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By Gloria F. Orenstein Prof. Comp. Lit. & Gender Studies Univ. of Southern California Los Angeles, CA.; USA

Siona Benjamin, a Sephardic Jewish artist from Bombay, (her ancestors came to India from the Middle East and perhaps Spain centuries ago), was educated in both Zoroastrian and Catholic schools while growing up in predominantly Hindu and Muslim India. Living and working in the United States today, her recent art work raises questions about her diasporic and multicultural identities in ways that intersect with questions feminists have posed both about the absence of women artists and, more recently, of Jewish women artists, from centuries of exhibitions and mainstream art history. At the same time that it raises questions about the tensions faced by a multicultural woman artist, it resolves many apparent contradictions via the stunning, original images created--images that reconcile the disparate spiritual and aesthetic tendencies of her multicultural heritage. While empowering the multicultural woman artist, Benjamin’s art avoids all transgression of spiritual laws concerning the relationship between art and the sacred found in the teachings of her intersecting spiritual traditions. While feminist art historical scholarship in the west has begun to analyze the sexual politics concerning the exclusion of women artists from patriarchal scholarly narratives, Siona Benjamin’s artistic emergence in American art at this moment is rendered more complex by the recognition that Jewish artists have also encountered the serious prohibition of the Bible’s Second Commandment against the making of graven images, and consequently were discouraged from expressing themselves creatively in the visual arts. Thus, Siona Benjamin belongs to the first generation in history in which there is a movement of Jewish women artists, whose participants reflect upon the relationship between Judaism and iconic art-making as well as upon the contrasting gender representations of women in Indian and American fine and popular arts. While most Jewish artists have experienced western art history as primarily Christian, and Jewish women artists have experienced western art history as both Christian and androcentric, Siona Benjamin’s artistic training in Bombay was deeply informed by Hinduism as well as by her close study of Indian miniature paintings and Byzantine icons, all contrasting with the Jewish religious art of her childhood in different ways. Benjamin’s Jewish-Hindu feminist iconography makes a radical breakthrough in harmonizing the contradictions and polarities presented by these various traditions, for it pioneers an original multicultural imagery at the confluence of artistic and spiritual traditions that are often in conflict with each other. While Hindu art is based upon the ritual making of icons energized with the spirit of the deities to whom the art work is consecrated, and while sacred rituals are involved in the process of art making as well as in the worship of the deity whose presence is invoked by the Hindu icon, Jewish art prohibits both the making and/or the worship of such iconic images. Thus, while experiencing both colonial and androcentric western aesthetic influences, and simultaneously undergoing training in a tradition of non-western art that involves the ritual invocation of deities to be revered through spiritual devotions, Benjamin’s birth religion, Judaism, forbade her to make “graven” images, or to engage in any practice that would involve the evocation or worship of “other gods”. Siona often wondered whether a painted image was the same thing as a “graven” image. She would ask herself whether a Jewish woman with artistic talent, raised in a Hindu country, should forego serious artmaking because it might be in conflict with Jewish law. For many years she pondered how a woman artist with a hybrid identity, inheriting such extremely diverging aesthetic legacies might approach artmaking. These were some of the problems Siona Benjamin confronted as she began her studies of art. At first she explored abstraction, as did many other Jewish artists—in order to avoid the problem of the “graven” image. Siona spoke to me movingly of how she grew up surrounded by icon-worshippers, but was raised in Indian synagogues from which icon-worship was absolutely banished. Yet, intensely sensitive to the beauty of Hindu art, Benjamin experienced a profound tension between an aesthetic opening to the images of her native India, and her spiritual conviction that by making such icons, she would surrender her Jewishness and become Hindu. For many years she felt isolated as a Jew in India, and often wished that she would belong to the majority, rather than the minority religion in her country. However, she did not experience anti-semitism in India. On the contrary, she was told stories about how, when the Jews first came to India, they were welcomed warmly. When the Jews did leave India for Israel, it was not because of persecution or intolerance, but because Israel offered them jobs and excellent educational opportunities. Many members of Siona’s family migrated to Israel, too, but her parents remained in India. There she was educated in Catholic schools, because of the fine education in English that they provided, but she was advised not to take communion or to engage in any Christian religious rituals. Benjamin studied both enameling and theatre and set desisgn as well as the fine arts. She had always been interested in Indian miniature art, and did her undergraduate thesis in India on Indiain miniatures, which, of course, focused on Hinduism. It wasn’t until she was living in the United States, where she attended graduate school, and when she started a family of her own, that she began to seek ways in which to incorporate the Jewish influences from her childhood into the paintings she was creating in the context of her new family setting. From 1996 to the present she sought an artistic reconciliation of her two loves, Indian miniature painting and Judaism. As seemingly irreconcilable as the premises of artistic creation in these two traditions appeared to be, Siona was determined to discover a kind of imagery that would celebrate the richness of both traditions. As she explored her Jewish identity, she also recognized the multiculturalism within the Jewish tradition, with its sephardic, ashkenazi, and converso histories-- all of which lead to still more cultural diversity within and among the Jewish people. Eventually Siona Benjamin began to question all aspects of her diverse multicultural identites, particularly in her series entitled: FINDING HOME. Working in the United States in the eighties and nineties, she also incorporated the feminist focus upon the depiction of empowered women into her art, and she explored the visual renditions and symbolism of female energy and power in her women figures, referencing tantric Indian art and goddesses in many of her works. One image from her FINDING HOME series (#32) depicts an Indian woman in blue jeans, seated in a traditional Indian miniature landscape, sipping a coke. An angel in the back carries her mother’s sabbath lamp—the one her mother used to make, ritually, out of oil and a wick, to celebrate the Sabbath every Friday night, while other women simply