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Transcending Worlds: Jewish and Muslim Ideas in the Art of Siona Benjamin

By Ori Z Soltes

Siona Benjamin’s world is transcultural and transnational. She grew up as a Jew in India, in Mumbai (Bombay), a region dominated by Hinduism and Islam—each with its own artistic sensibilities and conflicts—and attended Catholic and Zoroastrian schools. She was also a girl, of course, in a culture still finding its way toward healthy treatment of women. She came to the American Midwest and then ultimately moved to New Jersey, locales very different from each other and both part of an America with its own still-unanswered questions regarding religion, ethnicity, gender and race.

Her art is multiply-sourced and -shaped. It falls into—and tumbles out of—the tradition of Indian and Pakistani miniature painting art, particularly that sponsored by the Mughals (1526-1857), but also reflecting the Persian miniature tradition that fed into Mughal art as well as the larger contours of Islamic art. She engages the question of how Jewish art should be defined: through subject, style, symbol? through the art or through the identity of the artist? She engages feminist issues of recognition and blindness within the male-dominated societies in which she has lived—as well as the Western-hegemonic feminist movements within those societies.

Especially in one extended series, Finding Home (Fereshteh)—meaning “angels” in Urdu—her figures have blue flesh. She applies a skin color most frequently associated with a male—the Hindu god, Krishna—to female figures, forcing the viewer to stop and rethink whatever (s)he thought (s)he knew about that association. Moreover, “often I look down at my skin and it has turned blue. It tends to do that when I face certain situations of people stereotyping and categorizing other people who are unlike themselves.” So each figure is a kind of self-portrait, translating the personal into the universal.

Figures are wedded to an emphasis on background color and geometric, vegetal and floral patterns that are part of Muslim art. Her lavish use of gold leaf in some works resonates with the world of medieval Christian painting, and from the illuminated manuscript traditions within Christian and Jewish Europe. She is inspired by Bollywood posters—and the Amar Chitra Katha comic books familiar to her from her Bombay years—and by the poster-sized comic book moments re-visioned by American Pop artist, Roy Lichtenstein.***

In focusing on Jewish and Muslim elements, one might consider—Finding Home #62 (Fereshteh): “Asnat” [FIG1].

AS Fig1

In the Jewish tradition, Asnatwas, the wife of the biblical Joseph in Egypt, bear him two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen 41:50-2). Siona depicts her in profile in the style of a Mughal imperial portrait—but wearing a Jewish skullcap—in a 2004 work on paper. This “foreigner” in Joseph’s branch of the Israelite tree is identified by her name in Hebrew on the upper part of the painted “frame.” But interwoven with the decorative motifs along the lower part of that frame is the phrase, “Why I don’t Get the Yiddish Jokes”—jokes in that Ashkenazi language that is as obscure to Siona’s growing up as the devanagari writing on the image is to Ashkenazi Jews. Devanagari is used to spell out the Hindi word for “what?” in a comic-book-like bubble that brings Pop Art into the world of the Mughals.

Joseph himself is much discussed in the Jewish and Muslim traditions—where reference is made to his physical beauty. Siona’s 2006 Finding Home #82 (Fereshteh):“Joseph” is quite beautiful in a girlish way, with long, dark hair, thick with curls, some of which spill down his blue-skinned cheeks as she looks back over her shoulder winsomely [FIG 2].

AS Fig2

He wears a rich coat-like garment—the heavy silkiness of which one can palpably feel, overrun in an almost grisaille manner with images of faces and figures: a kind of cross between a hunting carpet pattern out of Persia or India and a delicate cloud. The coat is spread out like—well, like a dress whose feminine wearer has just turned coquettishly, with a flourish.

In the center of a floral motif at the center of a carpet-like image hovering in the air are the Hebrew letters aleph, shin, kuf. These spell out the Urdu word, “Ishq,” meaning “divine love”—not everyday love or passion, but God-derived love of the sort that Joseph came to understood had enveloped him even when his brothers hated him or Potiphar’s wife, Zuleika, sought to destroy him, and which led the 15th-century Sufi poet, Jami, to reshape Zuleika’s passion for Joseph into the love of the mystic for God.

