Dec. 5, 2013 – March 2, 2014
Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio
Michael Horen’s illustrations in the Artscroll Youth Megillah that I grew up thumbing through each Purim held my attention for reasons I’d now probably consider somewhat Orientalist. I was enamored with the Mongol-style footwear, with its curly, upturned toes, that the characters wore in Ahasuerus’ palace which impeccably matched their looped moustaches; with the Persian king’s deep blue-purple robe and with the lavish gold, silver and precious stones strewn throughout the banquet halls. The ancient Persia depicted in this book was decidedly Eastern and “Other.” The environment was defined by abundance, sensual overload and mystery, which was amplified by Horen’s often minimalist choreography of the palace interiors, which emphasized the foreground by collapsing the depth of the scenes.
Siona Benjamin’s Book of Esther scroll, however, illustrates the Hebrew text with a far more complex and sophisticated visual vocabulary. The scroll, which measures 15 feet long by nearly a foot wide, blends iconography from Indian and Mughal miniature paintings with the artist’s own imagery, including depicting Esther, as she often portrays herself, as a blue-skinned Jewish woman of color. (All the other figures in the scroll have skin colors that range from white to brown.)
Perhaps hearkening to medieval European manuscript traditions, where there be dragons – and other mythological and terrifying creatures – lurking in the margins of the text, Benjamin’s treatment of the space between and around the text is just as compelling as her full-page, stand-alone images. In the margins, elephants, herons, swords – sometimes dripping with blood – deer and antelope fleeing a lion, a peacock, lotus flowers, a dragon, a griffin, a cow, and a procession of camels can be viewed. It’s rare for even a square inch of the page to be taken for granted in this scroll.
Like the Artscroll Youth Megillah, Benjamin includes a visual reference to an extra-biblical tale of Haman enduring garbage dumped on his head as he leads Mordecai through the streets of Susa, but unlike the former, Benjamin’s scroll may be inappropriate for young children.
When the text refers to Haman’s 10 sons being hung on gallows, Benjamin depicts archers firing upon the decapitated heads – affixed, sort of per Deuteronomy 21, to poles atop a branch upon which the bodies hang – and alongside a passage from the Book of Esther that details how non-Jews were converting, “because the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them,” Benjamin paints a bloody suggestion of circumcision. (See also Richard McBee’s insightful observations on this element, as well as on the larger scroll, in these pages in “Siona Benjamin’s Megillas Esther,” March 25, 2011.) In the following sequence, in between the names of Haman’s 10 sons, she represents Mordecai’s nemesis hanging from a rope and simultaneously being burnt.
Benjamin’s Esther scroll also features some upturned toes, but it is a mature, very sophisticated blend of several typically soloed artistic traditions. In so doing, it represents an interesting microcosm of the exhibit in which it appears, “Sacred Voices” at the Canton Museum of Art.
Interfaith harmony, wherein religious lions sprawl peacefully alongside vulnerable lamblike colleagues, might be an appealing notion, but it doesn’t necessarily, or often, produce good fodder for an exhibit. It’s not difficult to curate an exhibit that celebrates different faiths and their collective tolerance, but doing so without descending into kitsch and activism wherein the art is merely a prop, rather than the substance, can be elusive. “Sacred Voices” features works from more than 30 artists – from as far away as Australia, Austria, and the United Kingdom – and those artists hail from three faith traditions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. (Readers of this column will no doubt be familiar with several of the artists in the final category, including: Siona Benjamin, Tobi Kahn, Richard McBee, Elke Reva Sudin, Deborah Rolnik-Raichman, and Yona Verwer.)