web analytics
December 21, 2014 / 29 Kislev, 5775
 
At a Glance
Sections
Sponsored Post
8000 meals Celebrate Eight Days of Chanukah – With 8,000 Free Meals Daily to Israel’s Poor

Join Meir Panim’s campaign to “light up” Chanukah for families in need.



Home » Sections » Arts »

Siona Benjamin: Finding Home

Siona Benjamin: Finding Home  (www.artsiona.com)

Siona Benjamin’s works can be seen at:
‘Lilith in the New World’
Solo Exhibition at Flomenhaft Gallery, New York.
(Oct 23- Dec 4, 2008)
 
www.flomenhaftgallery.com
 212 268 4952

 

‘Gathering Sparks: The Midrashic Art of Siona Benjamin’ solo exhibition 

The Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art (Dec 11, 2008 – Feb 11, 2009)

 

Siona Benjamin is a most unusual artist determined to recast Jewish art as a dynamic, cross-cultural phenomenon.  At first glance, she seems more at home in the art of the East and yet manages to forge her visions into our consciousness regardless of our cultural orientation.  Her works are deeply influenced by her personal experience as an Indian Jew, raised and educated in the predominately Muslim and Hindu culture of Bombay, India and yet fully savoring the contemporary American culture that she has made her home.


Siona’s work is driven by Torah narratives, especially of women, that are inextricable from her personal experiences.  Her Bene Israel Jewish family inculcated a deep sense of Jewishness, even while she was educated in the rich cultural diversity of Catholic and Zoroastrian primary schools within the predominant Hindu and Islamic culture of Bombay. 


This background was in many ways typical of the Bene Israel because of their accepted place within the Indian Hindu caste system.  They did not experience anti-Semitism and were simultaneously fully absorbed into Indian society and yet, because of the caste system’s intermarriage prohibitions, were kept culturally distinct. According to Dr. Shalva Weil of the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv, this experience is unique among all contemporary Jewish communities. 


One can well imagine the cultural dislocation Siona experienced as a Jew not quite fitting in the polyglot Indian society, a visual artist in Jewish society and as a South Asian woman in Midwestern America where she received her graduate college education.  Israel wasn’t much more comforting again, as an outsider and witness to Jewish/Muslim hatred that was largely unknown back in Bombay. 

 

 


Vashti (2006) 10″ x 7″, gouache & gold leaf on paper by Siona Benjamin

 

All of this was simultaneously liberating and daunting as she set down cultural and artistic roots.  Her journey to uncover her artistic self has been fascinating, as she finds inspiration in the disparate styles of Indian/Persian miniatures, Byzantine icons and Jewish and Christian illuminated manuscripts.


A particularly extensive series of works (2006 – 2008) is collectively titled “Finding Home” and is dominated by symbolic portraits of Biblical women that address, on one level, many aspects of Siona’s complex background and subsequent experience. One image is Tikkun ha-Olam and is based on a conflation of Hebrew manuscript illuminations and the image of an Indian multi-limbed divinity in the shape of a menorah.  Under Benjamin’s guidance cultures morph and blend into hybrid amalgamations.


Within the same series there are marginalized Jewish and non-Jewish women: Dinah is seen floating above a languid landscape entwined in a red fiery cloth that evokes her terrible fate; Tziporah is violently clutched in the air by a euphonious bird echoing her encounter with the “bridegroom of blood” and finally an amazing image of Vashti, forever the outsider looking into the palace that she had every right to possess.


The revealing title of last year’s exhibition at the Handwerker Gallery at Ithaca College; “Blue Like Me” summarizes Siona Benjamin’s approach to her subjects.  She states that, as an Indian Jew, she is ” a colored Jew,” which has subjected her to negativity and racism from other Jews.” (Catalogue essay by Cheryl Kramer, “Blue like Me.”)  Beyond this, her radically different cultural background automatically gives her outsider status within the Jewish community. These elements are always present in her choice of subjects, the mini-narratives she weaves and the fact that, almost all her figures are blue- skinned much like some Hindu divinities.


The scope of Siona’s explorations is impressive as she depicts the myriad women of the Bible, each of whom she subtitles Fereshteh (“angel” in Urdu).  Miriam is seen in at least three versions; one as a traditionally-clad Indian woman trudging along with a suitcase, perhaps leaving Egypt, another Miriam is terribly sickly and surrounded by nightmarish demons suggesting the punishment of tzara’as and finally, a vision of her as an Islamic Persian angel tragically caught in a spider’s web. 


Tamar, Asnat and a double portrait of Rachel and Leah are rendered in fascinatingly complex details while, not surprisingly, there are at least three Pop Art inspired versions of the grand feminist rebel Lilith.  In another Lilith she is seen as an Islamic woman dressed in striped concentration camp clothes watering the ground filled with budding embryos.  Siona exploits her status as an “outsider” to view midrashic figures from as extreme a perspective as possible.

 

 


Esther (2006) each 6 ½” x 5″, gouache on paper by Siona Benjamin

 

A triptych of Esther re-envisions the ordeal that Esther had to endure as a secret Jew in the Ahashverosh’s court by presenting her as Hear No Evil (Pilot’s Helmet), See No Evil (Blindfold) and Speak No Evil (Gas Mask), each attribute resonating with one aspect of a Jew’s experience in modern Israel.  Until now, we have never imagined Queen Esther through this kind of contemporary political lens. 


