something else. So basically… she had to hide many things in our house. So yeah, I like many forms of art.
Can you tell me about your work and how you express yourself through that?
I’ve studied a lot of different things. My family, my parents aren’t rich; we’re immigrants, but my mom and my dad really wanted to support me. I think because they didn’t really have someone growing up to support their artistic endeavours, so when they had a child, no matter what other confusing immigrant problems they were having, they were going to support something that is kind of taboo, which is being an artist of colour and a woman. So, I studied ballet, jazz, and all kinds of dance and painting and sculpture…. I think the reason that I kind of stuck with the multidisciplinary visual is because I do love acting and I love singing – I did sing for a really long time, but visual art is probably my easiest medium. Everything else requires working with other people far more like all forms of art do, like even I’ve studied writing but I like an art form that I can do by myself and don’t really have to contact other people because I am extremely anti-social.
Which of your beliefs and ideologies have you shared your work on the most and why?
Just being a woman of colour and for about five years I practiced Buddhism, not because I gravitated towards it but just because it was already aligned with a lot of my belief systems. I grew up in a very spiritual household and history-heavy household and very political so my father was very deep into studying ancient African, tribal practices. So as a woman of colour and someone who is very spiritual, I think a lot of what comes through is ‘other-ness’, I like to talk about queerness and being a woman of colour, specifically a Black woman. I do think about politics very naturally and spiritually so I think that comes through a lot because that is very involved in my personality.
In your She Does The City interview, you said that you have Asperger’s Syndrome, can you explain exactly what it is?
I didn’t even know I had Asperger’s because, you know, part of being a person of colour is that you fall through the cracks very often, so nobody really identified like ‘oh this child has a learning disability’ but it was once I got to university that a professor who had Asperger’s explained to me what I [had] because I had explained what I had been experiencing. In my perspective it’s like there’s kind of a veil in being social,..where you’re supposed to communicate through niceties or like social etiquette, and Asperger’s is seen like you naturally ignore social cues. I wouldn’t actually say that I ignore social cues, I just think they do not make sense to me. It also makes me very, I want to say sensual, but it’s more like really in tune with senses, like bright lights and textures will just like throw me off and I won’t be able to concentrate.
How would you say that having this ailment contributes to your creativity?
I think that anything that you are given is either going to translate into a hindrance or something for you to use.
Growing up there were definitely other kids of colour who had learning disabilities around me who also weren’t identified as having learning disabilities and I see a lot of them now and a lot of them are really sad. A lot of them are on drugs and a lot of them are homeless and it’s mainly because no one communicated to them, like there’s nothing wrong with you, you just learn differently.
Would you say that there’s any negative effects on your creativity with this?
I think there would be if I tried to stick to a prescribed route, but I’ve decided that I can’t work at a desk job and I can’t work at Starbucks – I can’t take instructions like that. I can’t retain audio information at all. I don’t function like that, so I think if I tried to prescribe to the kind of ‘Western route’ on how success was going to go, then there would have definitely been a hindrance but because I’m more like ‘okay that doesn’t work for me’ I have to figure out something else.
What is the greatest compliment or criticism you’ve received on your work?
That’s a really great question. I once had a professor who had found out that I had Asperger’s and she [said] I was either going to invent some medium in art and that I have more creativity in my pinky [finger] than her entire class put together, but that I’m not utilizing it and I just disagreed because I’m just like ‘no, I just don’t believe in your class’.
Do you find any sense of escape when it comes to immersing yourself in your work?
Yeah, definitely, like I don’t have a very romantic idea of being an artist, I don’t think I got into art so late in life that I thought that it was this dreamy thing that I would do, I think I literally just liked to make things because from a very young age, I was an escapist, like I was a total day-dreamer and I couldn’t concentrate on anything I deemed boring, so I was just always making things. Just a very natural way for me to be like ‘I don’t want to be here anymore’. I think that’s definitely how I relieve stress but its also how I just dig into what I’m feeling and it’s also how I reflect on what’s going on. Otherwise I think I would just go crazy. If I stopped making things I think I would just be too inside my head and lose all touch of my version of reality, you know?
