Siona Benjamin’s exhibition “Finding Home: The Art of Siona Benjamin” is simply beautiful. Set in the spacious lobby gallery of the JCC Manhattan, it allows for a peaceful (when the kids, nannies and crowds subside) contemplation of this complex artist’s meditations on biblical women, war, exoticism and contemporary society. The painted walls range from soft ochre to a pale turquoise, setting off Benjamin’s palette to maximum effect, each work sensuously vibrating with the atmosphere of Benjamin’s native Mumbai, India. As has been explored in previous reviews of her work (September 23, 2008, March 25, 2011) these Persian/Indian/Mughal influences are meant to express exile and foreignness. Her work is an autobiographical narrative as much as a worldview paradoxically meant to bring us all together.
The sensitive curator at the JCC, Megan Whitman, has chosen a wide range of Benjamin’s work including works including the exploration of the diverse narratives of Tziporah, Miriam, Ruth, Chava, Sarah, Esther and Sarah/Hagar. Intriguingly almost all of her works are subtitled Fereshteh, meaning angels in Urdu, her native Indian language. For Benjamin these biblical characters are angels, i.e. messengers between the divine and the mundane, between the ancient Torah and our contemporary concerns. And while she claims that “Finding Home” is no longer a central artistic concern for her, it is clear that Benjamin continues to search for a meaning to be extracted out of her own personal exile and the larger exile of her fellow Jews. These paintings are deeply concerned with searching, challenging and yearning for some kind of salvation.
At the risk of slighting much significant artwork in this exhibition, Benjamin’s seven works on the subject of Lilith (Leelat) demand special attention. Representing fully one-third of these exhibited works, no other subject is as extensively developed. And no other subject is as infused with troubling ancient and contemporary meaning.
Lilith represents an ancient male fear of the feminine. She is the terrifying other, the disruptive feminine force that is violent, rebellious and assertive. But, perhaps more significantly, she represents the all-too-real perils of female creativity. Bringing life into this world is an inherently risky proposition, and Lilith’s demonic reign reflects the terrible reality of infant mortality seldom acknowledged.
Lilith is fleetingly mentioned in Isaiah 34:14, is described in the Gemara at least four times, and her demonic activity is fully explored in the Midrash and in the Zohar. It is there that she, like all demons, becomes a scourge to man and woman alike. Her fury at men takes the form of illicit nocturnal relations that result in demonic offspring that fill the world with chaos and evil. Nonetheless it is her hatred of vulnerable women in childbirth, postpartum and their newborn children, that is especially feared. From antiquity amulets and kimiyahs (angel texts) were routinely placed around those thought to be vulnerable to Lilith’s murderous attacks.
Significantly, Benjamin does not address the Lilith that terrified Jewish women for centuries. Rather she utilizes the ancient character of rebellion to fashion a uniquely contemporary Lilith. It should be noted that Benjamin gives all these paintings the same name: Finding Home (Fereshteh), distinguishing them only by different numbers.
A web of demonic forces traps the emergent Lilith in Finding Home #88. She is bound at the waist as she reaches up to a host of heavenly angels and to a blindfolded messenger bearing a basket of divine powers. Below a swarm of blue demons radiates in free fall from the newly created Lilith. This female being is constricted by all manners of strings, demonic, heavenly and those pinned outside the image itself; Lilith here is compromised and trapped, not yet liberated from her creators.
Finding Home #80 continues narrative of the genesis of the contemporary Lilith. The text explains to us “THEN TO THE AMAZEMENT OF ALL, THERE AROSE FROM THE FIRE A BLUE MAIDEN, WAFTING THE FRAGRANCE OF LOTUSES IN BLOOM.” Here Lilith wishes to simultaneously be Jewish, an archetypical blue goddess and a wounded avenging angel. She wears a diminutive hamsa necklace and a tallis even as she totes a six-shooter and ammunition belt. Her eyes are closed in a kind of blissful agony from the arrow that has pierced her side in reference to the Roman Catholic martyr St. Sebastian, much beloved of medieval and Renaissance artists. In this deeply complex and conflicted image one red bird flies off the right side of the canvas as a single ray of hope. An ornate classic gold enclosure reinforces the iconic nature of this image, a startling birth of the anti-Venus housed in a frame more suitable to an Italian Madonna and Child.
Finally at the end of the exhibition is what is arguably Benjamin’s masterpiece, Finding Home #74. Grand in size (75″ X 58″) and in scale this painting is also surrounded by an ornate frame teeming with hundreds of toy combat figures only visible upon close inspection. They set the militant tone that the image proclaims; “A THOUSAND OF YEARS HAVE I WAITED KEEPING THE EMBERS OF REVENGE GLOWING IN MY HEART!” She is also a wounded victim; a bullet is just visible inside her ribcage next to the still bleeding gash. She utters her angry cry with tears flowing down her cheeks, again in Pop Art mock drama, just as a ball of flame erupts behind her.
This painting is a tour de force because it brings to a head all of the questions and issues this contemporary Lilith poses for us. Is Lilith a Jewish women’s liberator as Benjamin’s text balloons would suggest? And yet so much mitigates against that very modern Jewish feminist ideology. Her constant depiction as a victim – injured, pierced and bleeding – does not conjure a forceful heroine. Additionally the emphasis on war and violence, either aimed at Lilith or as swirling around her, seems to compromise the character. Most pointedly Benjamin’s use of Pop Art irony, a kind of tongue-in-cheek seriousness, begins to question the all too fashionable use of this ancient Jewish female figure.
This selection of Benjamin’s Lilith paintings, representing about three-quarters she has done with this character, throws the female demon into complex relief. She is adrift in a dangerous world, yearning to be a powerful actress in solving our problems and yet not able. She casts a suspicious glance at her modern fame, doubting that she or any Jewish woman (or man) can be effective at the salvation the world seems to need so badly. Siona Benjamin has created a Lilith very wisely modern, not yet ready to change the course of history by mere force of will but still unwilling to accept the world in its unredeemed state.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org