Lassi with Lavina/The Indian SCENE
Siona Benjamin’s people are not black or white or brown – they are a vivid turquoise blue; the color of the sky, the ocean and of Lord Krishna. Her art world is suffused in blue which infiltrated her consciousness in India.
You can leave a country but can a country ever leave you? For Indian-Jewish artist Siona Benjamin, who lives in Montclair, NJ, her homeland of India has not only colored all her childhood memories but also affected the way she creates her art.
In her intricate, lush canvases you will catch echoes of Indian Persian miniatures but also of Christian and Jewish illuminated manuscripts, blended in with contemporary pop cultural elements, much like today’s India. It is very much Siona’s own vocabulary, a mash-up of her own Indian-Jewish community merged with the multiple communities she lived with, in her growing up years.
Siona’s Indian-Jewish heritage and her life as an American have taken her all over the world and she has special links with Israel too. All religions and cultures merge in her art which has been shown in galleries, museums and sacred spaces around the world. She creates art installations, art commissions, and artworks for private and public spaces. Her story began in Mumbai or Bombay as it was known then, growing up in the Bene Israel community in Mumbai.
“My parents were staunchly Jewish and proud of it – especially since India was one of the only countries where there was no anti-Semitism against the Jews,” says Siona. “I remember preparations for the Eliyahu Hannabi prayer, the Sabbath and large pots of Jewish halwa made out of coconut milk for the Rosh Hannah and Yom Kippur festivals.”
She recalls her neighborhood of Bandra where diverse faiths lived close to each other and shared their religious celebrations with each other. “I remember the Muslim sweet of seviyyan, made with milk, sugar and vermicelli during Eid. We received at least ten different varieties of seviyyan from our Muslim neighbors and our fridge would be packed! During Christmas it would be marzipan and fruitcakes from our Christian friends and during Diwali, coconut barfi and srikhand!”
Siona currently lives in New Jersey. Her daughter was brought up in Montclair but now lives and works in New York. Her parents lived all their lives in Mumbai but many of the Indian-Jewish communities have scattered to different continents. Yet her childhood revolved around the suburb of Bandra, which happens to be the home of Bollywood stars. Her father was the manager of a cargo shipping company and her mother had a private school which was often attended by the children of the film industry.
After studying at the JJ School of Arts, Siona came to the U.S. in 1986. She has two MFA degrees in painting and theater set design, and was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in 2011 to India and a second Fulbright fellowship in 2016-17 to Israel.
Siona’s paintings are inspired by her own Jewish faith but also the rich tapestry of religions, cultures, languages and people which populated the India of her growing up years. She takes inspiration from Jewish and Indian myths, especially the tales of Kali and Krishna
Art was very much a part of Siona’s life and her visit to a small Jewish community in Mumbai is chronicled in the documentary ‘Blue like Me.’ Siona’s blue dancers are her most popular works of installation and collaborative art. She has partnered with dancers and choreographers around the world to bring her cross-cultural art to life through dance. Other mixed media installations include Lilith in the New World; floor-to-ceiling installations …
The defining color in all her paintings is the color blue which creates almost a new race of people and a special spirit. Asked about the prevalence of this turquoise blue as the signature color in her work, she explained: “Very often I look down at my skin and it feels as if it has turned blue. It tends to do that when I face certain situations, such as when people stereotype or categorize others who are unlike themselves. I have therefore over the years developed these varied blue-skinned characters as self-portraits in assuming multiple roles and forms, theatrically reenacting many ancient and contemporary dilemmas. I employ them as social and cultural agents in raising provocative issues about identity, immigration and the role of art in this transcultural world.”
She adds, “Blue comes from the color of the sky, and the ocean, and how that sky and ocean are so neutral that if I gave the skin color to my character that is blue they could belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time.”
Becoming American has also influenced her art and thinking. In the Liberty art series which is about America, she describes it vividly: “I have made beautiful textures and colors and contrasted it with falling, crouching, flying, sleeping, tired, tempest tossed, homeless, and vulnerable bodies. Washed ashore or cast into the ocean, huddled or yearning to breathe free… again, or for the first time. These blue foreign bodies yearn to lift their lamps beside their own golden thresholds.”
Siona’s whimsical blue world is available to everyone, to view and absorb. As she says, not everyone can buy a small painting which costs $6000 but the spirit of her art can also be taken home through inexpensive prints, yoga mats, pouches, scarves and shawls (www.BlueLikeMe.com ) which everyone can wear, use or gift to loved ones.
She takes comfort from the similarities of Hindu mythology of the world being a ‘kumba’ or pot and the Rabbinic belief of “Tikkun olam” (Hebrew for “repairing the world”) – both signify social action and the pursuit of social justice to repair the world’s broken pot out of which all the virtues have spilled out.
It is a time to repair and heal and Siona Benjamin does it through her art.