Am I Now American? A conversation with Siona Benjamin

I feel very strongly American. If you asked me what category I would put myself in, I would say: first I’m an American artist. Then all the rest.

For most American Jews this would not be a radical statement. Hearing it from New Jersey-based artist Siona Benjamin, however, it comes as a surprise. Born in Bombay to a family of Bene Israel Jews, Benjamin was educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian schools and earned her degree in Fine Arts before immigrating to America almost twenty years ago. The feeling I have of never being able to set deep roots no matter where I am is unnerving,? writes Benjamin, but on the other hand, there is something seductive about the spiritual borderland in which I seem to find myself.

The Bene Israel community into which Benjamin was born is one of India’s oldest. Traditionally thought to have arrived in India before the destruction of the Second Temple, the majority of the community left for Israel and the West after 1948. Benjamin recalls as a child the ?preparations for the Eliyahu Hannabi prayer, the Sabbath and large pots of Jewish halwa (sweets) made out of coconut milk for the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur festivals.?

Benjamin’s art, which she has exhibited widely, combines the classical tradition of Indian and Persian miniature, Christian iconography, Jewish ritual art, and the artifacts of cosmopolitan popular culture. Her current project, ?Fereshteh,? which means angels in Urdu, is a midrashic exploration of the women of the Bible. In this series, Benjamin imagines how Sarah, Hagar, Ruth, and Dina, among others, would respond to the violence and oppression of contemporary society.

The ornate culture from which I came once seemed difficult and unnecessary to apply in my work,? recalls Benjamin. ?Now I have found a way to use it, to be able to weave current issues and parts of my life in its intricacies, thus making this ornateness strong and meaningful. In this way, I attempt to create a dialogue between the ancient and the modern, forcing a confrontation of unresolved issues.

Habitus talks to Siona Benjamin about Jews, America, art and the transcultural revolution.

What is your experience as an Indian Jew in the American Jewish community?

Because I’m a Jew from India, because I’m a colored Jew, it’s so complex. I get negativity and racism from Ashkenazi Jews sometimes who treat colored Jews like second class citizens, or don’t want to acknowledge them. They talk about ?purity of race? like there is any such thing. It saddens me so much that it comes from other Jewish people, especially when it comes from other Jewish people, people who have experienced this themselves in Europe and come out of the Holocaust; how can they do that to somebody else?

It’s a dilemma: I’ve been strongly encouraged by the Jewish community–a lot of my buyers are even Orthodox Jews, my gallery owner in New York City is a Jewish woman, I’m exhibited in Jewish shows. But I also occasionally get some curator who will say: ?I really like your work, but I can’t use it because of the strong content.? Or: ?I’d like to use your work, but let me just pick those the ones that are not so strong.? It defeats the purpose.

A Jewish curator came up to me the other day and said: “I really like your work, but my hands are tied when it comes to the board of directors at my museum.” I wanted to ask her: “What is it that your board of directors is looking for? Are they looking for happy Jewish art? Dancing Hasidic Jews and Menorah art? Their idea of contemporary art stops at Marc Chagall. What about other voices that want to discuss more difficult issues” They don’t want to deal with it. They just want these happy little Jewish paintings.

That’s Inside the Jewish world. How does your Jewish identity interact with your experience in the art world?

Other non-Jewish people, who see Israel as the wrongdoer, are going to the other extreme. I have mixed feelings about Israel and I admit that. There is a negativity towards Israel and Judaism in the mainstream because of what Israel is supposedly doing; there are lots of people who take sides easily, and just see black and white. I’ll give you a quick example. I’m in a show that opens at the Queens museum in about a week of twenty-three South Asian American artists. Many in that show are Muslim, Indian South Asians, and I’m the only Jewish South Asian in that show. I know most of these artists; among the artists we are friends. One-on-one we are fine, and then this outside curator comes in and says: “You can’t work together. You shouldn’t be working together.”

Do you think this black and white perspective is symptomatic of the Jewish world, the art world or both?

I won’t say all of the Jewish world. I exhibited at the Jewish Museum in Denver a few months ago and it was so open, they were willing to take all kinds of risks. The board members totally approved of everything, they had no censorship of my work, they were great. I belong to a Conservative synagogue in town and I was invited to join this synagogue because they like the work I’m doing. You can never tell.

In terms of the mainstream in the art world, I think that because of these Jewish curators who are not willing to take risks, the art world doesn’t take contemporary Jewish art seriously. When the mainstream curators look at Jewish art, all they see are these kitschy little paintings. I don’t mean to put anybody’s artwork down. But the mainstream art world curators, for the most part, don’t bother to look at contemporary Jewish art because they think it is too one-dimensional and not cutting edge.

Can you describe more fully how curators pit Jewish and Muslim artists against one another?

