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  • Blue Women and Biblical Tales: The Work of Siona Benjamin

    Posted on May 23rd, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    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.

    Siona Benjamin

    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.

     

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