Posted on May 23rd, 2011 No comments
Esther is blue. So is Vashti. And it is hard to take your eyes off of them. Born and raised in Bombay in a Bene Israel Jewish family and educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian Schools, artist Siona Benjamin brings many influences and cultural understandings into the bold art she creates –much of it based on Jewish stories. Her current exhibition at the HUC-JIR Museum – New York, The Croll Center for Jewish Learning and Culture, is an illustrated Esther Megillah and is on display until the end of June.
Benjamin recently returned from a spending four months as a Fulbright scholar in India. She is thoughtful and passionate about the work she does and her desire to express the complexity of contemporary Jewish life. I sat down with her to talk about her art.
Ruth Abusch-Magder: Much of your art revolves around Jewish themes, especially those of Jewish women, how did you come to this focus?
Sonia Benjamin: A lot of my work is about issues of identity and social and political identity and my role as a woman and a Jew and as an Indian. When I was studying in art school, my professors said only big abstract bold paintings will sell and will make you lots of money. But that was not really me. My paintings are small, decorative, feminine, mythology based. Why is myth not high art? Why is decorative art not high art? When you speak in your true voice people really start seeing it.
Ruth Abusch-Magder: How do you engage Jewish content in your work?
Sonia Benjamin: I study midrash with Rabbi Burt Visotsky. The whole process of studying midrash is the starting point. Then I have to make it my own. If I just drew Ruth walking with Naomi or Rebecca by the well, it would be redundant. People would say, how skillful or how beautiful, but it would not be compelling. It would be redundant. But midrash is about having a take on the story. I am making visual midrash that will affect not just Jewish people, but all kinds of people. They can connect in their own way. I’m striving for that.
Ruth Abusch-Magder: The Esther Megillah was a commission, so how did you decide what to illustrate and how to do the drawings?
Sonia Benjamin: The person who commissioned me had a lot to say, and so did Rabbi Visotsky. I also did historical research. Haman’s hat, for example, was it supposed to be three cornered like a hamantashen? There were no hamantashen in Persia. So I asked what could he have been wearing? Then I exaggerated it to show his character.
There is a scene where Achashverosh is receiving Esther and Modechai is presenting her. I was doing sketches, and I went back and forth with the rabbi and the guy about the throne. I wondered if I should go back to the Persian miniature and copy Moghul miniature painting which showed King Akbar or Gihangi sitting on thrones. But there is actually there is a midrash about the throne that Achashverosh sat on. There is a contemplation that he sat on the looted throne of King Solomon. Now, what does that look like? It is said in the midrash that it had a lion, a falcon, a bull and human face on it. According to the midrash Solomon’s throne was looted by the Persian kings and this is what Achashverosh sat on. So I used this as the basis in my painting. It is a hidden secret, no one will know unless it is pointed out but it will make it more interesting.
Ruth Abusch-Magder: Which is your favorite character? Who do you identify with in the megillah?
Sonia Benjamin: A lot of my work is feminist, I like marginal characters Vashti, Lilith, dina, tziporah. So I was disappointed that Vashti disappears [from the story]. She is like the ex-wife who wants to come back. So in the scroll painting in one of the scenes when the King is married to Esther and she is planning to save the Jewish people and she is pouring wine in the background there are arch ways and the marriage bed. In the background I painted the shadow of Vashti, she is watching, maybe approving, saying this king is finally getting what he deserves.
Ruth Abusch-Magder: Why are the women in your paintings blue?
Sonia Benjamin: A lot of my characters are blue because a lot of times people don’t recognize what I am, I get asked if I am Moroccan, Puerto Rican, Pakistani, Persia. If I say Indian then they say Hindu, Muslim? Then what are you. When I explain that I am Jewish, they often want to touch me –I’m exotic. There have been Jews in India for thousands of years. When I was painting self portraits I tried all these brown colors but none seemed right. But blue is the color of the ocean and sky it could belong anywhere. It is the color of Israel all the synagogues in India are painted this blue, and Krishna is a God who is blue. It became a symbol for me of being a Jewish woman of color. It became a joke that I could play. Feminist writers have said, that I am the other 3x removed, Jewish, woman and in a foreign land, so your blueness gets amplified, you get bluer and bluer.
Posted on January 17th, 2011 No comments
My piece What the Bible Teaches About Modern Media sparked some interest at Hebrew Union College. Joel Duman, Ed.D. Lecturer on Bible, Biblical History and Jewish Educational Technology at HUC Year in Israel Program,is an expert on both the Bible and technology. In addition to the work he does at HUC, he teaches at the Hebrew University High School in Jerusalem and JTS, New York. Coordinator and writer of Visual Midrash, a website on “Biblical Art.” What follows is his response to my piece.