Five elaborate golden monochrome knives overrun the frame. Their number alludes to the number of books in the Torah (the text in which Joseph’s story is first told and that connects Jews to God). This is also the number of the pillars of Islam (and the number of formal daily Muslim prayers, which connect Muslims to God). This very number, like Joseph, is a bridge between two traditions for both of which Joseph is an important ancestral figure.

Nowhere is that bridge more emphatically expressed than in the account of Abraham’s legacy—which resonates within Siona Benjamin’s work. Thus her tiny (8 x 6”) 2006 image, Finding Home #84 (Fereshteh): “Abraham,” is the center of a triptych comprised of Finding Home #83, #84, #85. The side images depict Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac lies on a hillock of black—ashes—offering a grisaille representation of piles of human bodies. He wears the iconic striped garments of Nazi-era Concentration Camp inmates. Ishmael is depicted in the midst of a balletic leap—in fact appears ambiguously as a female ballet dancer—her eyes blindfolded and pulling the string of a bow, with arrows pointing from all sides pointing along the frame [FIG3].

AS Fig3

The text of Genesis refers to Ishmael as a man of the fields, a hunter. It also tells the story of Isaac’s near-sacrifice on the sacred mountain, whereas the Muslim tradition, based on an ambiguous qur’anic text (Q 37:99-109) debated for centuries as to whether Isaac or Ishmael was offered—eventually, for the most part, embracing the idea that it was the latter. Ishmael, and with him, Islam, is softened by the artist, his hunter persona melded with that of a delicate dancer; and Isaac’s near-death on Mount Moriah is updated: Auschwitz failed to annihilate his Jewish descendants. All three figures are, in any case, blue-skinned—and thus visually associated not only with love (Kraishnite bhakti) but with the artist herself.

What of the mothers of Ishmael and Isaac? In Finding Home #61: “Beloved,” Siona unites two women separated in the traditional texts as antagonists protecting their sons [FIG 4].

AS Fig4

Sarah and Hagar are wrapped together as one being with two, virtually identical, haloed visages. They are their own descendants: one wears a Jewish skullcap (kippah); the other a kafiyah. The danger of separation is updated—not only because their uni-body is broken four times, with large drops of blood filling the space where the breaks occur and pooling below them. The yellow background presents in silent outline a triple figure with a bomb wrapped around his chest, on the side of Hagar; and two soldiers—looking away from the suicide bomber(s)—as well as a camera, focused on them, on Sarah’s side. The frame, overrun with vegetal motifs and with “Sarah” and “Hagar” inscribed in Hebrew along the bottom edge, is punctuated by images of grenades and guns. The rhetorical question is clear: can we defuse what threatens to blow us apart and come to truly embrace what binds us together, as Muslims and Jews—as humans?

She repeats this question in many forms, as in her Finding Home #64: “Hagar” (2003), in which the biblical/qur’anic figure, wrapped in a hijab, carries a staff like that of Moses and Aaron in the court of the pharaoh (Ex 7:10-12), its head assuming the form of a serpent[FIG 5].

AS Fig5

She is surrounded by water—a commodity essential for human survival, its need acutely felt in the desert into which Hagar and Ishmael are sent by Abraham and Sarah (Gen 21:8-21). Hagar would find water to save her son and discover the protective love of God. But although the tail of her staff holds back a destructive mushroom cloud beneath the water’s surface, the water is undrinkable, because it is filled with fragments of bodies blown apart by a suicide bomb. Can we survive the murderous side of ourselves? Can we come to understand how essential it is that we do so together: male and female, Muslim and Jew, Christian and Hindu, Israeli and Palestinian? We will destroy or save ourselves?

Destruction, as considered within traditional rabbinic discussion—and redemption, at least in part, in Siona’s re-vision—is embodied in the figure of Lilith. The artist’s 2005 Finding Home #74 (Fereshteh) offers Lilith’s name in Hebrew and a winged figure with a Jewish prayer shawl as a kerchief and a hamseh with an eye in its palm dangling furiously away from her neck [FIG 6].

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Such a classic Muslim amulet, frequently used also among Jews within the Muslim world, is the sort of instrument that one might wear around one’s neck for protection from Lilith and to ward off the Evil Eye.