Can you tell me about what’s inspired you?
Most things inspire me. Sometimes people inspire me, but usually in a reverse way. Like, I don’t want to do that or I don’t want to be like that, so that really inspires me. If I meet people who are really ignorant, even just on an emotional level, I think that I don’t really like small talk, so I’m usually kind of just diving into like ‘hey, how are you doing?’ but like really tell me how you’re doing and I’ll just be open because like what the fuck, we’re all going to die.
I saw you filmed a short video in Detroit, it was beautiful, very well done – What’s it like to be working in a different city?
I love Detroit so much. It was difficult because the process of film making is so difficult. Like getting film equipment across [the Canada/U.S.] border is very difficult and the process of making that film was difficult at times because of racism on my film set. I find a black woman telling you what to do, a lot of people have a lot of subconscious resistance towards that. I would say things like ‘do this’ and people would be like ‘oh why?’ – well, you’re working on my money and I said to do this so….
But it was, a really telling experience for me about how I would deal with stress, which was alone. Like we would film and then we rented out an entire house in Detroit and I would literally sit in a closet alone eating bagels, like ‘okay, you’re going to get through this, its going to be okay, everything is going to be okay’. But I really love Detroit, I think that’s what I imagine the whole of North America will look like one day,
just like dilapidated, forgotten cities that become beautiful through community.
You told me about your show that you have coming up. For the interview’s sake, can you tell me more about that?
Yah, so my partner and I started doing a few projects together. One is we want to make a short series on love and trauma because we both have a very similar aesthetic that doesn’t really come across in his photographs, because his photographs are more documentary-style, but we both like the same kind of weird visuals, we both are very daydreamy people and so we really wanted to make a really sensual and visual [exhibit] about trauma and love and from that we started thinking we should have a show together or maybe start some pop-ups so we can meet other artists in Toronto who we really like and are on the same page, so we can work with them and build a sense of community.
I lived in New York for maybe like five years and I just got back a year and a half ago and just for the first time really felt like Toronto didn’t have a sense of community and whenever I speak to other Torontonians, everyone says “no we have a sense of community”, but I’m like you have to go somewhere else where community is fucking heavy.
You could be walking around New York and like a Hasidic Jew and like a tiny black boy like beat-boxing on a subway and an old Hispanic woman is like laughing at something on the street and it’s this beautiful moment together. And they’re not thinking about anything except that moment and then they walk away.
Whereas, Toronto is such a conservative place and Canada as a whole, feels pretty conservative that you don’t get that lightheartedness like we’re all in this together. New York has and I never felt like alone there. So the Agusuta show came about with us trying to meet some people and sort of make some resemblance of that. That’s how that show came about.
Where do you consider the best creative place for you to vibe?
It’s definitely my home. In Toronto, there’s nothing I like better than sitting at home and coming up with an idea and then going on a day adventure. Usually I go find nature, I just went on the Rosedale Valley off of the Don Valley, there’s all that greenery. I’ll go find a ravine or
something. I grew up in Toronto, on the East End, so I like to go to [back over there]- everything is so different now. I like to go back to where I grew up to seek feelings of home. Because I don’t feel very at home in Toronto anymore so I like to go to where I remember feeling at home.
Words to live by?
I met this folk artist from Portland once, who was just like this old black man who people were trying to interview him while I was talking to him.
And he said, “Used to be I couldn’t even spell ‘artists’, now I is one”.
And that was the best thing to me because it really trumped this total North American idea of boogie art, it was just kind of like he had been just whittling art and sort of doing that his whole life and then some people noticed it was really nice and called it art and he was like okay and so I think that for me, that is a word to live by because I never want to be making art for other people and I never want to not be myself.