In a subtle way, they pit us against each other when it’s their job to bring us together. They tend to want to take sides. If a curator that I meet finds out I’m South Asian, for her that’s no problem. Once she finds out there’s the Jewish element, then for some reason she’s pro-Palestinian or pro-Muslim or angry with what Israel is doing or any of the above. Certain feelings about the negativity of my Jewishness come out in very subtle ways. So its like Jeckle and Hyde–you play these different roles.

People don’t understand that you can be both South Asian and Jewish. It doesn’t fit the the box that you want to put the person in. It’s a little too difficult to handle, so you don’t want to deal with it. The fact is that so many people in this world come from so many different points of view. For example, I have a friend who is Iranian, but she was born and brought up in Britain. She comes from many points of view: her parents came from Iran, she’s Muslim, she’s living in New York and she is married to an American. We talk about similar issues: where do we fit in? Am I South Asian, am I Iranian, am I Middle Eastern? Am I British? Am I now American?

That is a true transcultural person. And I think America is full of them. These people don’t want to acknowledge the real meaning of being transcultural: the word ?trans? speaks of crossing many boundaries, many borders. They just want to jump on the bandwagon of multiculturalism.

How does this transcultural perspective relate to your art?

I studied miniature painting, but I also look at Jewish and Christian illuminated manuscripts?I love going to the Cloisters in New York and looking at the icon paintings? and I also cull from the news media today. Right now, spread out in my studio area bunch of New York Times pictures and Life Magazine photographs of what’s going on today. You can hide all these issues under the elaborate ornateness of the miniature.

When I was going to school in India, the professors there were trying to ape and copy Western art so much they were not really looking into their own roots and their own influences. I had to really twist my professors’ arms in order for me to do my undergraduate thesis on Indian/Persian miniature. They told me: “Why do you want to do this? This is tourist art!”

Does Hindi cinema play into your work?

Oh yeah. Pop culture, both American and Indian, is very important. “Finding Home, 39” is an example. Zarina is a fictitious character inspired by this Bollywood movie called Umrao Jaan. The Muslim courtesan in Umrao Jaan has become a kind of self portrait. The naach girl is dancing on a Persian carpet, but under the carpet is a design that has my U.S. immigration card. Around the corner is Clint Eastwood. That whole painting is about who is in who’s space; is he in her’s or she in his? Around the edge of the painting I’ve written in Hindi: “I was dancing, my feet stopped, who was that stranger, why was this helicopter after him, oh Allah, what should I do?”

I like to try to blur the categories, the boundaries. This Bollywood inspired figure in the middle of the painting has the Jewish symbol of the lamps from my grandmother’s home in the interior of her space, and she is saying ?Oh Allah.? It baffles a person and I like to do that, to de-categorize. I want to create a universal being in this painting, but, again, trying to talk about universal issues from my background because that’s what I know best.

All these pop culture symbols are very important to me, just as much as Indian miniature painting. The little courtesan figure in the Persian miniature sitting and smoking a hookah has transplanted herself into another of my paintings: the top that she’s wearing is like an Indian blouse, like a choli, but the bottom half of her has become jeans. The long straw that ended up in a hookah now ends up in a coke can, symbolizing the elixer/posion of the allure of the West. Making this kind of old and new have a dialogue with each other is very interesting to me.

What would your ideal Judaism in the Diaspora look like?

There should be more of an understanding of the fact that Jews come from a lot of different places. Because of the Holocaust and because of the well deserved importance given to the Jews from Europe, many people think that all Jews come from Europe and that the other Jews are not important or that they are second class.

I was so troubled to read in a magazine called the World Press Review that Ethiopian Jews were forcefully reconverted by some rabbis in Israel because their Judaism was not valid enough for them. How can someone coming out of the Holocaust do this in turn to someone else, some other kind of Jew? Somebody can say to me: ?You’re one of the ten lost tribes and your community is so wonderful!? and somebody else can say: “There are no real Jews in India–you all converted!” We in turn can look at European Jews and say: “Well, you’re just as much mixed up as Europeans.” The Indian Jewish community faced some similar sort of situations as the Ethiopian Jewish community. When they first came to Israel in the fifties and sixties, they were not following some little rule, some halacha was not done properly and there was a huge debate over whether they were allowed to marry other Jews in Israel. It’s ridiculous!

Where does religion fit into all of this?

I was talking at a synagogue and the Rabbi invited me to study with him as part of my current project. I was little apprehensive because I’m not religious in that way and I made it clear to him: ?I hope you don’t expect that kind of student.? And he said: ?Well no. I understand that you are not going to study it because you are following the customs or learning the rituals.? You analyze the Talmudic stories and these characters to learn why they behave this way and then have a debate about it. I like that?the element of debate and speculation.

I think religion is a very private thing. I remember the rituals that my family used to have and they were very beautiful. As a family, together, you share your belief. The thing is accepting my way of doing ritual and you’re way of doing ritual as being equally valid or equally important. And I find your ritual so unique and wonderful and I feel the same response from you too.
(Tags: Bene Israel, Jews, Identity)


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