Expat painter to document Bene Israelis through art
She grew up in Mumbai practicing Jewish culture and religion at home, living among Hindu and Muslim friends and neighbours, and straddling English, Hindi, Marathi and Hebrew while studying in a Catholic – and later Zoroastrian – school. Today, after 25 years of evolving her career as a trans-cultural painter in the USA, Siona Benjamin, who lives in New Jersy, believes she has finally begun to understand India and its overwhelming diversities.
“In America, my mixed cultural background had started to feel like excessive baggage, but now I realise that India has taught me how to celebrate diversity,” said Benjamin, whose intricate paintings on gold-leaf plates explore her heterogeneous identity as a Jewish Indian American.
Benjamin is in Mumbai on a Fulbright scholarship for a research project on Bene Israeli Jews in India. Titled ‘Faces: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives’, the project will include photographing as many of the country’s remaining 4,000 Bene Israelis, capturing their diversities through photo-collages and depicting their stories through paintings.
“The 26/11 terrorist attacks spurred me to research this topic, because I realised that people in the West need to know about India’s complex diversity and how it co-exists,” said Benjamin, whose art is influenced by her study of Indian miniature paintings in Mumbai’s JJ School of Art as well as motifs from Jewish mythology, Bollywood, pop art and the Amar Chitra Katha comics she read as a child. Many of her paintings depict blue-skinned female figures who symbolise Benjamin’s identity as a Jewish woman of colour – a concept new to her friends in the US.
“But the blue mythological figures could also be any woman, from any race, looking at us from the past and asking questions that are relevant today,” said Benjamin. “As an artist I am a culture-maker, and I believe in the power of the artistic image to bring about change.”