So this Lilith, paradoxically, wears a protective amulet. Waves of flame rise up from her—suggesting the heat of her furious anger and also, (again paradoxically), recalling the sort of flames that, in Islamic art, often rise from the head of the Prophet Muhammad to signify his connection to divinity, just as round plates of gold behind the heads of Christian saints signify that connection for them. And she bellows, in a cartoon-style bubble, that emulates Roy Lichtenstein’s signature Pop style: “a thousand years have I waited, keeping the embers of revenge glowing in my heart!” – alluding perhaps to a divinely administered punishment that would see one of her children destroyed every day for a thousand years.

A second 2005 Lilith—Finding Home (Fereshteh)#79—is subtitled “Ishq” [FIG 7].

AS Fig7

She leaps, like a pinwheel, her head thrown back and her eyes nearly closed, as if both dancing and dying simultaneously—the wound in her side both dripping blood and sprouting foliage—her pretend-Urdu-formed name inscribed along the bottom of the image. But the title, “Ishq” is placed within the image itself, in devanagari. Ishq, as we have noted, refers to “divine/particularly powerful love.” It’s a word that Siona uses to connect traditional to modern issues. “Yesterday’s wars are still fought today, recycling the same problems, the same anxieties and dilemmas…the weapons of war have become more advanced in their ferocity. Therefore these heroines of yesteryear are resurrected in my work and have become warriors of today, questioning our measure for love, for passion, for Ishq.”

This particular Lilith is splayed across a sand-colored backdrop on which a map of the Middle East is drawn: a military map with strategic plans and objectives—specifically regarding Iraq. We can discern the contemporary context: the second intrusion into Iraq, in 2003, begat by lies to the American people from its highest leaders in a profound transformation of the American dream into an imperialist nightmare. The splayed form may also be recognized as that of a broken cross—what has been known since 1871, in English, as a swastika. The word is Sanskrit: sva (su) means “good,” asti means “to be,” and ka is an intensifier—so it means “extreme well-being.” The symbol may be traced back, in India, more than4500 years. It remains widely used in some Indian religions, mainly as a tantric symbol that evokes “shakti”: auspiciousness. The notorious appropriation and transformation of this positive symbol by the Nazis add another layer to Lilith.

She suffers as one of us in Finding Home #68 (Fereshteh): “Lilith” (2004) [FIG 8].

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For she has lived many lives. Her extremities (we see only one blue hand) are marked with the stigmata—marks left on the hands, feet and side of Jesus, from the suffering of the Crucifixion. Enveloped in (not consumed by) an enormous blaze, she wears the striped garments of the Concentration Camps and a black kafiyah. The artist comments: “Once born as a Palestinian refugee and once as a Holocaust survivor and once as both, she has sown many saplings and seen them grow. She tends them carefully; building a fortress of hope, for tomorrow their roots will reach the far corners of the earth. But wait…with all the nourishment Lilith is giving them the saplings will not grow! She finds out that they are just buried saplings from yesterday’s wars and tomorrow’s plunderings. She wears an armband, left blank for the oppressed and oppressors of the future.”

Diverse ideas and images, imported from the Muslim and Jewish (and other) traditions, interweave each other in the art of Siona Benjamin—an art of synthesis that has a purpose beyond the aesthetic: to offer comments that the thinking viewer must ponder, with the hope that such thinking will lead to repairing a world with so many broken parts.“Finding Home” is not only a matter of moving from one place to another. It is about being comfortable with diverse cultures and traditions and drawing from them to create art not only as aesthetic exercises, but as a teaching instrument for subsequent generations.

Professor Ori Z. Soltes is Professorial Lecturer in Theology and Fine Arts at Georgetown University. For seven years, he was Director and Chief Curator of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, where he created over 80 exhibitions. He has also curated diverse contemporary and historical art exhibits at other sites, nationally and internationally. As Director of the National Jewish Museum, he co-founded the Holocaust Art Restitution Project. Nearly 250 publications—books, articles, and catalogue essays—have included, among others: Our Sacred Signs: How Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Art Draw from the Same Source and Searching for Oneness: Mysticism in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim Traditions.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. I am speechless with admiration for this artist and her ability to convey so much complexity, pathos, and depth of understanding through her use of images, symbols and her own personal visual vocabulary. The analysis written by Prof. Soltes provides an excellent guide through the world created by Siona Benjamin..

    January 8, 2016

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