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How to Paint Jewish Culture In Five Easy Steps: The New Jersey Transcultural Initiative and Siona Benjamin

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Pinpointing modern art’s origin yields a confusing situation; leading art history books claim many “fathers” of Modern Art: Gauguin, van Gogh, Whistler’s “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother” and sometimes Monet’s “Impression: Sunrise.” Some invoke Frenchmen, Jarry or Daumier, and the most courageous, El Greco. Certainly, the twentieth century featured fundamental aesthetic changes, and we currently stand in a more-or-less post-aesthetic age that teaches us that everyone makes art anyhow, anytime, anywhere.

Most importantly, perhaps, post-modernity preaches the importance of investigating cultures and the stereotypes surrounding them. “Crosscurrents in the Mainstream” at the Zimmerli Museum of Rutgers University explores the unfolding of the visual arts across the cultural spectrum. According to its website, the Transcultural New Jersey Initiative aims to “document the creative achievements of under-represented non-European artists in order to recognize… how they are shaping culture and communities in New Jersey,” which the site claims has seen a large increase in non-European immigrants.

Under this banner, “Crosscurrents” showcases eleven artists’ works, of which four are Jews: Siona Benjamin, Ludvic Saleh, Benedict J. Fernandez and Raphael Montanez Ortiz. Jeffrey Wechsler, Co-Organizer of Transcultural NJ and Senior Curator at the Zimmerli, told me that “people tend to pigeonhole artists” when they discuss cultural influences, “but artists are, first and foremost, individuals.” He means that artists do not always allow culture to dominate their work; sometimes they meld multiple cultures.

Multiplicity implies complexity, though, and the gallery guide – consisting of 109 pages which is mysteriously marked “Volume I” – contains many essays on “hyphenated” Americans and “Otherness.” It rallies a tremendously complex network of terms that recalls the Guggenheim model of gallery-guides-as-books, without which the exhibit proves utterly unintelligible.

What, then, can it mean to cast artists in a role of bridging cultures and yet to still refer to the “mainstream” in the show’s title? And, what, if anything, does it mean that four of the artists are Jewish? Most likely, the Jewish over-representation will prove negligible, but perhaps some inherency in a transcultural initiative attracts Jewish artists who intensely know exile, both experientially and historically.

Siona Benjamin exemplifies this model; she grew up in Bombay, India and paints in a style that recalls Indian and Persian Miniatures, but instead of Eastern divinities, the paintings showcase diverse models, some with Magen Davids around their necks. “Finding Home #49 (Venus)” shows a Grecian (albeit with a bindhi) figure, wearing a cracking, renaissance halo, as eight severed hands encircle the figure, carrying a variety of objects from balance to sword to ball, and lend the picture a distinctly surreal look. A series of the Cartoon Network’s “Powerpuff Girls” fly around the brown framing rectangle, confounding the Classical feel of the Grecian and Hindu forms.

“Finding Home #47 (Learning About America 1),” a gouache with gold leaf on paper, shows an Indian woman – a self portrait Siona says ? with highlighter blue skin (“a Jew of dark skinned color” in Siona’s visual language) holding a torch, while touching the palm of an African American woman, in African garb, carrying a book by the noted African American author and activist, W.E.B. DuBois. Both stand atop a gold stage that appears flanked by a red curtain of sorts, lending the whole painting a theatrical feel. The other woman, who taught Siona for her second Masters in theater, educated her about America and African American history. The lamp symbolizes the knowledge imparted, and the flame symbolizes G-d.

“I am not religious,” Siona told me, “but I do believe in spirituality.” The lamp also alludes to the Sabbath candles Siona’s mother lit every week, which still suggest hope.

Siona’s art relies on hope. “If I lost hope,” she said, “I would lose the color.” This connection of color and hope helps Siona navigate the very depressing current political situation. “There has to be a glimmer at the end of the tunnel,” she says. Thus even as “Finding Home” shows a golden back of a slave with raised welts along the spine, I told Siona that I saw a dove. She said she likes hearing viewers interpret her works in ways she had not anticipated.

Interpretation proves difficult because Siona sees the Persian and Indian miniature style as a way of hiding. In “Finding Home” she embeds drawings based on photos from a book of lynchings within the border of flowers and decorations. “Under the beauty of miniatures you can hide danger,” she says. “The beauty of miniatures draws you in-veiling and revealing.”

