A woman with blue skin sits in a yoga position, engulfed in red flames, as she waters five unborn fetuses growing like potatoes underground. She wears a black and white striped outfit with an armband and a black Muslim-style head covering. The references to the Holocaust are clear.
But so are other allusions to the multicultural world of Indian-Jewish artist Siona Benjamin. Intensely colored, multi-layered, powerful images of women, rich with biblical and mythological Indian iconography and feminist and anti-violence themes speak to her unique background.
About 30 of Benjamin’s paintings in boldly hued gouache, an opaque watercolor, and gold leaf, sometimes studded with bullet casings, string, jewels, and golden thread, are now on display in the exhibit “Finding Home” at The Temple-Tifereth Israel through March 21. The exhibit and an accompanying dance performance are part of a special artist-in-residence weekend, Nov. 20-21.
The artist’s work centers on her own sense of being “other” and an outsider and her desire to strip away stereotyping and intolerance. A native of Mumbai (Bombay) and a member of the Bene Israel, a Sephardic Jewish community in India whose ancestors emigrated from the Middle East over 2,000 years ago, Benjamin, 49, came to America in the mid-1980s.
She earned two master of fine art degrees, one in painting and art history at Southern Illinois University and one in theater set design at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. She married an American geology professor and moved to Montclair, N.J., where they live with their daughter Rachel, 15, in a 100-year old Craftsman-style house.
At times, Benjamin says, she looks down at her skin and sees it as blue. “I’m a Jew born in Hindu and Muslim India; I went to Catholic and Zoroastrian schools,” she says in a phone interview. “When I first came to America, people thought Jews only came from a certain part of the world, like Poland. It was not possible to be a Jew from India. It became like a joke for me. I can’t be just a regular brown, that’s too predictable. I need to be blue.”
Benjamin grew up in a Jewish home in Mumbai, where the men prayed with tallitot and tefillin, and her family observed Shabbat with a traditional meal and the lighting of an oil lamp. Today, she describes herself as spiritually Jewish, not religiously observant, although she notes that her daughter Rachel became a bat mitzvah.
The artist studies midrash with Rabbi Burton Visotzky at The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. “I love the stories and the mythology,” Benjamin says. “I started studying women in the Torah. My work is not about reproducing a story as I read it. I transform it to today’s social-political situation, what’s happening in my life.”
Her paintings of golden-winged fereshtini or angels in Urdu depict biblical women. She describes a painting where she’s taken the story of Miriam and asked, “What would Miriam do today to combat war and violence and evil? My work is visual midrash.”
Today, there are only about 5,000 Bene Israel in India. The remainder, some 25,000 people, immigrated to Israel, the U.S. and Canada during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Benjamin’s mother is one of the few Bene Israel still living in Mumbai; her father died many years ago.
Benjamin herself nearly moved to Cleveland decades ago and has a strong attachment to the city. Her late grandmother, an uncle and an aunt immigrated to the U.S. and were settled in Cleveland by HIAS. Benjamin visited her grandmother often and at one point contemplated transferring to the Cleveland Institute of Art. Her uncle Mordechai Joseph still lives here.
As you walk into the temple’s lobby, there’s a huge banner of a blue-skinned, praying Lilith, popping forth like a comic-book hero from a background of flashing yellows, reds and white. “You Must Save Us From Their Wrath” is written in a thought bubble, and white yarn dangles like tzitzit from her skirt, decorated with Indian motifs of flora and fauna.
In “Finding Home #30,” she paints small images of a Jewish couple with non-Western writing at their feet. In the top corner, there’s a very tiny adult holding a child’s hand inside a house. The large central blue figure, presumably also the artist, is at sea, atop the waves and a giant fish, reading a book in a red chariot drawn by a winged white horse.
Imagery from an amalgam of Jewish, Indian and Western mythological sources is central to Benjamin’s work. Flowers, especially the lotus, doves, lambs, and lions often border her work, with the detail reminiscent of the Persian and Indian miniature painting she studied in art school in India.
From Bollywood to the Surrealists to pop art, Benjamin is also influenced by such artists as Roy Lichtenstein, with his comic-book technique. Some images are even reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s exotic odalisques, painted in saturated colors with decorative patterns and motifs.
Benjamin’s carefully painted style, also inspired by illuminated manuscripts, bears the hallmark of enameling and cloisonné, techniques she majored in while an undergraduate art student in India.
In “Lilith 2008,” Benjamin has color-copied a 2003 illustrated page from The New York Times about the Iraq war, adding her own questions about the violence. Lilith here is an angel with gold wings facing a dagger dripping with drops of blood.
Eight digitally copied photos of an Indian woman in a brilliant orange sari surround a central blue figure in “Mahalat,” much like the many arms of a Hindu god. References to bombs raise questions about war. White string ties together such symbols as the lotus, an electric plug and scissors.
Along one wall in the exhibit, a 15-foot Megillah scroll, elaborately illuminated like a medieval manuscript, tells the story of Purim. Benjamin has also created a small-sized reproduction of the big Megillah in an edition of 100.
At the moment, Benjamin’s art is in six different shows. She travels to India in December on a Fulbright Scholarship, spending four months photographing and interviewing the remnants of the Jewish community. She intends to weave together the Indian-Jewish narratives, printing the images on large pieces of paper, embellished with illumination.
Once again, she’ll be looking for home.
WHAT: Siona Benjamin and three dancers present “Rang de Nila (Color Me Blue),” acting out some of the artist’s paintings. Latkes and samosas served at 3 p.m.
WHEN: Sun., Nov. 21, at 4; reception at 5
WHERE: The Temple-Tifereth Israel
INFO: Free and open to the community. Contact Sue Koletsky, 216-831-3233, ext. 108. The program is funded by the Xpu Foundation/Bill Meehan and Laura Roebuck.