Episode 52: Siona Benjamin's Transcultural Art (Transcript)
Nahanni Rous: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish women’s Archive, where gender, history and Jewish culture meet.
Siona Benjamin’s art dances with brilliant colors and mythical figures: Lilith wrapped in a prayer shawl, Vashti with angels wings, a blue-skinned woman with multiple arms held up like a menorah. Siona is a transcultural artist: an Indian Jew from Mumbai now living in the US via Israel, and her art reflects her identity: Jewish, feminist, Indian, American, and influenced by the Hindu and Islamic cultures she grew up in. Siona’s installations have covered floors and ceilings in public spaces, many of her paintings are multi-paneled, and she even paints the faces and bodies of dancers.
Siona Benjamin: I think artists are philosophers. They're poets, you know, all kinds of artists, musicians, every possible medium. And so we do have the luxury of this introspection because without the introspection, the creation cannot happen.
Nahanni: The forced isolation of the pandemic has given Siona a lot more time for introspection and she says she has valued the chance to focus inward. She joins us for the third in our series on creativity in the global pandemic.
Siona: I think that what has touched me the deepest is understanding the meaning of isolation, of what it is to be with yourself. I think for the first time, even though I love being with myself and I love being in my studio, but I also like to travel. I love to meet people and I'm a people person actually, but I like my alone time in my studio very much too. Fortunately for me, I think my time has been, I mean, I work from home and all my work has continued anyway, so I'm very, very fortunate, but some people who've lost their jobs and some people who don't have anything else other than going to work and coming back, it must be very difficult. So, you know, my heart goes out to them.
Nahanni: Has the content of your art shifted in the past several months... eight months?
Siona: Well, a little bit. I mean, um, yes, I can see the pandemic has… I’ve done a small series, which is a series of just four paintings, and it’s called the "Circle of Introspection" series. You know, I'm very attracted to mandalas. And so I thought, the way the Coronavirus is shown is kind of like a circle. It has little spiky things coming out and it's kind of like round and mandala-like. That horrific shape of the coronavirus was everywhere on the news and kind of looked like, uh, you know, like a planet from, you know, like outer space planet with these little spiky, little things. So I just thought. Wow. How do I contract that negative circle with a positive circle? They're very beautiful colors and these mandalas and they are flowing and they're positive and they've got, um, they're hopeful. I kind of put the, my blue figure in there in many different ways. It's like the "Circle of Introspection" series is about introspection and about looking as to what you really want. What, what do I really want? And I think this, the, the word happenings have forced us all to do that.
Nahanni: You mentioned your blue figures and, um, and that's something that, um, you work with throughout many of your paintings. Can you talk about why that is?
Siona: My work is also very theatrical. So I started thinking about creating characters that first were very nostalgic. And they talked about my, you know, unique background of being an Indian Jew and what my grandmother cooked and did and stuff like that. And what my mother told me. I mean, my first few paintings are like, I was experimenting with skin color. Like what shade of brown should I paint these characters that are on my stage, so to speak. And, um, and then I came up with the idea of, uh, like a light turquoise blue, because for me, the blue stands for the color of the sky and the ocean. I thought that the color of the sky here over America, or the color of the sky over Africa or India, or anywhere else is the same. You can't look at the sky and say that's Indian sky. I thought it was just so neutral that I thought, why I could paint my characters that same turquoise blue and they, this way they could belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time. And that's how I felt all the time, being a Jew from India, my family moving to Israel. Now me living in America, raising a child over here, having had a family here. I just felt like what is my home? So I did a series of paintings before that many years ago, called Finding Home-- again, again that same quest for what is, what is that home? So the blue characters can fit into those series too. And slowly grew. And therefore the blue skin has become for me a symbol of being a Jewish woman of color. Now, very often people ask me, uh, are these you inspired by Indian gods and goddesses and by Krishna. And I said, well, I mean, I come from India and those, those icons from Hinduism and Buddhism and all surrounded me. And so there might be some like, innate influence, but you know, it's also, I've sort of made it my own. I feel that, um, the blue of the gods and goddesses and Hinduism or Buddhism have now become my blue, where it has become a more transcultural blue.
Nahanni: Hmm. I mean, people's art is always influenced by the art around them, right?
Siona: Yes, absolutely. You are influenced by your culture, your family, your background, your country, you can't do art in a void. And so obviously all those influences are there and America has influenced me greatly too. So, um, all of that sort of shaped this character of blueness.
Nahanni: One of the characters that recurs a lot in your work is Lilith... Can you talk about what Lilith symbolizes for you?