used candles. In the background, the house says MOTHER in Hebrew. It represents the home she was leaving when she immigrated to the U.S. There is, however, a Demon on top of the painting with a gun and a nuclear weapon, suggesting the wars that are raging everywhere, and the threat of nuclear war that may, eventually, disrupt this peaceful scene. The background was inspired by a sari design of a richly brocaded Indian fabric with the Shema Israel prayer (“Hear of Israel, the Lord is our God, and God is One”) embroidered on its border. As an autobiographical portrait of her multilple identities, this contemporary woman artist locates herself in an Indian setting, but through the long straw, which suggests a hooka, she is imbibing the intoxicating American elixir/poison, Coca Cola, symbolizing the lure of the west, which will draw her to reside in the U.S, and may further corrupt the values inherent in the spirituality suggested by the settings of the Indian miniature. However, she guarantees the presence of the sacred in her life in the west by depicting the protective presence of an angel, who, in transporting her mother’s sabbath lamp, insures that her Jewish spiritual identity will travel with her to her new home. She is seated on a magic carpet, which is framed in gold, like a work of art, and the entire scene is set within the protective border of the central Hebrew prayer proclaiming her belief in the existence of the monotheistic God of Israel. 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 painting #32 of the FINDING HOME series 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, Benjamin’s contemporary interpretation of this is that she is a woman of color. This is a self-portrait of the artist with her husband. They are surrounded on the right, by a stereo, a c.d. 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 Mezzuzah 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 mezzuzah , 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 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, the tantric eroticism of Hindu god and goddess 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 desacralization of sexuality in the west.. Yet the blue woman artist, 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 insuring that spirituality and sexuality will be completely integrated for her in this otherwise desacralized 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 bottom border of the image. Benjamin’s humor is apparent in the way in which she juxtaposes contemporary western, ancient Hebrew, and traditional Hindu imagery and references. In painting #31 the artist depicts herself kicking up a storm while riding on a dancing camel. She said that she has been asked many times if there is civilization 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 symbolized by the starfighter space ship that invades the picture. Instead of invoking Hindu iconography in ways that might risk transgressing the Biblical law of the Second Commandment, Benjamin 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, Benjamin 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, Benjamin 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. Benjamin’s self-portrait as the Durga/Motorcycle Madonna, depicts her with a paint brush in one hand and a musical instrument and a book in 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 type of figure—coming on her motorcycle to save the world. In referring to the Durga, Benjamin points out the contrast between how female power, even when it is terrifying, is revered in India while it is reviled and demonized 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 heros. 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 and 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 the Durga and the Motorcycle Madonna. It is the work of the empowered female creator. A look at another painting from Benjamin’s FINDING HOME series (#28) 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 animal’s tail here is a plug, which symbolizes 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 a sacred language, and the mystics claim that they are extremely powerful, and radiate a 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, Benjamin depicts a sephardic, Jewish ritual from the customs of the Ben Israel Jews, which is her own community. On special occasions such as a 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 (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, the way women cover their eyes 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 Elijah) prayer, which is a song of praise for the triumph over the powers of destruction and for the restoration of the fulfillment of life on Earth. It is a sacred celebration in praise of God ‘s blessing over all nations. Here the woman has a sacred oil lamp embedded in her heart. This is the oil lamp of the artist’s mother’s sabbath ritual. There is also a mezzuzah 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 Benjamin 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 westernized woman is a Star of David. One hand holds the horse’s reigns, showing how she is taking control of her life’s journey; another hand is pointing—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. Benjamin’s multiethnic self-portraiture is exemplary in the way in which it harmonizes 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 is titled: KHAMOSHI, an Urdu word for Silence. The artist is pregnant, seated on a beautiful mat,1 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 CHANNUKAH, 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 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 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? Benjamin 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 Benjamin’s work is less between her conflicting spiritual identities,( which reach a harmony in the way she calls upon both of them to oppose the desacralization 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 one’s art—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 religion’s teachings. Her Self-Portrait # 38 from the FINDING HOME series is inspired by an Indian miniature in which Lord Vishnu conquers the demon serpent of the sea, by taming it and sitting on its head. Lord Vishnu lies sleeping on his serpent, and tames the twelve-headed demon serpent in the original. Here Benjamin 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 hand 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—MacDonald burger debris, Campbell soup cans, vodka bottles etc. 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. Benjamin’s 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-- a radiant powercenter, a locus of energies strong enough to defeat evil through the emission of potent forcefields emanating from the Hindu icons and Jewish prayers incorporated in her art. By juxtaposing the cosmic context of Hindu miniatures with pop icons of the contemporary west, Benjamin’s art wages a battle against negativity on the spiritual, cultural and political levels, implying a recognition of the woman artist as spiritual warrior. Benjamin’s depiction of the woman artist whose Third Eye, like the miner’s 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, mezzuzahs, 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.