While the vast majority of Siona Benjamin’s images are of women, the few depictions of men are equally arresting, especially since all these images are of female figures in the guise of male characters.  A triptych of Ishmael, Abraham and Isaac brings these Biblical figures boldly into the modern world.  Ishmael is seen as a flying Persian warrior, blindfolded and threatened by arrows and spears from all directions.  Abraham is leading a white ram against a background that seems to be raining blood.  Finally Isaac is stretched out in concentration camp clothes, flames rising from behind him as tortured Abu Ghraib prison figures prepare to lift him into their realm.  Grim, shocking and contemporary, Siona’s interpretations rivet the imagination and challenge traditional understandings.

 

 


Joseph (2006), 22″ x 17″, gouache & gold leaf on museum board by Siona Benjamin

Siona Benjamin’s Joseph seems to be an equally iconoclastic image depicting him turning back toward us to reveal his elaborately ornate coat.  It is curiously drained of color allowing us to see many scenes of animals and men in violent struggle.  Joseph’s blue face stares at us, passive and a bit defiant while he opens the front of his coat to reveal that it is lined with knives ostensibly for sale.  The figure is surrounded by four Persian angels and five giant daggers.  In the background, wheat fields summon both his prophecy and his success at managing the Egyptian economy in time of famine.  A spilled glass of blood red wine completes the symbolic narrative.


Perhaps more than most of the images reviewed here Joseph actually echoes many traditional interpretations of the Biblical figure.  Joseph’s feminized face reflects the midrashic understanding that he was exceptionally good looking in a captivating way especially for Potiphar’s wife – as the midrash tells us, “painting his eyes, curling his hair, and walking with a mincing step;” Genesis Rabbah 84:7; 87:3.  The daggers surrounding him may indicate the deadly malice his brothers felt for him while the Persian angels easily connote the Divine protection he surely benefited from. 


Finally, the overwhelming atmosphere of violence reflects Joseph’s role in the future time of the Moshiach.  As evidenced by the Talmud, Succah 52a, and later midrashic literature the Moshiach ben Joseph will, if necessary because of the sorry condition of the Jewish people, precede the Moshiach ben David. In the ensuing terrible war of Gog and Magog the Moshiach ben Joseph, brave and skillful at war, will be tragically slain. 


Siona Benjamin’s work establishes a singular place in contemporary Jewish art, forcefully demanding a multi-cultural perspective of Torah, Jews, Judaism and women.  Her work forces us to radically broaden our horizons beyond the Middle East, Europe and America and very likely engineering a confrontation with the Islamic East within our very familiar Torah narratives.  Given the crisis between Islam and the West, it might seem that her art is a first tentative step towards a common ground.


Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.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 “Siona Benjamin: Finding Home”

Comments are closed.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
funny rocket joke
Israel Retaliates: Hits Terror Tunnel Cement Factory
Latest Sections Stories
Games-121914

Here are examples of games that need to be played by more than one person and an added bonus: they’re all Shabbos-friendly.

South-Florida-logo

The incident was completely unforeseeable. The only term to describe the set of circumstances surrounding it is “freak occurrence.”

South-Florida-logo

The first Chabad Center in Broward County, Chabad of South Broward, now runs nearly fifty programs and agencies. T

The NHS was also honored to have Bob Diener as keynote speaker.

Written with flowing language and engaging style, Attar weaves a spell that combines mystery, humor, adventure and Kabbalah in the most magical place in the world, the Old City of erusalem.

There are those who highlight the diversity of these different teachings, seeing each rebbe as teaching a separate path.

Rav Dynovisz will be speaking in Hebrew on Wednesday, January 7, at 7:30 p.m.

Rabbi Simeon Schreiber, senior chaplain at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, saw a small room in the hospital that was dark and dismal but could be used for Sabbath guests.

“The secret to a good donut is using quality ingredients and the ability to be patient and give them time to proof.”

I so desperately want to have a loving relationship with my stepsons.

The Liberty Bell is a symbol of American Independence.

Because you can’t have kids pouring huge jugs of oil into tiny glasses, unless you want to turn your house into an environmental disaster.

Try these with your kids; there’s something for every age group and once all the recipes are made, dinner will be ready!

You children will build the country and you will help restore Israel to her former glory.

More Articles from Richard McBee
Jerusalem to Jericho Road: photograph by Chanan Getraide
“Chanan Getraide Photographs”: 2004 exhibition at Hebrew Union College Museum

“We are living in a Golden Age of Jewish Art, but don’t know it.”

McBee-062014-Outside

He refuses to flinch from our painful history, perhaps finding a kind of solace in the consistency of irrational enmity directed against us.

“Vidduy: The Musical” breaks through the formidable barrier of repetitive confession to allow us to begin to understand what is at the heart of this fundamental religious act.

A fascinating glimpse into the rich complexity of medieval Jewish life and its contemporary relevance had intriguingly emerged.

Silverstein’s work has long concerned itself with the intersection between the personal and Jewish Biblical narrative, significantly explored in this column in “Brighton Beach Bible” (July 27, 2009).

Not surprisingly the guardians of synagogue tradition is male dominated in both Moses Abraham, Cantor and Mohel and Synagogue Lamp Lighters.

Neither helpless victims nor able to escape the killer’s clutches, the leaders had to make impossible choices on a daily basis in a never-ending dance with the devil.

Bradford has opted to fully exploit the diverse possibilities of the physical surface by concentrating on the three-dimensional application of paint (impasto) and other material.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/siona-benjamin-finding-home/2008/10/08/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: