By Cindy Mindell
Jewish-Indian artist Siona Benjamin fills her paintings with images of blue-skinned people. It’s a metaphor and a reflection of the culture she grew up in.
“Very often I look down at my skin and it has turned blue,” she writes. “It tends to do that when I face certain situations of people stereotyping and categorizing other people who are unlike themselves. I have therefore over the years developed many blue-skinned characters in my paintings. This blue self-portrait of sorts takes on many roles and forms, through which I theatrically explore ancient and contemporary dilemmas.”
For Benjamin, a self-described “transcultural artist,” blue skin can represent the “other” but also “normal.” Used in her paintings, it is a way for figures like the Indian goddess Kali and the blue god Krishna to tell their stories. It is also a personal symbol for Benjamin of her life as a Jewish woman of color.
Benjamin will discuss her work at Fairfield University on Wednesday, Mar. 22, the Samuel and Bettie Roberts Lecture in Jewish Art presented by the university’s Judaic Studies Program and Bennett Center for Judaic Studies.
Benjamin’s paintings and installations have been exhibited throughout the U.S., Europe, and Asia, and has been the subject of articles in major newspapers and art publications, including the New York Times, Jewish Week, Moment Magazine, and Art in America. In addition to many private commissions, her Jewish-themed work adorns several synagogues and Jewish day schools, as well as the 14th Street Y in New York.
Born in Mumbai to a Bene Israel family, Benjamin was raised in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim society and educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian schools. She began drawing and painting as a child. At the J.J. School of Art in Mumbai in the early ‘80s, she earned a diploma in fine arts, an apprenticeship in photography, and a diploma in metals/enameling. She then came to the U.S. and completed a master of fine arts at Southern Illinois University with an emphasis in drawing, painting, metals, and art history, and a second MFA at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with an emphasis in theater set design.
While her parents remained in India, Benjamin’s family gradually dispersed, mostly to Israel and America. Now based in Montclair, N.J. and represented by ACA Galleries in New York, Benjamin creates paintings that combine the imagery of her past with her life as an immigrant to the U.S., resulting in a mosaic inspired by Indian and Persian miniature paintings and Sephardic icons. She counts a range of artists and styles among her major influences, from Indian and Persian miniature painting, to women Surrealist artists like Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo, to Mark Rothko.
“I still recall the ornate synagogues of my childhood,” she says: “the oil lamps, the velvet- and silver-covered Torahs, a chair left vacant for the prophet Elijah. I have always had to reflect upon the cultural boundary zones in which I have lived. In this transcultural America, I feel a strong need to make art that will speak to my audience of our similarities, not our differences, as I feel I can contribute to a much-needed tikkun [repair] through my art. I would like my audience to re-evaluate their notions and concepts about identity and race, thus understanding that such misconceptions could lead to racism, hate, and war.”
A member of a Reconstructionist synagogue in Montclair, Benjamin defines herself as a world citizen.
“I’m part of the big global, transcultural community but also part of the global Jewish community,” she says. “The Jewish community anywhere and everywhere, whether it’s my Indian-Jewish community or the American-Jewish community, has really helped me to grow, has been my patron, and I’m very thankful for that.”
For Benjamin, a “transcultural” person is akin to a chameleon, able to change his or her colors according to the situation and environment.
“Today’s world politics pushes and promotes a need for a sense of belonging, a categorization of sorts, a push to take sides, either black or white,” she says. “The gray scale in between needs to be explored so that when one makes final evaluations, it is painted with a fairness that allows us to learn about all perspectives and points of view.”
Benjamin returned in February from Israel, where she spent four months photographing and videotaping Indian Jews for a Fulbright Senior Scholar Fellowship project, “From Motherland to Fatherland: Transcultural Indian Jews in Israel.” Using 3-D and Lenticular prints and 3-D laser-sculpted portraits, Benjamin will incorporate the faces, stories, and heritage of the different generations within the Indian-Jewish community in Israel.
“These faces are maps, linking me to the memories and weaving narratives of this transcultural world,” she says. “Answers are literally found in their faces. It is with these people and their stories that the rest of the world has an opportunity to learn about Indian Jews. With this project, I hope to educate in these divided and tenuous times and in the process, as an immigrant artist, find ‘home’ again.”
The project is a continuation of Benjamin’s 2011 Fulbright Fellowship, a research and interview project with Jews in India that resulted in “Faces: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives,” a collection of 40 photo-collage paintings. The project culminated in an exhibition at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya museum in Mumbai (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum), which has been mounted in several galleries and museums and was the subject of a documentary film selected for numerous film festivals.
With so much controversy surrounding immigration in American policy and public discourse, Benjamin feels that her art is especially relevant.
“I don’t think I could be making work in a better – or you could say worse – time,” she says. “My work reminds us that we are all immigrants.” Her new series, Exodus, is based mainly on the recent experiences of Syrian refugees but is also inspired by refugees and immigrants in general.
“I think it is important to view the world outside of the bubble of one’s own country, religion, and race,” Benjamin says. “I believe that art can be an important vehicle in this endeavor. This involves not just presenting to my audience the uniqueness of immigrant cultures, but going beyond this in exploring what is being born out of the specifics of that immigrant culture.”
She sees transculturalism as an invaluable tool today, a means to help bridge between the traditional and the modern.
“This bridging not only affects recent immigrants in this country but also Americans that have lived here for generations, so that people can learn new ways to communicate and have artistic discourse with each other,” she says.
“Blue Like Me: The Art of Siona Benjamin:” Wednesday, March 22, 7:30 p.m., Fairfield University, Dolan School of Business Dining Room, 1073 North Benson Road, Fairfield | Info: (203) 254-4000, ext. 2065 / firstname.lastname@example.org.