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

A look at another painting from Sionaís Finding Home series (#29) once more finds the tradition of Indian miniature painting juxtaposed with western popular culture icons. However, this work is more overtly a prayer for the reconciliation of the polar opposite aspects of her hybrid identity. The painting was inspired by an Indian miniature work in which the half woman/half animal had tiger heads on her paws where the Mickey Mouse heads now appear. The animalís tail here is a plug, which symbolises being unplugged from India, represented by the landscape across the water. The burning house in the background says the Shema, the fundamental prayer of Judaism. There is also the threat of an atomic explosion in the Indian landscape. Siona Benjamin wrote a short text in her sketchbook, which, I feel, expresses poignantly the way in which the prayers that are painted in her works function like ritual gestures, for the Hebrew language is sacred, and the mystics claim that it is extremely powerful and radiates sacred energy. To write the Shema is to inscribe the energy of the prayer into the painting in a ritual but non-iconic manner.

The artist has written:

"I could almost hear the lapping of the water against me, as I painted this

From the lush green shores that once were

Not any more as my house burns

From another life, another time

I swim away hurriedly never to return

But one last glance of my home that once was

The lush green is but an illusion

I fear suffocation in the pollution and atomic explosions

My Mickey paws promise to give that needed energy

Unplugged and cast away as I am now

I say the Shema for a good voyage home."


In Malida (FH #23), Siona depicts a Sephardic Jewish ritual from the customs of the Ben Israel Jews, which is her own community. On special occasions, such as when one wants to thank God for a particular blessing, or on a special Sabbath, a meal is prepared of flattened rice mixed with coconut, sugar, and saffron. It is served with five fruits, some of which are to remind one, symbolically, of the desert (eg, dates), and also with flowers and cloves. The woman doing the ritual is blindfolded to suggest the way Jews cover their eyes when they recite the Shema and when they light the Sabbath candles, and also to remind us that we literally perform these acts in blind faith. During the ritual, one recites the Eliahu Hanabi (Prophet Elijahís) prayer, which is a song of praise for the triumph over the powers of destruction and for the restoration of the fulfilment of life on Earth. It is a sacred celebration in praise of Godís blessing over all nations. Here, the woman has a sacred oil lamp embedded in her heart. This is the oil lamp of the artistís motherís Sabbath ritual. There is also a mezuzah blessing the open door to the interior of her being. The three hands on the Malida represent the hands of the artist and her parents when they performed this ritual in India.

Painting #27 of the Finding Home series was inspired directly by a Mogul miniature work in which the person riding the horse was a famous Mogul king. Here Siona has mutated the image to present an empowered portrait of herself as a triple-headed goddess in a royal procession. Her third eye represents the creative vision of the artist, a kind of inner perception mingled with spirituality. Siona has depicted herself in a version of her actual wedding dress made from a purple silk sari. Thus, we have another hybrid image of the artist, for the sari has been transformed into a short western dress, and the Indian artist is wearing high-heeled shoes. Around the neck of this triple-faced, many-handed goddess spirit incarnated in a westernised woman is a Star of David. One hand holds the horseís reins, showing how she is taking control of her lifeís journey; another hand is pointing ó either asking or showing the way; a third hand holds a spiral, which is used in Hindu mythology as a tornado of energy to be hurled at demons in order to destroy evil.

Sionaís multiethnic self-portraiture is exemplary in the way in which it harmonises diverse, apparently conflicting elements, through the cross-cultural intersection of symbols that meet in the borderlands where she resides with her multiple spiritual identities and protective energies.

A self-portrait from the Finding Home series (#35) is titled Khamoshi, Urdu for silence. The artist is pregnant, seated on a beautiful mat*, performing the Malida, perhaps to thank God for the blessings of her forthcoming child and her artistic talent. With one hand she is eating a date from the Malida. Another hand has turned into a menorah (the candelabra for celebrating Chanukkah, the festival of light), and a third hand holds a house which says the Shema. The artist is wearing a yarmulke (skull cap worn in the temple), and has green bangles on her wrists which, in the Indian Jewish community, indicate that the woman is married. Although she is protected by the Jewish ritual and symbols, she is surrounded by the threat of various weapons, depicted in red that make tears in the fabric of the background, as they inject their dangers into an otherwise peaceful ritual. The painting (see cover) is called Silence (Khamoshi), because it poses a question to which the answer is silence. Will the pregnant woman artist be struck by the weapons directed at her? Or will she remain safe because of the spiritual protection she invokes through the ritual? Siona is always aware of the dangers in the environment. Sometimes they are depicted as demons, as atomic explosions, or as weapons.

The real tension depicted in Sionaís work is less between her conflicting spiritual identities (which reach a harmony in the way she calls upon both of them to oppose the desacralisation of the world that has occurred in the West) than between the forces of Good and Evil. This fundamental tension and conflict of opposing energies exists in both the Hindu and the Jewish religions as well as in their aesthetic approaches to icon-making. Whether sin consists of making a graven image (and thus causing God to turn his countenance away from the artist), or whether it consists of not invoking the energies of the deities through ritual and iconic representation of them in oneís art ó the important work of the artist is to rid the world of negativity and to restore harmony and light to a world threatened by darkness and evil by following the paths of righteousness indicated by each of her religionís teachings.

Her self-portrait, #38 from the Finding Home series, is inspired by an Indian miniature in which Krishna (an avatar of Lord Vishnu) conquers the demon serpent of the sea, taming it by sitting on its head. In the original, Krishna lies sleeping on the twelve-headed demon serpent. Here, Siona has depicted the woman artist, imbued with goddess energies, conquering her own demons. While one of her hands holds a house that has sprouted into a menorah, the other holds a pole for picking trash out of the polluted waters, which she places in the trash bag on the wave beside her, next to her laptop computer. The ocean is filled with western trash ó McDonald burger debris, Campbell soup cans, vodka bottles. The artist is fishing this trash out of the waves, cleansing the environment, and purifying the water, which is the sacred matrix of life. An angel in the upper right is inspired by Persian miniatures. She holds fire in her tray, offering the artist more purifying energies, which will also rescue the Indian home that she left behind, and is being swept away in a whirlpool.

Sionaís self-depiction as the many-armed Durga and often the triple-faced goddess uses Indian traditional art and iconography to express the unity of her multiple identities within a single individual. She depicts the woman artist as a multifaceted, multitalented creator ó a radiant power-centre, a locus of energies strong enough to defeat evil through the emission of potent force-fields emanating from the Hindu icons and Jewish prayers incorporated in her art.

By juxtaposing the cosmic context of Hindu miniatures with the pop icons of the contemporary West, Sionaís art wages a battle against negativity on the spiritual, cultural and political levels, implying a recognition of the woman artist as spiritual warrior. Sionaís depiction of the woman artist whose third eye, like the minerís light, illuminates a pathway in the darkness, carries with it an ecofeminist consciousness as her artist/warriors often use their spiritual weapons (menorahs, oil lamps, mezuzahs, prayers) to purify and cleanse the environment so that future multicultural voyagers will be spared the dangers from those poisons and impurities that pollute our minds, hearts and spirits as well as our physical surroundings. Thus, the multicultural woman artist brings us the multiplied powers of her many arms and many heads, working in counsel with each other and in tandem, implying the geometrically increased potency that is the inheritance of those who possess hybrid identities, and who embody the rich cultural pluralities of their borderland homes.


p. 1 p. 2 p. 3

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