Siona: She surfaces again and again in my work, because I've done a series of works based on Lilith. this Medusa slash Kali slash Lilith creature, She's kind of glassy-eyed and she's got this. Good gold leaf mouth inside. And her hands, one hand is on one side cutting the cord and balancing justice at the same time. And, um, and the other hand is, you know, kind of cutting the cord. She's the perpetrator and the persecuted at the same time, you know, always tireless and persistent. And then on top of her head on her crown, there's the leather shin, which is Shadai, one of the many names of God. The question is to what avail, who holds the blame, who carries the burden, who will help, who will hope with them, who will betray, who will sacrifice?
Siona: I was studying rabbis, uh, with several rabbis and I got introduced to the legend of Lilith and then how she was the first wife of Adam and, um, you know, how she was created equally with Adam and, um, she wanted equality in all ways. She didn't get it from Adam. And she went to God and asked for his help and he just turned a deaf ear. So she kind of leaves and she's kind of like the first ex-wife, you know, she leaves and she doesn't come back. And God even supposedly sends the three angels, Sangha, San Sangha, and Samangalov to bring her back where she's hiding under the red sea. And, uh, she doesn't come back. So then she sort of by the patriarchy, you know, she's been made into this sort of demoness who eats her own children who preys on women and men and children and whatever, when actually all she wanted was justice and equality. So she kind of interested me as this... who's this character, she's sort of, she's kind of a little bit like Kali she's like Medusa. She's a lot, like she's like Judith, you know, the, the character in the, in the, in the Torah too, who is, uh, brave enough to ask questions and to demand justice. She kind of became a character, she became blue. Um, and she acts out parts. In my paintings, just like the other characters do. Lilith was always blamed for her cries of mercy and justice. But in this case, um, there's a little thought bubble above her. And in that, I'm not sure right now what I'm going to write, but something like I will write over there, “your tribe or mine?” So, um, you know, just asking, just questioning the viewer, like you want me to join your tribe or do you want to join mine? And what is this business of tribalism, of country, of nationalism, of wanting to belong and that you will not include the other. Is this the moral and human condition of our era? Yes, it is.
Nahanni: Is she a character that you've put your own self portrait onto? I feel like I've seen your face in a lot of your paintings.
Siona: I think that every artist whether they’re doing figurative or abstract work, their self-portrait is there. The self portrait of the artist is always there, whether it is in the brushstrokes or van Gogh or with the abstract paintings of Mark Rothko, or it is in the figurative work of Marc Chagall. I mean, every artist has their self portrait in it. So, yeah, I mean, there are some, um, I think the artist feels best when you put yourself in the scenario and when you feel like you're actually acting it out yourself, you're, you're experiencing it yourself. So it's, um, a more wholesome experience.
Nahanni: Has the global nature of this pandemic had any impact on your sense of place?
Siona: My sense of place was always shifting. Um, it's always been, uh, forced to be shifting because I think, um, like I always say, like, I've been looking for a home, but I realized after awhile that I pitch my tent wherever I go. And that becomes home. And instead of searching for that permanent home or whatever, you know, why not enjoy the, um, the travel of pitching my tent, wherever I go and why not find that as an experience that is unique and different? And why am I looking for that one permanent home? So which doesn't probably exist, at least for me.
Nahanni: I mean, it occurs to me that you create your home in your art.
Siona: Right. Yeah. I mean, every artist does, but, um, more so because I'm tackling the issues of, um, identity and belonging and borderland and things like that, because... not because I want it in a way, one or two, but because the attention was brought to me time and time again, like where are you from? You look different. Are you from Greece? Are you from Spain? Are you from Puerto Rico? Are you from Iran? I mean, all kinds of, not really being able to place me, so to speak. And then I being forced to kind of tell them, well, before I would say I'm from India and they would say, Oh, you're Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist, and I'd say, no, no, no… What are you? And I’d be like, I'm a Jew. And they'd be like falling down and surprised. And then everybody's gathering around me trying to see what kind of, you know, species I am, you know, [Laughter] So, you know, being, being, you know, not really asking for it, but like getting it anyways.
Nahanni: You can find Siona Benjamin’s vibrant explorations of identity online at artsiona.com. Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. This episode was produced by Ariella Markowitz and me. Our team also includes Judith Rosenbaum and Becky Long. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You also heard music by Siona Benjamin’s daughter Rachel Sophia, and Ariella Markowitz. Join us next time for the fourth in our series on creativity in the pandemic: a conversation with writer and poet Sabrina Orah Mark. Listen online at jwa.org/canwetalk, and anywhere you get your podcasts. Please take a moment to review us on iTunes, and share your favorite episodes with your friends so that others can find us. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Until next time.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 52: Siona Benjamin's Transcultural Art (Transcript)." (Viewed on June 18, 2021) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-52-siona-benjamins-transcultural-art/transcript>.