The model of hiding and emerging mirrors a major theme of Siona’s: belonging. “I never thought I would use my Jewishness,” she says, citing it as “more of a private thing.”

Her work – which she says centers on “identity politics” – involves “walking the tightrope about not belonging anywhere and belonging everywhere at the same time.” In this way, Siona approaches Modigliani, especially as the Jewish Museum currently underscores his diasporic side. Where Modigliani announced himself as “Modigliani, the painter, the Jew,” Siona talks of “celebrating” her alienation.”

Fellow miniaturist and friend of Siona’s (coincidently also my teacher) at Massachusetts College of Art, Ambreen Butt, calls Siona’s work, “miniature inspired.” Noting the serene nayika (heroine) that “invites the viewer into the painting, but stays far beyond the viewer’s reach,” Ambreen sees many Miniature elements in Siona’s work – most importantly the “formal structure.” But he also notes that Siona’s works “technique-wise are not miniatures,” as they employ gouache (opaque watercolors), whereas Classical Miniatures use water-based paints that sit atop a gouache ground with no luminosity.

I asked Ambreen how much room remained in the Miniature style for experimenters who brought in Jewish, Grecian and pop culture references. Can one borrow so freely and yet remain within the borders of the Miniatures?

“There has to be a reason for somebody to be doing something,” she said, praising Siona’s paintings “based on her own identity as a Jewish woman.” Ambreen calls Siona’s work “masala” (a blend of spices) in its diversity, borrowing from many different styles of miniatures. For example, the backgrounds are flat, and thus of the Rajasthani style, whereas other elements draw from other styles. “That’s what I’d call her paintings,” she said, “delicious food.”

One certainly senses a palatable tang (spicy, no doubt) in Siona’s work, but Ambreen also stresses how the Transcultural show is “very educational, especially in the U.S.”

In September, Siona will exhibit a series of Women in the Bible. A product of study with Rabbi Michael Monson, this exhibit will examine Biblical texts, but in experimental fashion: “studying the Torah like I read a Shakespeare play” and “imagining what they would do to react to today’s evils. How would Ruth react?” Hopefully, this column will revisit Siona’s work, come September.

Clearly, as Jews, the Transcultural artists are not conceiving of an entirely new form. Jewish artists have used other cultural symbols for centuries. Polish Hagaddahs often reflect local Polish motifs, Yemenite jewelry often proves reminiscent of Muslim silversmiths, Israeli synagogues often employ Grecian mosaic styles and many others use different examples of common iconography.

By rallying transcultural forms, the Zimmerli Museum forges a literary iconography. This iconography is governed by literary rather than truly cultural associations and therefore creates exhibits about artists but not about art. The museum exhibits work that seems intent upon becoming an “emissary for a better world,” in artist Tom Barron’s words, that abandons nationalistic, partisan work for a desire for one unified world. This curatorial decision carries political advantages, but many aesthetic dangers, and proves both beautiful and dangerous, much like Siona’s miniatures.

And now, to return to the 20-ton elephant in the room, is it Jewish? Well, not really. Perhaps in the idea of the cultural misfit, who both belongs and finds herself repelled, lies a Jewish sentiment of exile and displacement. Will enough Magen Davids and Hebrew letters become Jewish art… I am not certain. Albeit by Jewish painters, the work at the Transcultural Initiative is incidentally Jewish and attends much more to culture in general, than Judaism specifically. Exile and out-of-placeness is not limited to Judaism, and in an exhibit that resists pigeonholing, they simply cannot be classified as such. And yet, with that knowledge, one sees many deep, engaging Jewish elements in them that raise very important questions. The forthcoming exhibit on Biblical Women seems to promise more direct attention to Jewish iconography and I anxiously await it.

Transcultural New Jersey: Crosscurrents in the Mainstream. April 4 ? July 31, 2004. Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum ? Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. 71 Hamilton St., New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Tel: 732-932-7237, www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu/. For more information on Transcultural NJ, see www.transculturalnj.org

Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com.

I gratefully acknowledge the help of Ambreen Butt throughout this article, and I encourage readers to see Ambreen’s work online at the Bernard Toale Gallery (http://www.bernardtoalegallery.com/), and in person at the McKenzie Gallery show “I Want to Take You Higher” through July 31st. http://www.mckenziefineart.com

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


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