I’m about to finish the teaching of a course in Biblical History at HUC Jerusalem. One of the issues that has come up is literacy in ancient Israel – we’ve talked about the Lachish letters, where a rural army commander writes in a huff that he is “of course” quite able to read and understand written communiqués; we’ve mentioned an ostracon found several years ago in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere,
apparently from the 10th century BCE (Khirbet Kaifeh) – writing about matters of societal morality; we’ve talked about the writing and rewriting of history in the Bible, etc. Both in this course and in my other bible courses, for Americans and for Israelis, we often come up against the seriousness and depth with which the written text has been treated in the Jewish tradition.
Although the small bytes of information characteristic of the new social media might look similar to the laconic style of the Bible, there’s also something essentially different, in how we deal with these texts. I don’t think anyone would bother to give a long, hard read to the type of communication found on Twitter, etc. – like the piece I am writing now, not a lot of thought is put into this type of writing; the Bible, on the other hand, shows clearly that it’s formulations have been carefully considered, reworked, edited, changed and that each phrase and each word (each letter sometimes) is fraught with meaning.
It occurs to me that what we can learn from the Bible about the new media derives from the difference between the use of writing in these two contexts, rather than in the similarity. I don’t mean this as a rejection of the new media – although not a big fan of much of it, I am an avid e-mailer, although I was never a good letter-writer. But I think such a comparison offers us an opportunity to notice what’s special, different, eccentric (in the literal and figurative meaning of this word) about our culture and to see how our tradition to offer alternatives to general tendencies of our contemporary world
Posted on December 13th, 2010 1 comment
Erev Rav: God, this dessert is awful, there is ABSOLUTELY NOOOOOO food worth eating
Moses ben Amram: Wondering, yet again, why I ever took this job…..
God “the one and only”: You are such a kvetch. Meet up in 30. Bring 70 of your closest with you.
The world of online social networks is complex and persuasive. The fluid nature of the medium makes it both compelling and problematic. Even as governments struggle with how to navigate the open platforms that allow national secrets to be shared world wide, the traditional challenges of adolescence and identity formation are amplified in an era that blurs the boundaries between public and private. Things that might have, only a few years back, remained knowledge between a close group of friends, such as a first kiss now become the news of thousands of ‘friends.’ A misspoken remark or bullying in the playground, now gains permanency creating havoc for the victim and the perpetrator. Young people, parents and educators are increasingly concerned about how to help children navigate the complexities of this new social and media reality.
While it is impossible to inoculate children against all the challenges of modern media consumption, clergy and Jewish educators have an important tool in our box that is often overlooked in the complex discussions about living on-line. The Bible, though clearly very much “old media,” is a great tool for helping young people consider the value and weight of their words.
Overwhelmed by the sheer volume and content of what they are exposed to in the media, and still developmentally grappling with the concept of consequences, the permanence of the online world can be hard for young people to grasp. The Bible shows us some of the enduring impact of writing down our every action. What is it that we know about Avraham Avinu at this distance? Yes, we know he was chosen by God but we also know that he passed his wife off to the King of Egypt and that he tied his son up and prepared him for sacrifice. When working with young people I ask them if they think that Abraham would be happy with the record we have of his actions. How would he like to be remembered? How would they like to be known in the world?
While it may seem flip, it is not hard –as I did above -to read much of the narrative element of the Tanakh as a series of facebook or twitter posts. Frequently, the biblical narratives come not in long flowing prose but in short burst – often, dare I say of less than 140 characters a passuk. One of the great joys of the brevity of the biblical narrative is that it leaves much room for commentary. We are left to guess at the motivations at the contexts. And we do.
David ben Jessie: Just saw the most beautiful woman bathing on her roof
Commentator one: Seriously man, you’re married.
David “father of the Messiah” ben Jessie: I’m just looking…
Commentator two: Go for it Dave, after all you’re the King, whatever you do is cool
The short pieces we see in the Bible regarding events, such as David’s sighting of Batsheva, make it possible for us to layer meanings onto the text. While that has provided many generations of learned Jews with much to work with, I’m sure that the “reality” of the original events was lost long ago. Today, such commentaries on the short bursts of information that we put out about our daily lives accrue with lightening speed. We don’t wait generations between Rambam’s and Rashi’s thought but seconds between Susan’s and Deryck’s responses. Reality can get lost quite quickly as can our control over the perception of events.
Gone are the days of the long meaningful missive. Short texts with a series of Roshei Tevot communicate volumes in an economy of space and leave much to the imagination. Going back to biblical commentaries is not going to change the mode of communication but it can be a means by which we help young people unpack their use of modern media.