Siona Benjamin: Belonging everywhere and nowhere

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Siona Benjamin sits on the beautiful porcelain tiled floor she designed for the Central Reform Congregation in St Louis in 2015

Meet Siona Benjamin, an Indian America Jewish artist who sees the world as ‘blue’. Hal Rifken’s interesting documentary on her fascinating work that travels with her to Mumbai will be showcased in Toronto on May 9 and 10, 2016.

By Sabrina Almeida

Originally from Mumbai and of Ben Israel Jewish descent, mesmerizing artist Siona Benjamin blends ancient forms with modern pop cultural elements to create a vocabulary of her own. Inspired by traditional Indian and Persian styles of painting, her work reflects her transition between her old and new worlds. Her creations are a fascinating dialogue between her past as a Jewish girl who was raised in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim India and the America she lives in today.

“Having grown up in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim society, having been educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian schools, having been raised Jewish and now living in America, I have always had to reflect upon the cultural boundary zones in which I have lived,” explains Benjamin. And she finds unique ways, sometimes with tongue-in-cheek humour, to get her audience to rethink predisposed notions about “race, hate and war”.
Commenting on her style, the New Jersey artist says, “I grew up with pop culture just as I did with Indian comic books which are equally influential in my art. I like to be humorous, I don’t want to shake my finger at somebody but rather make fun of yourself or the situation. Then people understand better and are not intimidated. And through my art I can do a little bit of that.”
About her choice of a “blue person” Benjamin says, “That figure has become a symbol of me being a Jewish woman of colour. It’s about being ‘coloured’ and the ‘other’. The light blue is the colour of the sky and the ocean which stretches all over the world, so I could belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time.”
Concepts of ‘what is home’ and ‘making the world better’ are underlying themes in many of her artworks. There’s two ways to look at it explains Benjamin. “You could look at it as if I feel like an outsider no matter where I am or that I feel at home anywhere.”
When did her interest in art begin? “I knew I wanted to go art school from the time I was very little,” Benjamin recollects. “I did all the elementary exams in high school for art and I was lucky to get into the prestigious Sir JJ Institute of Applied Art in Mumbai. I did all my undergraduate work in painting there and then two more years in metal enamelling plus an evening class in black and white photography. After that I did a couple of exhibitions at the Jehangir Art Gallery and other galleries and also worked for an architect for a little bit. I was encouraged by the fact that I sold pretty well. Then I met a professor from Illinois who got me a full scholarship in the United States and that’s how I came here.”
About her choice of Indian miniatures, Benjamin says she finds the style is attractive, lyrical and seductive. “I feel like I can seduce people by the beauty of the painting and then I can talk about issues that are hard. People are initially attracted by the beauty and colour but then they understand that there are many layers and that there is a message here.”
Benjamin reveals that she is now working on a series of paintings entitled “Exodus: I see myself in you”. It revolves around the concept of paradise and is inspired by the Syrian refugees. Again it’s about finding home. “The concept of paradise is prevalent in all religions, says Benjamin. “So it’s about the Syrian refugees who are looking for home and their paradise and how money and power can block that.
Awarded the Fulbright Fellowship for her project entitled Faces: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives which was first showcased at the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai in 2013, her work has been featured in numerous publications including ‘The New York Times’ and ‘Art in America’. She now has a second Fulbright to Israel and intends to go there in October to study how Indian Jews have transplanted from “motherland India to fatherland Israel”.
Filmmaker Hal Rifken captures her transfixing artwork in a documentary “Blue Like Me” which travels with Siona to Mumbai, revisiting the Bene Israel Jews portrayed in her recent Fulbright project.

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The film will be showcased at Innis Town Hall on Monday May 9 at 3:30 PM  and at Cineplex Cinemas Empress Walk on Tuesday, May 10 at 6 PM.

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