Kali of Kalighat, Chitpur, Bengal, 1870
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  And woman creates God — 2  

  The rite stuff
  Vol I : issue 4

  Gloria Orenstein
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Gloria F. Orenstein

Thus, the iconography of Hindu art serves to represent an expectation of the presence of the sacred in both art and life. Yet, while referencing her Indian artistic background, the non-iconic, written rendition of the Shema avoids any transgression of the Bible’s Second Commandment by inscribing her primary spiritual affiliation in the painting in a way that enriches the work rather than detracting from its evocation of the sacred.

In another painting of the Finding Home series (#32) a contemporary couple makes love in the setting of an Indian miniature painting. The frame of the work is inscribed with the prayer of Prophet Elijah in Marathi, thus preventing the viewer from identifying the couple with Hindu deities. It permits us to imagine the sacred eroticism suggested by their position as part of the sexual expression of contemporary lovers, who might even be Jewish — for Judaism has its own teachings on the sacred expression of sexuality. Although the woman’s body is painted in blue, Siona’s contemporary interpretation of this is that she is a woman of colour. This is a self-portrait of the artist with her husband. They are surrounded on the right, by a stereo, a CD player, the New York Times, her paintbrushes, an artist’s pad, and a Torah pointer. While the house in the background across the water says "Was Mine" in Hebrew, the home that the couple now resides in may have an Indian architectural exterior, but its interior is protected by a menorah, and it has a mezuzah on its doorpost, which guards and blesses its entry. Her new home is thus surrounded by the non-iconically rendered energies of the sacred prayers of Judaism, contained both in the mezuzah, and the prayer of the Prophet Elijah, written on the border. Finally, Madonna, the pop singer, is seated on a magic carpet that seems to have just sailed over, on the water.

The play on sacred icons and graven images is productive of new meanings as Madonna, the singer, also references to the Christian icon of the Virgin, but here she is a sex goddess, reminding us of how, in moving to the West, many levels of iconography may undergo still further corruption with respect to their original sacred meanings. Similarly, tantric eroticism is transplanted to a foreign shore, where the contemporary woman, incarnating the image and energy of the Hindu goddess, is juxtaposed with Madonna, the sex goddess, causing a visual recognition of the possibility of a desacralisation of sexuality in the West. Yet the blue woman, inheriting the Hindu and Jewish traditions of sacred sexuality, has also surrounded herself visually with the protective energies of both her iconic and anti-iconic religious heritages, thereby ensuring that spirituality and sexuality will be completely integrated for her in this otherwise desacralised environment.

Similarly, the artist calls upon the Prophet Elijah to protect her as he carries her off to her new home across the ocean in his chariot in Finding Home (#30). Her parents are waving good-bye to her at the foot of the painting, as she flies off to study and live in North America. Once more the Elijah prayer is inscribed in Marathi (the local language used near Bombay) on the lower border of the image.

Siona’s humour is apparent in the way in which she juxtaposes contemporary western, ancient Hebrew, and traditional Hindu imagery and references. In painting #31 of the Finding Home series, the artist depicts herself kicking up a storm while riding on a dancing camel. She said that she had been asked many times if there was civilisation in India, and it amused her to write around the painting in English: "It was a quiet day in the desert. I almost fell off my camel, and knew I must have reached America when I saw a Starfighter spaceship fly by…" While the image is displayed on a Persian carpet, the central design is that of the Jewish lamps in the Bombay synagogue. The threat of ‘star wars’ is symbolised by the Starfighter spaceship that invades the picture.

Instead of invoking Hindu iconography in ways that might risk transgressing the Biblical law of the Second Commandment, Siona has shown the absence of a sacred dimension in western popular icons.

In contrasting the sacred expectations of the Hindu aesthetic with the secular meanings of popular western imagery, Siona demonstrates that there is no risk that as a contemporary western painter, she will produce a graven image. On the contrary, in order to introduce a spiritual meaning to her essentially secular experience as a painter in the West, Siona must surround herself both with the sacred context of Hindu miniature painting and with the sacred prayers from her Jewish heritage.

Motorcycle Madonna appears on two sides of a box that reminds us of an altarpiece. Here the liberated Madonna on the motorcycle is inspired by the Hindu deity, Durga, who can take many forms, one of which is Kali. This powerful female deity purifies the world by destroying demonic forces. Siona’s self-portrait as the Durga/Motorcycle Madonna depicts her with a paintbrush in one hand and a musical instrument and a book in the other hands. The book is inscribed with the Hebrew letter ‘Chai’, which means life. Her helmet bears the plumes of the deity and has its third eye in the place of a miner’s light. Thus, her illuminating radiance enables her to shed light where darkness reigns. According to the artist, she is riding her motorcycle into the next century, and she is a Robin Hood sort of figure — coming on her motorcycle to save the world. In referring to Durga, Siona points out the contrast between how female power, even when it is terrifying, is revered in India while it is reviled and demonised in the West. Her art reminds us that we have forgotten how to see the awesome spiritual dimensions of the most terrifying aspects of our most popular culture heroes. The image makes us aware of the fact that a western Motorcycle Madonna actually accomplishes the same sacred cleansing and purification of the world as does an ancient Indian deity by demonstrating her power to destroy negativity in the environment, and to bring life — Chai — into the world via art. This sacred task of restoring the world is common to Durga and the Motorcycle Madonna. It is the work of the empowered female creator.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3

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