Blue Like Her
Artist Siona Benjamin invites viewers to examine their own “otherness” as she explores her own
by Michael Schreiber
Like the six-armed Shiva frequently depicted in her art, one might say that Siona Benjamin paints with a multitude of hands, each expressing in her work the rich blend of cultural, ethnic, religious, and gender identities by which she defines herself.
Born and raised in India as a member of a small, generations-old Jewish Bene Israel group within a predominantly Hindi and Muslim society, Siona was educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian schools before coming to the American Midwest as a graduate student. She has lived and worked in the United States ever since, embracing her additional identity as a transplanted member of Western society while continuing to nurture and explore her firm roots in Eastern culture. Her art, reflective of her rich and varied life experience, is itself expressed in a variety of ways, from painting to collage, relief, video, installation, dance, and apparel.
Her work seeks to debunk ideals of societal conformity by instead examining the true, uniting commonality of the human experience: that in some way, each and every one of us, like the artist herself, uniquely stands apart in a self-defined sense of “otherness.” She leaves that term open to response and interpretation by each individual viewer’s sense of their own “otherness” and its potential conflict with what are perceived as societal “norms.” This holds true whether one’s sense of apartness is self-defined through one’s gender identity, physicality, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, age, or a health challenge. In this way, Siona’s work includes and embraces the HIV/AIDS experience as another identity to be considered, to be brought into the whole of the human experience as part of the diversity that truly unites us.
A&U contributor Michael Schreiber recently spoke with Siona Benjamin.
Michael Schreiber: An overarching invitation in your work is for viewers to consider themselves, in your words, “blue like me.” Why do you depict your figures as having blue skin?
Siona Benjamin: The constant fluidity of the transcultural immigrant identity has been important in my research and work. Identity is defined through race, ethnicity, gender, class and sexuality. The body presented in my paintings transgresses all these boundaries, as it belongs everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It dissects and analyzes itself and perhaps lets the viewer do the same. Here it is, inside and out, adorned and naked, together and apart. In sickness and in health.
Very often when I have looked down at my skin, 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. As an artist, I draw from my sources—my Jewishness, my Indianness, my Americanness—but I am not just one of these things, but all of them, and much more. I have therefore over the years developed many blue-skinned characters in my paintings that transcend categorization, and invite viewers to look both into and beyond their own identities and their perception of other categories. This blue self-portrait of sorts takes on many roles and forms, through which I theatrically explore ancient and contemporary dilemmas. In this process of recycling and rejuvenating, they merely remind me in making the work, and hopefully my audience in viewing the work, that mythmaking is cyclical and timeless.
In your art, you’ve awakened and pulled a small army of Jewish heroines from musty biblical morality stories, and thrust them into combat with today’s societal challenges. Can you speak to why you made this creative decision?
While growing up in India I recall being surrounded by idols and iconography that were taboo in my Jewish world. I eyed these figures from a distance, captivated with their radiance and richness. Since Judaism stressed monotheism and iconoclasm, I somehow resisted the lure of figurative drawing for years. Initially making abstract work and then later, if I did venture to depict the forbidden fruit, my figures were shrouded with darkened faces. Now my work is filled with graven images, as suddenly it became clear during my years studying and designing sets for theater that I liked the narrative, the theatrical, the decorative lyrical line, this ornateness I carried with me all along. These figures have thus become characters in my paintings that act out their parts, recording, balancing, rectifying, restoring and absorbing. It is through all this I understand how I can dip into my own personal specifics and universalize, thus playing the role of an artist/activist.
My work is celebratory of my womanhood, my abilities, my strengths and my ambitions. After having struggled long with my own hybrid background and experience, I am beginning to see more clearly now that this blend can be humorous, enlightening and revealing. The ornate culture from which I came once seemed difficult and unnecessary to apply in my work. Now I have found a way to use it, to be able to weave current issues and parts of my life in its intricacies, thus making this ornateness strong and meaningful. In this way, I attempt to create a dialogue between the ancient and the modern, forcing a confrontation of unresolved issues. The forms, though, may appear unconventional and exotic to some. I would like viewers to transcend this apparent exoticness and absorb the core message: tolerance of diversity.
You’ve written about two especially powerful works, in which your heroines seek to “repair the ills of the world.” In one, Ruth (Finding Home #63) is seen “ingesting the weapon that threatens to destroy.” In the other, Miriam’s cup is depicted “brimming with sustenance, health and wisdom” (Finding Home #73). These paintings seem especially relatable to those impacted by HIV/AIDS. Can you comment?
