Kali of Kalighat, Chitpur, Bengal, 1870
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Gloria F. Orenstein

All art by SIONA BENJAMIN

Siona Benjamin, a Sephardic Jewish artist from Bombay (her ancestors came to India from the Middle East and perhaps Spain centuries ago), was educated in both Zoroastrian and Catholic schools while growing up in predominantly Hindu and Muslim India.

Living and working in the United States today, her recent work raises questions about her diasporic and multicultural identities in ways that intersect with questions feminists have posed both about the absence of women artists and, more recently, of Jewish women artists, from centuries of exhibitions and mainstream art history. At the same time that it raises questions about the tensions faced by a multicultural woman artist, it resolves many apparent contradictions via the stunning, original images created — images that reconcile the disparate spiritual and aesthetic tendencies of her multicultural heritage. While empowering the multicultural woman artist, Siona’s art avoids all transgression of spiritual laws concerning the relationship between art and the sacred found in the teachings of her intersecting spiritual traditions.

While feminist art historical scholarship in the West has begun to analyse the sexual politics concerning the exclusion of women artists from patriarchal scholarly narratives, Siona Benjamin’s artistic emergence in American art at this moment is rendered more complex by the recognition that Jewish artists have also encountered the serious prohibition of the Bible’s Second Commandment against the making of graven images, and consequently were discouraged from expressing themselves creatively in the visual arts. Thus, Siona Benjamin belongs to the first generation in history in which there is a movement of Jewish women artists, whose participants reflect upon the relationship between Judaism and iconic art-making as well as upon the contrasting gender representations of women in Indian and American fine and popular arts.

While most Jewish artists have experienced western art history as primarily Christian, and Jewish women artists have experienced western art history as both Christian and androcentric, Siona Benjamin’s artistic training in Bombay was deeply informed by Hinduism as well as by her close study of Indian miniature paintings and Byzantine icons, all contrasting with the Jewish religious art of her childhood in different ways.

Siona’s Jewish-Hindu feminist iconography makes a radical breakthrough in harmonising the contradictions and polarities presented by these various traditions, for it pioneers an original multicultural imagery at the confluence of artistic and spiritual traditions that are often in conflict with each other. While Hindu art is based upon the ritual making of icons energised with the spirit of the deities to whom the art work is consecrated, and while sacred rituals are involved in the process of art-making as well as in the worship of the deity whose presence is invoked by the Hindu icon, Jewish art prohibits both the making and/or the worship of such iconic images. Thus, while experiencing both colonial and androcentric western aesthetic influences, and simultaneously undergoing training in a tradition of non-western art that involves the ritual invocation of deities to be revered through spiritual devotions, Siona’s birth religion, Judaism, forbade her to make ‘graven’ images, or to engage in any practice that would involve the evocation or worship of ‘other gods’.

Siona often wondered whether a painted image was the same thing as a graven image. She would ask herself whether a Jewish woman with artistic talent, raised in a Hindu country, should forego serious artmaking because it might be in conflict with Jewish law. For many years, she pondered how a woman artist with a hybrid identity, inheriting such extremely diverging aesthetic legacies, might approach artmaking. These were some of the problems Siona Benjamin confronted as she began her studies of art. At first she explored abstraction, as did many other Jewish artists — in order to avoid the problem of the graven image.


Siona studied both enamelling and theatre and set design as well as the fine arts. She had always been interested in Indian miniature art, and did her undergraduate thesis in India on Indian miniatures, which, of course, focused on Hinduism. It wasn’t until she was living in the United States, where she attended graduate school, and when she started a family of her own, that she began to seek ways in which to incorporate the Jewish influences from her childhood into the paintings she was creating in the context of her new family setting

Siona spoke to me movingly of how she grew up surrounded by icon-worshippers, but was raised in Indian synagogues from which icon-worship was absolutely banished. Yet, intensely sensitive to the beauty of Hindu art, Siona experienced a profound tension between an aesthetic opening to the images of her native India, and her spiritual conviction that by making such icons, she would surrender her Jewishness and become Hindu.

For many years she felt isolated as a Jew in India, and often wished that she belonged to the majority, rather than a minority religion in her country. However, she did not experience anti-semitism in India. On the contrary, she was told stories about how, when the Jews first came to India, they were welcomed warmly. When the Jews did leave India for Israel, it was not because of persecution or intolerance, but because Israel offered them jobs and excellent educational opportunities. Many members of Siona’s family migrated to Israel, too, but her parents remained in India. There, she was educated in Catholic schools, because of the fine education in English that they provided, but she was advised not to take communion or to engage in any Christian religious rituals.

Siona studied both enamelling and theatre and set design as well as the fine arts. She had always been interested in Indian miniature art, and did her undergraduate thesis in India on Indian miniatures, which, of course, focused on Hinduism. It wasn’t until she was living in the United States, where she attended graduate school, and when she started a family of her own, that she began to seek ways in which to incorporate the Jewish influences from her childhood into the paintings she was creating in the context of her new family setting.

From 1996 to the present, she sought an artistic reconciliation of her two loves, Indian miniature painting and Judaism. As seemingly irreconcilable as the premises of artistic creation in these two traditions appeared to be, Siona was determined to discover a kind of imagery that would celebrate the richness of both traditions. As she explored her Jewish identity, she also recognised the multiculturalism within the Jewish tradition, with its Sephardic, Ashkenazic, and converso histories — all of which lead to still more cultural diversity within and among the Jewish people.

Eventually, Siona Benjamin began to question all aspects of her diverse identities, particularly in her series entitled Finding Home. Working in the United States in the eighties and nineties, she also incorporated the feminist focus upon the depiction of empowered women into her art, and she explored the visual renditions and symbolism of female energy and power in her women figures, referencing Indian tantric art and goddesses in many of her works.

One image from her Finding Home series (#28) depicts an Indian woman in blue jeans, seated in a traditional Indian miniature landscape, sipping a Coke. An angel at the back carries her mother’s Sabbath lamp — the one her mother used to make, ritually, out of oil and a wick to celebrate the Sabbath every Friday night, while other women simply used candles. In the background, the house says Mother in Hebrew. It represents the home she was leaving when she emigrated to the US. There is, however, a demon on top of the painting with a gun and a nuclear weapon, suggesting the wars that are raging everywhere, and the threat of nuclear war that may, eventually, disrupt this peaceful scene. The background was inspired by a sari design of a richly brocaded Indian fabric with the Shema Israel prayer ("Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, and God is one") embroidered on its border.

As an autobiographical portrait of her multiple identities, this contemporary woman artist locates herself in an Indian setting, but through the long straw, which suggests a hookah, she is imbibing the intoxicating American elixir/poison, Coca Cola, symbolising the lure of the West, which will draw her to reside in the US, and may further corrupt the values inherent in the spirituality suggested by the settings of the Indian miniature. However, she guarantees the presence of the sacred in her life in the West by depicting the protective presence of an angel, who, in transporting her mother’s Sabbath lamp, insures that her Jewish spiritual identity will travel with her to her new home. She is seated on a magic carpet, which is framed in gold like a work of art, and the entire scene is set within the protective border of the central Hebrew prayer proclaiming her belief in the existence of the monotheistic God of Israel.

 


p. 1 p. 2 p. 3

 
Gloria Orenstein is Professor of Comparative Literature and Gender Studies,
University of Southern California, Los Angeles, USA