Searching For Home


Siona Benjamin is alone again. Surrounded by other artists who, like her, have roots in South Asia, the Bombay native stands apart.

Her paintings (which are reminiscent of Indian miniatures) clearly reflect the visual culture of her homeland. But a closer look reveals a distinctive iconography of Hebrew words, menorahs and Sabbath flames drawn from Benjamin’s Jewish heritage.

"I believe in using the specifics to get to the general," Benjamin said during a recent interview at her tidy home and studio in Montclair, N.J.
Her works dealing with universal themes have made her a frequent participant in exhibitions of artists from the Asian diaspora or organized around themes common to immigrants and their descendants: the desire to find a spiritual and literal home.

Benjamin said she dips into the "big muddle" of her past, picking through the multiple influences: India, Sephardi Judaism, Christian and Zoroastrian schooling, academic art training. Of those, Judaism is "closest to my heart," she said.

In "Tikkun Ha-Olam" (No. 46 from her "Finding Home" series), for example, Benjamin represents the unity of her complex identities. She appears as a seven-armed woman balanced on a lotus flower. From her uplifted henna-dyed hands rise the flames of a seven-branched menorah.

Several gouache-on-paper works from the "Finding Home" series can be seen in New York this month in "Through Customs," an exhibition of 11 South Asian women artists on view in Chelsea. The group show, organized by the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, was curated by Shamim Momin and Raina Lampkins-Fielder, both of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Other of Benjamin’s works are currently traveling the country in the exhibition "Home/land: Artists, Immigration and Identity." Benjamin is also planning for upcoming solo exhibitions in Georgia this fall and in Denver in 2004.

Even among working Jewish artists, Benjamin holds a unique position. She is one of a very small number of artists and writers who are creating contemporary expressions of Indian Jewish identity.

That number may be growing, as Jews of color, and Jewish women of color in particular, are finding solidarity at Shabbat dinners, in the pages of feminist journals and through grassroots organizations like the New York-based Jewish Multiracial Network.

Also within the Jewish community itself there is an increasing consciousness of Jewish diversity.

"People are much more aware of the fact that a Jew is not necessarily white," said Carmit Delman, who describes her bicultural upbringing in "Burnt Bread and Chutney: Growing Up Between Two Cultures: a Memoir of an Indian Jewish Girl" (Ballantine Books, 2002).

The Jewish exodus from Ethiopia over the past two decades has helped bring such ethnic difference to light, Delman said.

"I certainly don’t have that same kind of experience of walking into a synagogue and feeling as though people are looking at me as if I’m completely foreign," said Delman, the daughter of an Ashkenazi father and an Indian mother.

Still, artistic expressions of Jewish ethnic diversity are rare. "I’ve read everything I can find, everything I can get a hold of," Benjamin told the Jewish Week. Included in her research are numerous histories, anthropological studies, descriptions of ritual art and customs, and historical biographies.

"I’ve had no luck finding contemporary [Indian Jewish] artists," Benjamin said. "There are very few of us Bene Israel anyway," she added, referring to one of three communities that make up Indian Jewry.

The Bene Israel trace their history back some 2,000 years to a shipwreck that deposited 14 survivors onto India’s Konkan coast. The refugees had fled either Hellenistic oppression in Palestine (according to one version of the story) or the conquering Assyrians (according to another). A second Indian Jewish community, the Jews of Cochin, is said to have descended from traders. The third, Iraqi Jews, came from the Middle East about two centuries ago.

These three communities found safe haven in India, where Jews were welcomed and lived in complete religious and cultural freedom. Many Jews began moving to Israel in the 1950s, for Zionistic reasons or in search of economic prospects. Benjamin’s relatives left too, but her immediate family stayed on. Today about 5,500 Jews live in India, according to one recent estimate.

"I was raised in a Jewish bubble," Benjamin said of her young years in the "Bollywood" suburb of Bombay, the heart of the Indian film industry.

While she spoke the local Marathi language, attended Catholic school (where white-clad nuns led students in daily "Hail Marys") and Zoroastrian high school, Benjamin’s childhood memories are steeped in Jewishness.

She recalls pots of sweet coconut-milk halwa made for the High Holidays, Sabbath prayers, ornate synagogues and Malida, a festival for the prophet Elijah, who has special significance for the Bene Israel.

Other youthful visions appear in her paintings: her mother’s Sabbath oil lamp with its handmade wick, her female relatives preparing matzah by hand.

On a recent afternoon, Benjamin is seated in the pink-walled living room of the home she shares with her husband, Michael Kruge, a geochemist and associate dean at Montclair State University, and their daughter Rachel. She is both professorial (she teaches at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.) and bohemian, in silver nail polish and sequin-studded blue jeans.

Benjamin talked about her artistic training at the J.J. College in Bombay where she studied European Impressionism and American Abstract Expressionism. She "had to really twist the professor’s arm" to be able to pursue her interest in Indian miniature painting, she said. Such works, which were generally created under royal patronage between the 14th and 19th centuries, were considered in the 20th to be "tourist art."

In graduate school in Illinois, Benjamin studied theater design and painting. She was told that "decoration is not good, narrative is not good, centering your work is not good."

But after a few years of making abstract paintings that "would easily match your couch," Benjamin said, "I decided it was time to tell the truth."

She started making miniature paintings on scraps of paper and slowly built up a portfolio of works that represented "all that they told me not to do."

Recently, Benjamin began studying Jewish texts with a local rabbi, and those studies have inspired a series on female biblical figures. Already she had studied Jewish mysticism on her own, and cites Kabbalah as a source for works like "Tikkun Ha-Olam."

While Benjamin’s imagery alludes to her heritage, much of it concerns contemporary reality. She often touches on the threat of destruction through war, bloodshed and even pollution. Hidden within ornate borders or integrated into the imagery are missiles, firearms and elaborate weaponry.

"Finding Home No. 28," for example, depicts a modern Indian woman drawn to the "elixir" of the West (represented by a can of Coke), despite its harmful effects. A house labeled with the Hebrew word for "mother" burns in the distance, while a shadowy angel bearing a Sabbath lamp stands guard. A gun-toting demon menaces from above. Beneath the scene are the Hebrew words of the Shema prayer.

Upending expectations is part of Benjamin’s formula. "I take beauty and hide things under it, and it becomes more treacherous," she said. "Shock, that’s what I like for the viewer."

In some of her works, such as "Finding Home No. 57," Benjamin depicts herself with blue skin, the way the Indian god Krishna is portrayed in paintings, statues and the English-language comic books Benjamin read as a child, alongside American imports like the Phantom, Flash Gordon and Mickey Mouse.

"The way I paint myself, it’s my symbol of being a Jewish woman of color," Benjamin said. "My self-portraits stand out."

For more information about Siona Benjamin, please visit "Through Custom" is on view through Aug. 23 at Bose Pacia Gallery, 508 W. 26th St., 11th floor, Manhattan, (212) 989-7074. Tues.-Sat., 12-6 p.m. and by appointment. On Fri., Aug. 15, 7-9 p.m., a performance benefiting the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective features music, dance and a reading by author Meera Nair from her short-story collection, "Video." $10.