Yes, I believe that these two, amongst other works, can be very relatable to those impacted with HIV/AIDS. I believe that these works can impact all of “the other”: those left out of the mainstream, those misjudged and those misinterpreted. In Miriam (Finding Home #73), for example, she seems to brim with health, but looking closer, she has a hospital drip connected to her, and so perhaps she is sick? Controlled? A victim of war? A victim of any form of disease? AIDS? Miriam in the Torah was inflicted with a skin disease when she did not comply with the rules, and so just like her, will those who do not comply be misjudged and therefore discarded?
The character Ruth strikes me as faithful, benevolent and altruistic. By learning about these various characters in the Torah, I found the study to be rather like analyzing characters from a Shakespeare play. After learning as much as I could about the roles they played, I wish to make my interpretation, or midrash. Instead of painting them in their time and setting, I wish to bring them forward to our times and have them combat today’s evils: wars, nuclear weapons and intolerance. How would Ruth react, how would she contain, destroy or stop the ills and injustices of today? I imagine that, given her benevolence, she would ingest the weapon, she would swallow the dagger that threatens to destroy, and with this effort she would hope to arrest the mushroom cloud even before it envelopes the world in darkness.
What else in your wide body of work might viewers impacted by HIV/AIDS find of particular resonance to their experience?
In Finding Home #60 ‘My Magic Carpet,’ I wonder, does the magic carpet transport to the promised land, or does it dislocate? Her one hand transforms into a paintbrush. Is it a paintbrush or blood that flows wasted into the drain, caused by wars or sickness? Two of her many hands are shackled, but does she know that she holds the key? She balances a bowl that collects golden drops, or is it acid rain? While one claw-like hand destroys her own painting, the two hands above rekindle a flame of hope.
Another relatable work is Finding Home #76 (Fereshteh) ‘Zipporah.’ Zipporah translates into English as “bird,” and here it can represent anything, including the HIV/AIDS experience. The Zipporah in my painting presents a dichotomy of ideas and interpretations. Is the figure in the painting voluntarily flying to a new land or home? Or is she being carried away by this fire bird? The umbilical cord of her sari becomes a tallit, a prayer shawl, the fringes of which are entangled in the claws of the bird. Will the binding of her tefillin, the small boxes containing verses from the Torah that are worn during prayers, save the creatures from being killed by the hunters? Perhaps we are mistaken, and those who we think are hunters are guardians, “fereshteh,” angels, in disguise, souls of the soldiers from the wars of our ancestors. Futile blood that was once shed and wants a chance again to save and rejuvenate the “tikkun”—the fixing—of this world.
Blood is a frequent theme in your work. Can you speak to its symbolic meaning in your art?
Lifeblood runs in our veins. Artmaking is the lifeblood for me as an artist, Blood is also shed in vain very often, in wars, to disease, in many misgivings that humanity has done through the ages. Red blood runs in my transcultural blue body. Blood is life-giving and also life-taking.
The concept of “finding home” is also a pervasive theme throughout your work, most especially expressed in a series bearing that title. Do you think a sense of otherness and one of exile—whether it’s literal exile or a feeling of not belonging—go hand in hand?
Sometimes it feels safe to fit into a compartment and fall either way from the fence, but then I am reminded that although precarious, this position gives me a wider perspective of being able to see both sides. This is exactly what interests me in de-categorizing in my work. There are persistent issues that disturb me, so I choose to present them. I do not wish to be a token artist for any one category as tribal impulses and nationalism are deeply ingrained in us. Therefore because of the lack of tribal security and comfort, I am an outsider and I am on a quest for special insights into the situation. I have always been on a quest for making hybrid images or characters in my work, a sort of universal being that comes from one point of view, but leads the viewer to unexpected destinations.
The characters in my world have to shed their skin of religion while in turn celebrating it, shed the skin of nationalism while at the same time being proud of it, shed the skin of affliction while also embracing it, and completely shed the skin of tribalism and wrong use of power. Once these skins are shed, one then can construct a new language of understanding, because what was once “the other” is none other than oneself!
For more information about the artist, log on to: www.artsiona.com.
Michael Schreiber is a writer, teacher, and curator based in Chicago. His first book, One-Man Show: The Life and Art of Bernard Perlin, is being adapted into a feature-length documentary film. His next book, a collaboration with his husband about their Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in Iowa, is due out in early 2020.