Siona Benjamin’s Wandering, Blue, Indian Jews

by Patricia Eszter Margit

Siona Benjamin, an Indian Jewish artist is one of the most exciting and refreshing Jewish contemporary artists today, rightfully gaining fame at the Jewish cultural scene as her new exhibition, “Finding Home” opens at the JCC of Manhattan. The color, the style, the texture of her work evokes “mughal art”, Indian/Persian miniature paintings yet she’s bringing pop cultural and feminist elements into it to create a brilliant, new vocabulary of her own.
Siona’s work recycles many different mythologies: her references are based on thorough knowledge of the Hindu, Muslim and Jewish heritage, but she always changes it, makes the art work her own. She has been studying midrash at JTS and enjoys creating her own interpretations. Her work has many different layers, her paintings are not only aesthetic, but also always political, looking to challenge assumptions and raise awareness about trans-cultural identity and belonging.

Her portray of Lilith, called “Ishq” (Passion) was inspired by a map at the New York Times about Bush’s plan to attack Baghdad and take over Saddam Hussein’s home. The painting’s grayish background gives a nice contrast to the bright figurine at the center of the image portraying Lilith, whose body is crushed into a swastika shape. Siona’s conversational partner at the opening, Marc Michael Epstein, a brilliant art historian from Vassar College noted, swastikas were wide-spread in Hinduism, but were found on the remains on the interior gates of Herod's refurbishment of the Second Temple (circa 19 CE) among some flower elements too.
“Lilith is crushed because she’s in a state of indecision. She’s unable to take sides. Lilith to me is a fallen angel, who belongs to neither heaven nor hell.  Half the time I’m in this state too as I get called Iraqi, Persian, Pakistani, South Italian or South American. But when I tell I’m a Jew, people hardly believe me,” Siona Benjamin explains.
She’s on a cultural mission to educate people about the 2000 years-old Indian Jewish community, the Bene Israel, that is quickly vanishing. Siona just returned a four-months-long Fulbright scholarship trip in her native India documenting the disappearing Jewish culture in Puna. Most Jews are leaving India to seek economic affluence and a larger community to live in. While Siona moved to the US, her mother lives in Israel, but she has family in Canada, Australia and Europe as well.
“I’m like a chameleon, I fit in everywhere - a trans-cultural artist,” Siona reveals then adds, “So I refuse to see the world as black and white. I refuse politics to push me into a sense of geographic belonging: I’m continuously re-exploring what home is, what identity is all about,” she explains why she bases her identity on being a Jewish artists instead. “I see art as an important vehicle in bringing social and political awareness and change. As a Jewish artist, my mission is tikkun olam, putting the shattered vessels together,” Siona says. What she doesn’t express openly is the racism and sexism she must have encountered during her life leading to today’s successes.
Siona takes on a brave mission: she shows ‘the other’ in her work, the marginalized and somewhat despised female figures like Lilith, Vashti, Tziporah or Miriam (who have been severely punished for something that his brother Aron was not).  She brings into the discourse their perspective.
Her images, portraying biblical female characters appearing all as blue angels, represent Jewish women of color. “As an artists I wanted to put myself into my paintings, but  I couldn’t figure out which shade of brown was my perfect skin color. Then I remembered Kali – who was blue – she and Lilith are the same for me. Blue is a neutral color: besides the sky, every ocean is the same blue, no matter which part of the Earth you go,” she explained.
Even though her show is called “Finding Home”, Siona declares that it is not important to her any more. Just like her characters have wings, Siona is also on a journey. “When I stopped trying to live up to the art market’s trends and I took my own path, I got much closer to the meaning of life.”
We’ll gladly follow Siona on this fascinating journey as she brings new perspectives into the conversation redefining what being a Jewish woman is all about.
The themes and energy in Finding Home have inspired a wide array of programs at the JCC for more info see here and the Jewish Art Salon.

Patrícia Eszter Margit is an author, cultural critic, journalist, PR expert, sociologist and non-profit manager originally from Hungary. Her writings have appeared in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Jerusalem Report, EJewishPhilanthropy, Nepszabadsag (the largest Hungarian daily), Szombat (Hungarian Jewish cultural magazine), and Marie Claire magazine. She is the author of The Jewish Bride, a bestseller published in Hungary in 2009. Eszter now lives in New York where she became a Jewish bride herself.

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