Studio Visit appears first in print, in Sunday editions of The News-Gazette. Here, Melissa Merli visits with artist Betsem Benjamin at his studio in Urbana.
Q: You're from Cameroon. How did you end up in Champaign-Urbana?
A: I was in Arizona and invited by the University of Illinois to come here for a summer African language institute. I was working on a project on the relationship of anthropology and art. After I came here, I understood, after meeting people, there was no African artist doing exactly what I am doing: teaching African anthropology through the arts. I went back to Arizona and then came back here in August 2008.
Q: Why did you stay?
A: Because the moment I started working, I started being connected with a lot of people. First, I met Sam Smith (engagement director at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts) and Chris Evans, the (Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center) building coordinator at the time. He was an artist. He said, "OK, we want to have you here." I started working here at the IMC in February '09.
Q: Are you the artist-in-residence at the IMC?
A: Yes, they call me artist-in-residence, but basically I'm just working in the studio here. Now we're working on the conditions of being an artist-in-residence here.
Q: Do you paint with oils?
A: No, I work in acrylics, especially because of the weather conditions here. I like to use acrylics because they dry fast. In the summers, I use oils.
Q: You've been a top seller in the Artists Against AIDS show the past three years, haven't you?
A: Yes. The first time, Atef Ayadi (a Tunisian artist with a studio at the IMC) called me the first day of the show and told me I had sold six paintings. A lot of people were talking about my art because I was new.
Q: Do you show and sell your paintings elsewhere?
A: Yes, I have different paintings at Radio Maria, and I just finished some stuff to take to Caffe Paradiso. I've also gone to the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, Ga., the Chicago African Festival of the Arts and the African Art Village in Tucson, Ariz. That's part of the Tucson Gem Show.
Q: Why do you think people here like your paintings?
A: Because there is something special in them related to society. I work in a building where people talk about social justice and activism. I am not a social activist; I describe myself as a person who has something to say. People who listen need to have open ears and open minds. What I do is new in Champaign because I talk about another Africa, different than what's depicted in the media: AIDS, corruption, civil war, etc. etc. I am well-known here, from the elementary schools to the university, because I taught art programs at Wiley Elementary School and Uni High. At Wiley, it was a special program about cultural diversity. I call the program "Using Art to See the World." I taught the students how to paint African symbols from Dogon, in Mali. These were used as scripture, to communicate, before Europeans invaded Africa. That helps me to tell them people still describe African history from the point of the arrival of Europeans and that is a lie and it must stop. I tell them that centuries before Europe invaded Africa, African countries had social organizations. I tell them that each nation has its own civilization. Each civilization equates to another. There is no superior or inferior civilization.
Q: The work you did with students at Wiley is now on display at Urbana City Hall, right?
A: The art teacher at Wiley told me there is a program ("Artist in the Corridor") at City Hall and that the kids would be able to display their art there. Finally, that happened in March 2012.
Editor's note: The "Dogon Symbols of Africa" display is on view through April 30 at the Urbana City Building. The Artists Against AIDS show is through Sunday (April 29) at the McKinley Fitness Center, 500 W. Church St., C. See www.artistsagainstaids.info.