Museum Stories

Blue Like Me: The Art of Siona Benjamin

Maya Tola 17 February 2020 min Read

From February 25th to May 31st, 2020 the Gotthelf Art Gallery at the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture will exhibit the unique works of the Indian artist Siona Benjamin. She is now based in New Jersey (Exhibition details below). Benjamin's works reflect a combination of Indian and Sephardic iconography. They represent her unique upbringing as a member of the Bene Israel community in India, as well as imagery from her life in the United States.

Painting of a woman who's multiple arms (nod to Hindu gods) turn into the candles of a menorah. The Hebrew words Tikun Ha-Olam appear to her right and again in the Hindi Devanagiri script on the left.
Siona Benjamin, Tikkun Ha-Olam, Finding Home Series #46, Gouache and 22K gold leaf on paper, 2000. Source: Art Siona.

Benjamin's Upbringing & Training

Benjamin belongs to the Bene Israel community of India. She grew up in a city that was predominantly Hindu and Muslim, and to a lesser extent, Catholic and Zoroastrian. She has two Masters of Fine Arts, one in painting and one in theater set design. Furthermore, she has exhibited in the US, Canada, Europe, India, and Asia.

Painting of a blue woman with 3 visible heads and several arms (like Hindu Gods) holding Jewish icons and riding a horse with a US flag saddle. Accompanied by an attendant dressed in Mughal garments.
Siona Benjamin, Finding Home Series #27, Gouache on paper, 1999. Source: Art Siona.

In 2010 she received a Fulbright Fellowship for an art project entitled ‘Faces: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives’. She was later awarded a second Fulbright Fellowship in 2016 for a project entitled ‘Motherland to Fatherland: Indian Transcultural Jews in Israel’. The documentary “Blue Like Me” follows her journey as she conducted research for this project. Her unique perspective as a Jewish woman raised in India is a central theme to her artworks. 

Photo collage painting of Samson Solomon (Korlekar) who translated Hebrew works to English and Marathi for the Indian Bene Israel community.
Siona Benjamin, Samson Solomon (Korlekar), Fulbright Series #21, Photo-collages with gouache and acrylic paint on Hahnemuhle paper, 2013. Source: Art Siona.

Bene Israel Community in India

The Bene Israel are the largest of the three Jewish communities in India. It is believed that they were shipwrecked near Western India either in the 8th century BCE while fleeing religious persecution under the Assyrians, or 600 years later while fleeing Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Some have also theorized that they were shipwrecked near Alibaug around the 1st century CE while on a trading voyage to the Far East.

Though most aboard drowned, a few swam to safety and found refuge among the local population of the Konkan coast. They felt welcome in their new home and have since lived in harmony with the local population. The Jewish population in India has not suffered from the anti-Semitism that is rampant in many other parts of the world.

Photo collage and painting of the lighting of the Shamash.
Siona Benjamin, Shamash Lamplighters for Synagogues in Mumbai, Fulbright Series #18, Photo-collages with gouache and acrylic paint on Hahnemuhle paper, 2013. Source: Art Siona.

Over time the Bene Israel community assimilated in Western India. They continued to observe Jewish traditions but also adopted the culture, clothing style, food, and even wedding rituals of their new home. However, in 1948 the majority of the Bene Israeli population of about 20,000 migrated to Israel. Consequently only around 5000 chose to remain in India.

Hence Benjamin’s works are an exploration of her unique heritage. They reflect the complexity of her identity as well as her own search for a spiritual home.

Painting of Eda in an ornate Persian or Mughal border with foliage.
Siona Benjamin, Eda, Finding Home Series #71 (Fereshteh), Gouache and 22K gold leaf on paper, 2006. Source: Art Siona.

Tapestry of a Multicultural Identity

Benjamin's paintings draw from classical traditions of both the East and the West. They therefore attempt to bridge the gap between these diverse artistic worlds. Her works are a blend of Mughal and Persian miniatures, Christian and Jewish illuminated manuscripts, and mythology. Along with traditional elements are hints of Bollywood films and comic books, as well as contemporary pop art. As a result her unique imagery transcends cultures, religions, and nations. 

Siona Benjamin painting of Asnat, from the Finding Home Series, #62 (Fereshteh) showing a woman dressed as a male Mughal in Mughal miniature style saying 'what?' in Hindi. A part of her dress represents the US flag, she wears a Kippah and wear a Hamsa necklace as a nod to her Jewish roots, holds a lotus, associated with Hinduism. In the borders of the texts are the English words - 
Why I don't get Yiddish Jokes.
Siona Benjamin, Asnat, Finding Home Series #62 (Fereshteh), Gouache and 22K gold leaf on paper, 2004. Source: Art Siona.

These paintings depict cryptic figures from both Jewish and Hindu mythology in idyllic and almost spiritual settings. For example, her figures are usually set in the ornate borders that are typically seen in Mughal and Persian miniatures. The human figures are very often female characters from mythology, but recast as feminist icons. She also boldly presents her female figures, which counters many of the traditions from which they originate. These artworks are shrouded in mystery and opposing dichotomies. The figures are portrayed carrying weapons while asking for peace, or swearing vengeance while begging for mercy.

Benjamin also uses blue as the skin color for the subjects of her artworks. This is interesting because blue is most frequently associated with the male Hindu Gods (Vishnu and Shiva). However, to Benjamin, the blue skin color is a symbol of being “the other”. The light blue color represents the sky, the ocean, and even the planet itself. Thus it symbolizes belonging both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. 

Siona Benjamin painting from the Finding Home Series, #22, showing a woman with several arms (holding Hindu, Jewish and contemporary icons) riding a lion. Gouache on Paper.
Siona Benjamin, Finding Home Series #22, Gouache on Paper, 1998. Source: Art Siona.

Upcoming Exhibition

Blue Like Me: The Art of Siona Benjamin

Gotthelf Art Gallery

Lawrence Family JCC

San Diego Center for Jewish Culture

4126 Executive Drive, La Jolla, California 92037

February 25th, 2020, to May 31st, 2020 (Sunday to Friday, Closed on Saturdays)

Daily 9:00 am to 5:00 pm

Photograph of Siona Benjamin with her painting of Lilith from the Finding Home Series, #74 Fereshteh. Gouache on wood panel.
Siona Benjamin with Lilith, Finding Home Series #74 (Fereshteh), Gouache on wood panel, 2006. Source: Art Siona.

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