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Chi Bennett, Wonderzoo

Chi is one half of WonderZoo, a community arts CIC, a Plymouth-based arts collective specialising in performance events, workshops, community activities and diverse history projects.

Chi Bennett is not your average director of an arts organisation. Yes, she is articulate, confident and charming but she also rejects shoes, explains the benefits of consuming psilocybin mushrooms and wants to set the world free from dogma, discrimination and hierarchies, so that we can all live our best lives. Made in Plymouth Community Reporter, Jojo, went to meet her.

Chi (pronounced Chee) is one half of WonderZoo, a community arts CIC based in Stonehouse, Plymouth. The other director, Slain McGough Davey, founded the organisation, which has existed in one form or another since 2012.

Photo by Jojo

WonderZoo is a Plymouth-based arts collective specialising in performance events, workshops, community activities and diverse history projects. The core themes are Storytelling, Community and Collaboration. WonderZoo is a multi-cultural organisation, which has always championed the voice of under-represented people in the arts, including Women, People with additional needs, LGBTQ+, and Global Majorities.

Performance events and workshops are accessible and inclusive, allowing people from all walks of life to come together, have fun and make friends. They are a group of people that are passionate about making the world a better place, for people, animals and the planet. Their history projects are groundbreaking as they aim to redress the racial imbalance in museum archives, as well as educate people about the achievements of marginalised individuals and communities. 

Chi didn’t have a conventional childhood and it is this eclectic upbringing that fuels her passion in the success of WonderZoo. She was the second of four children born to a Dutch-English father and a Japanese mother, who had an arranged marriage in Japan within a Bible-based cult known as ‘The Moonies’. 

The family moved to England when Chi was a baby and Chi grew up in North Stonehouse from the age of four to nineteen. She had a mostly miserable, soul-destroying childhood, which she describes as “living with two unhappy parents with damaging world views”. Chi’s mother died when she was 18 from Motor Neurone Disease, which left Chi devastated. After finishing school, Chi travelled around Europe, Morocco and Russia, latterly living in London for a year,

In her early 20’s, her brother Stefan joined a cult in Manchester, and Chi joined for 3 years, but then left and convinced Stefan to leave too. A month later, Stefan was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease at the age of 24, and they moved back to Plymouth in 2011, where Chi spent the following three years looking after him until his death. During this time Chi and Stefan got into psylocybin mushrooms to help cope with the trauma of terminal illness.

Photo by Jojo

After Stefan died in 2014, Chi, then pregnant, moved into a council flat in Whitleigh with her boyfriend and started embracing her artistic nature through poetry, writing, drawing and painting, whilst simultaneously being a parent to two young children. After five years in Whitleigh, struggling with grief, social isolation and a broken relationship, Chi met Slain in 2019 at a WonderZoo gig. There was instant attraction between them and a week after their first date, he handed her the keys to his home and invited her to move in. She accepted and they have been life and business partners ever since. They had a community wedding at the Union Street Party in 2022.

Together they have built WonderZoo into a thriving and central hub for Plymouth’s culturally diverse heart. They use performance, art, history and community events to bring about positive change in people’s lives. They support and collaborate with other like-minded organisations including Plymouth Respect Festival, Plymouth and Devon Racial Equality Council, Freedom Community Festival, Omnium Radio, Plymouth Octopus Project, DBI, The Box, Plymouth Social Enterprise Network, Nudge Community Builders, Mindful Art Club, Marbles Lost and Found, and others. 

Photo by Jojo

The future? Chi believes in the power of art, music, theatre and performance, so would like to see a building for WonderZoo, which has a theatre space for community productions and cabaret evenings. Chi says, “Since I joined WonderZoo in 2019, we have have grown in our expertise, connections and what we can produce, so we’re keen to find our own space to expand further”.

As well as her work with WonderZoo, Chi is a self-taught artist in her own right, producing arresting works that often reflect aspects of her life. Chi describes herself as a powerful, incredibly strong and loving person on a mission to create a better world for all. While she admits she has her limitations, she believes her journey has given her many insights and the ability to connect with people from all walks of life. Chi enjoys the community of Stonehouse, being barefoot, nude modelling for art classes, writing funding bids, hosting performance events, managing social change projects, being a parent, and creating fun, laughter and friendship wherever she can. 

Chi thinks Plymouth is a magical city full of interesting people and infinite possibilities, and believes the world can become a better place when people work together towards creating fun and happiness. She hopes that the people of Plymouth continue to be empowered to take action in their communities, making friends, sharing passions, skills and knowledge, and raising each other up in equality and unity.

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