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December 27, 2014 / 5 Tevet, 5775
 
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Finding Home’

Siona Benjamin’s Blue Angels

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Blue Like Me: The Art of Siona Benjamin


October 15, 2009 – January 29, 2010


Washington DC Jewish Community Center


1529 16th Street, NW, Washington



 

 


A blue-skinned woman with at least one wing carries a caged dove in her right hand and has just released a golden bird from her other hand. Her hair is covered by a shawl that rests over a curved dagger (like the Yemenite jambiya) with a sheath decorated with the stars and stripes of the American flag. A corner of the shawl becomes a pair of tzitzit whose strings are wrapped around a lion’s arms and midsection, perhaps restraining it. The woman, who represents a self-portrait of the artist Siona Benjamin, stands on a white ball, which unravels to reveal not string but floral patterns that border the painting. Beneath her yellow skirt, the woman wears striped pants that evoke either the uniform of a prisoner or a concentration camp inmate.

 

Benjamin’s Jewish-Arab-American take on the cat playing with a ball of string is packed with symbols that could either bear fruitful metaphorical subtexts or dead-end red herrings. The lion could refer to Judah (called a “lion cub” in Genesis 49:9) or to Samson, who killed a lion and, upon seeing honeycomb in its mane, learned the lesson: “from the powerful ensued sweetness” (Judges 14:14). Or it could just be a lion. The strings of the tzitzit could protect the figure from the ferocious cat, or they could be the woman’s undoing, if the lion is pulling the woman down by her garment. Doves sometimes suggest peace, but a caged peace symbol could be ominous. The floral borders could suggest a beautiful garden, or a barrier that keeps the golden bird enclosed in an arena with the lion.

 

The work, Finding Home #9 (Fereshtini), is part of Benjamin’s larger series called Fereshteh, Urdu for “angels.” The angels of the series are the women of the bible, whom Benjamin positions as contemporary protectors who tackle modern problems: wars and violence. Benjamin, who grew up as a Bene Israel Jew in India, was educated at Catholic and Zoroastrian schools and lived in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim society. Now based in Montclair, New Jersey, Benjamin brings this hybrid identity into her works.

 

 


Finding Home #9. 2007. 9″ x 11″. Gouache and 22K gold leaf on board

 

 

Another work from the Fereshteh series is Finding Home #86 “Chavah,” which represents the world’s first woman as the symbol of her sin which led to her banishment from Eden: a tree.

 

The tree is blue (of course), and it has seven female, human heads – six attached to the branches, and one in the roots. In Benjamin’s painting, Eve has become one (or seven) with the tree. In a statement, Benjamin notes that misogynistic accounts of the biblical text often focus on Eve as “empty headed” and a “temptress.” But Eve is thus named for being “the mother of all life” (“Chava” from the root “chai,” Genesis 3:20), so she cannot be viewed as a destroyer. “The eating of the forbidden fruit can be looked upon as not negative or impulsive,” Benjamin writes, “but as a woman full of curiosity, who reaches out for the gifts of life: pleasure, beauty and wisdom.”

 

Miriam, depicted in Finding Home #73, is a very different sort of woman. She lies (asleep? dead?) in a large wine glass. She is blue-skinned and wears a golden sari. Behind the glass is a grey mushroom cloud of demonic faces, and a wire is plugged into the base of the cloud. The wire winds around the stem of the glass and emerges as part of the intravenous therapy being administered to Miriam. Two needles seem to be drawing blood from Moses’ sister, who holds a switch in her left hand. “Will she turn off the switch in time to stop the violence, the demons?” Benjamin wonders in a statement. “Is she asleep? Sick? Oblivious? Controlled?”

 


Finding Home #73, “Miriam.” 2006. 10″ x 7″. Gouache and gold leaf on wood panel

 

 

Although Benjamin suggests there is hope that Miriam might turn off the mushroom cloud – surely a reference to nuclear weapons – one wonders if the nuclear power is not also fueling the biblical character, who had the boldness to address Pharaoh’s daughter, to lead the women in song at the Red Sea, and to criticize her brother Moses (for which she was struck with leprosy). Miriam was also responsible, the midrash tells us, for well filled with water that traveled with the Jews in the desert. Instead of supplying her people with the water necessary for survival, Benjamin’s Miriam does not have control of her own bodily fluids.

 

The Miriam of Finding Home #72 is only in slightly better shape. In the triptych, Miriam lies tangled on a spider’s web. Even her wings are stuck in the web. In fact, Miriam’s wings, arms, and legs seem so carefully and intentionally tied that she could not have simply flown into the web. In the bottom right corner, a demonic figure with a tail, fangs, and sharp claws sleeps. She is flanked on either side by Jonah, who holds an American flag as he is strung upside down in front of a fish, and by Joseph, who stands on a podium dressed in bright colors. The two figures are in poses reminiscent of the soldiers tortured at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

 

 


Finding Home #72, “Miriam.” 2006. 18″ x 15.3″. Gouache and 22K gold leaf on wood

 

 

It is not clear what Miriam has in her character that makes her the patron saint of tortured prisoners, but even if she could help Joseph and Jonah, she is trapped in the demonic web. That’s what I find most impressive and exciting about Benjamin’s angels. They have been summoned to respond to modern problems – which are of course timeless problems at the same time – but it is hardly clear that they will succeed. Just because angels have been dispatched to respond to a problem does not immediately resolve the problem.


 


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

Siona Benjamin: Finding Home

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

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

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

Wednesday, August 25th, 2004

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

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/

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