When Siona Benjamin was in art school in the 1980s, her professors told her to avoid narrative painting, and to keep her work abstract.
Oh, and if she wanted to comment on her identity, as she insisted, then don’t focus on the Jewish parts, they told her. “Use your Indian-ness,” Benjamin recalled some teachers saying. “It’s more sellable.”
“I found that insulting,” Benjamin, 50, says now, as she stands in the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery at the JCC in Manhattan, which recently opened a winning exhibit of her work titled “Finding Home: The Art of Siona Benjamin.”
Benjamin spent years trying to find a style that took account of her professors’ advice, but kept coming up short. Yet with the birth of her daughter in 1995, she began rethinking everything, particularly her own identity.
“I started to explore the long-term questions about being a Jew,” she said. “And after a while, I felt like I had to do what’s deeply connected to me…This feeling of finding home has always been there: Is home India? Is it America? Is it Israel?”
Those questions led to the style she’s been developing for the last 15 years: brightly colored narrative paintings that comment on biblical figures. Which is to say, everything her professors told her not to do.
“Screw it,” she remembers thinking when she began her “Finding Home” series. “If it doesn’t fly, it doesn’t fly. The paintings will just stay in my basement.”
She is now represented by the Chelsea-based Flomenhaft Gallery, which helped put on the JCC show, and her larger paintings can sell for up to $12,000 a piece.
Benjamin adds archetypal Indian motifs, too: lotus flowers, mandalas and sumptuous colors like azure, teal and iridescent blue. A few art world references appear as well, from Lichtenstein-like comic book quotes, to surrealist nods to women artists like Leonora Carrington and Frida Kahlo.
“I’m a feminist,” Benjamin said bluntly, then added with a devilish grin: “My mother made more money than my father.”
Benjamin’s mother founded an elementary school in Mumbai, then known as Bombay, where the artist was born; her father worked for a shipping company. Both parents are descendants of the 2,000-year-old Jewish community in India, called Bene Israel.
“They still have great pride in being Jewish,” Benjamin said of Indian Jews today. She recently was back in India, where her mother still lives, for a new art project about India’s Jews that was funded with a Fulbright scholarship.
Benjamin takes pride in being part of the Bene Israel community too. But when she was in her 20s, the urge to travel compelled her to leave. “I could have stayed” — after graduating from a prestigious art school in Mumbai, she even had a few of her own exhibits — “but then I got really restless to travel,” she said.
By that point, in the mid-‘80s, many of India’s Jews had left. Most of India’s then 30,000 Jews immigrated to Israel shortly after the state was established, with a few going to the United States instead.
“They left by the busloads,” Benjamin remembers. About 4,000 Jews remain in India today; in Israel, the population is now roughly 60,000.
Benjamin had a grandmother who went to Cleveland, which was not far from where she decided to go to art school, at Southern Illinois University. She got her master’s in fine arts in 1986, but over much of the next decade her art career stalled. It wasn’t until she started using her identity as fodder that her imagination took off.
“She’s so open about her process, her identity, her life,” said Megan Whitman, the director of the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery. She added that the JCC’s art advisory board, which helps decide on exhibits, was impressed by the artwork itself as much as the programming opportunities it offered; dance performances, cooking classes and lectures on the Bene Israel community are all now slated in conjunction with the exhibit.
Standing near a painting of Miriam, who, like many of Benjamin’s characters, is painted in a refulgent shade of blue, Benjamin explained some of the details: “The blue became a symbol for me being a Jewish woman of color.”
Though Benjamin paints with gauche, her colors mimic the bright hues found in traditional Indian paints made from pulverized stone.
The rich palette, Benjamin said, is meant to entice viewers. But when they get closer, they realize the themes are often dark. The Miriam painting, for instance, depicts the character almost comatose, her hand on a detonator. If you look closely, there’s a nuclear cloud in the background. “There’s this heightened drama — is she going to press the button or not?” Benjamin explained.
In another work, a triptych with Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac — all made into women — golden bullets are stabbed into the work’s borders.
“I read the newspapers everyday,” Benjamin said, “and I want to react to it.”
While her work is not polemical, she said, she likes to highlight the contradictions and ironies of current events.
They are also meant to be a commentary on Jewish passages. She has been studying Talmud with the scholar and rabbi Burton Visotzky, which she said has profoundly influenced her art, and who is quoted in the wall text.
“Rabbi Visotzky says my work is a visual midrash,” Benjamin said. “There’s never enough you can know,” she went on, adding that each time she studies Talmud she finds more inspiration. “Midrash is like that,” she said, “It’s like a bottomless well.”