web analytics
August 2, 2015 / 17 Av, 5775
At a Glance
Sponsored Post

Home » Sections » Arts »

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

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.

If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “How to Paint Jewish Culture In Five Easy Steps: The New Jersey Transcultural Initiative and Siona Benjamin”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
Thousands of Israelis at an anti-violence and anti-homophobia rally in Tel Aviv Saturday night.
Rally against Violence Bars Religious MKs and Boos Right-Winger
Latest Sections Stories

We studied his seforim together, we listened to famous cantorial masters and we spoke of his illustrious yichus, his pedigree, dating back to the famous commentator, Rashi.


Jews who were considered, but not ultimately selected, include Woody Allen, Saul Bellow, David Ben-Gurion, Marc Chagall, Anne Frank, and Barbra Streisand.

Personally I wish that I had a mother like my wife.

What’s the difference between the first and second ten-year-old?

What makes this diary so historically significant is that it is not just the private memoir of Dr. Seidman. Rather, it is a reflection of the suffering of Klal Yisrael at that time.

Rabbi Lau is a world class speaker. When he relates stories, even concentration camp stories, the audience is mesmerized. As we would soon discover, he is in the movie as well.

Each essay, some adapted from lectures Furst prepared for live audiences, begins with several basic questions around a key topic.

For the last several years, four Jewish schools in the Baltimore Jewish community have been expelling students who have not received their vaccinations.

“We can’t wait for session II to begin” said camp director Mrs. Judy Neufeld.

More Articles from Menachem Wecker
Menachem Wecker

The exhibit, according to a statement from guest curator Michele Waalkes which is posted on the museum website, “examines how faith can inform and inspire artists in their work, whether their work is symbolic, pictorial, or textual in nature. It further explores how present-day artwork can lead audiences to ponder God, religious themes, venerated traditions, or spiritual insights.”


It all started at an art and education conference at the Yeshiva University Museum. When one of the speakers misidentified a Goya painting at the Frick Collection, both the gentleman sitting next to me and I turned to each other and corrected the error simultaneously.

One of my favorite places when I was growing up in Boston was the used bookstore on Beacon and St. Mary’s streets. Boston Book Annex could play a used bookshop on television; it was dimly lit and cavernous, crawling with cats, and packed with a dizzying array of books, many of which sold three for a dollar. But used bookstores of this sort, however picturesque and inviting, are a relatively modern phenomena. In the Middle Ages, for example, I would never have been able to afford even a single used book unless I had been born into an aristocratic family. (Full disclosure, I was not.)

Jewish medals, several with Hebrew inscriptions and provocative imagery, were among the gems at The European Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Netherlands, as I wrote in these pages two weeks ago. Another mini-trend at the fair, which will interest Jewish art aficionados, was an abundance of works by Marc Chagall.

It’s virtually impossible to ignore the financial aspects of TEFAF Maastricht, the annual arts and antiques fair in the historic city about two hours south of Amsterdam. More than 250 dealers from nearly 20 countries sell their wares—which span from Greek and Roman antiquities to contemporary sculptures—in the halls of the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre, whose corridors are adorned by nearly 65,000 tulips.

Max Ferguson’s 1993 painting Katz’s may be the second most iconic representation of the kosher-style delicatessen after the 1989 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan film, When Harry Met Sally. Ferguson’s photorealistic painting depicts the deli from an interesting perspective, which is simultaneously inviting and hostile—in short, the dichotomy of deli culture.

The whole idea of an artful pushka (tzeddakah or charity box) is almost a tease, if not an outright mockery. Isn’t there something pretty backward about investing time and money in an ornate container to hold alms for the poor?

Located about nine miles north of Madrid, the Palacio Real de El Pardo (Pardo Palace) dates back to the early 15th century. Devastated by a March 13, 1604 fire that claimed many works from its priceless art collection, the Pardo Palace and its vast gardens were used as a hunting ground by the Spanish monarchs.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/how-to-paint-jewish-culture-in-five-easy-steps-the-new-jersey-transcultural-initiative-and-siona-benjamin/2004/08/25/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: