From Word to Canvas: Appropriations of Myth in Women’s Aesthetic Production

Rest at pale evening…
A tall slim tree…
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.
-Langston Hughes, “Dream Variations”

In my paintings I raise questions about where the place we call “home” may be, while evoking issues such as identity, immigration, motherhood, and the role of art in society.1 I am a Bene Israel Jew from India. Although my family has gradually dispersed out of India, mostly to Israel and America, my parents remained in India. I am now also an American, living and working in New Jersey. With such a background, the desire to “find home,” spiritually and literally, has always preoccupied me – a concern to which I feel many Americans can relate, as this comparatively young nation was largely formed by immigrants and their descendants.

I have never been able to set deep roots into the space where I am at any given moment, no matter where I am. This is unnerving, but there is also something seductive about the spiritual borderlands formed by the “displacements” in which I seem to find myself. In my paintings I explore those displacements by combining the imagery of my past with the role I play in America today, making a mosaic inspired by both Indian-Persian miniature paintings and Sephardic icons, by the oil lamps, the velvet- and silver-covered torahs, and a chair left vacant for the prophet Elijah in our Bombay synagogues. For I have always had to reflect upon the cultural boundary zones. Raised Jewish, I grew up in the predominantly Hindu and Muslim society of India, and was educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian schools; and I live in the US now. My family has married American, Yemenite, French, Ethiopian, Cochini, and other Jews. I am married to a Connecticut native who was raised Russian Orthodox, but who also has the Jewish faith as part of his family mix. In the 1970s he became a Buddhist and studied Indian classical music for some years with an Indian maestro in California. We now try to raise our children in the mosaic of all that we can bring to them from our backgrounds.

I should like to present to the reader the portion of this fruitful diversity that most significantly influences my work. There are three distinct Jewish communities in India: the Bene Israel, who have remained the largest; the Cochini Jews, who once formed the second largest group (but who have now mostly immigrated to Israel); and the Iraqi Jews, who now form the second largest community. All three sections follow the same religious rituals and recite prayers in Sephardi intonations. Some customs vary among them, because the place in which they reside has influenced their rituals. Mostly one will find Jews in the coastal parts of India: Bombay, Cochin, and Calcutta, although there was also a small community of Jews in Delhi, which had one synagogue. There are also synagogues in Pune (in the state of Maharashtra) and Ahmedabad (Gujurat). Smaller synagogues can be found in some of the coastal villages in the Konkan (i.e., the west coast of India, south of Bombay).2 The community from which I come, the Bene Israel community of Maharashtra, is ancient. According to the story that has been handed down through the generations, the Bene Israel were said to be shipwrecked on the Konkan coast, near the Kenneri islands (about 6 miles south of Bombay), about 2,000 years ago. As related in the Books of Maccabees, after the Greeks conquered what is today Palestine in 332 B.C., life there became extremely oppressive for the orthodox Jews. The situation became insufferable when, in the year 167 B.C., the king Antiochus IV Epiphenes of Syria tried to impose Hellenistic religious practice on the orthodox Jews, an event which would eventually lead to what is known in Jewish and Christian traditions as the Maccabean revolt and the story of Chanukkah. It is said that, prior to these events, a group of Jews from Galilee managed to flee into Egypt. In 175 B.C. they boarded a ship, probably sailing for Cheul, a major port city on the Maharashtra coast of west India. When they were within a couple of hundred yards off the port of Konkan, about fifteen miles from Cheul Creek, the ship ran aground and sank. Most of the people on board, together with all their possessions, including the Torah scrolls and prayer books, were lost. Out of all those on board, legend has it, only seven men and seven women managed to swim ashore. After being given shelter by some Hindus from Navgaon (a village twenty miles south of what would later become Bombay), the Jews found permanent abode on the Konkan Coast. The bodies of the people washed ashore were buried separately in large graves. There is a monument marking this site at Navgaon, India.

Another version of the legend states that the ancestors of the Bene Israel came from northern Palestine. According to Biblical history, that area was inhabited by the ten tribes which formed the ancient Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C. When the Assyrians captured the capital Samaria in 722 B.C., most of these people fled the country for fear of persecution and conversion by the Assyrians. It is said that some people belonging to the tribes of Asher and Zebulun boarded a ship, sailed via Egypt to the Indian Ocean, and were ship-wrecked on the west coast of India. They were offered shelter by the indigenous population, and they continued living there for centuries, as the Indian people have been welcoming. The Jews of India are one of the few communities in the world that did not face anti-Semitism in their “home” state. They adopted the mode of dress, some customs, and the local language (Marathi). They derived their family names from the names of the villages in which they settled (i.e., Kehim – Kehimkar; Pen – Penkar; Cheul – Cheulkar). The Bene Israel have certain rituals that are uniquely their own, such as the Malida ceremony, an event structured around the recitation of the Eliyahu- ha-navi prayer and a ceremonial offering of sweetened rice and dry fruits to the Prophet Elijah. There are now about 5,000 Bene Israel left in India, as most have immigrated to Israel, Canada, and the Unites States of America. My destiny has been similar.

When, twenty-one years ago, I came to do my postgraduate studies in the United States, I could not imagine that I would stay on there and that I would feel so solidly American one day; yet I also never considered that I would be in such a flux about where the borders of my homeland lay. In the meantime, I have come to the conclusion that the perfect “Place” or “Home” for anyone does not exist; it is precisely the sense of “non-belonging” that has given me an opportunity to encounter a home perhaps at any given time or place; and also to celebrate in art the impossibility of fixedness in any single “home.” After having struggled long with my own hybrid background and complex cultural experiences, I am beginning to see more clearly now that this blend can be humorous, enlightening, and revealing. At first the ornate culture from which I came seemed difficult to apply to and unnecessary to my work. As my life in art progressed, I have found a way to use my background, to be able to weave current issues and parts of my life in its intricacies, thus making this ornateness meaningful and generative. This is also the reason why my work celebrates my womanhood: my abilities, my strengths, and my ambitions. Now my art attempts to create a dialogue between the personal and the cultural, between the ancient and the modern times, and to force a confrontation of unresolved issues marking our lives in history. In this multicultural world I feel a strong need to make art that will speak to my audience of our similarities, not of our differences; thus I emphasize how the art-making process contributes to conversations about subjects like stereotyping, and religious and gender intolerance. By making images that problematize and question monolithic cultural identity, I feel I can contribute to a much needed “repair” (Tikkun in Hebrew) in discussing those issues. I would like my audience to re-evaluate their notions and concepts about identity and race, thus understanding that such misconceptions can lead to racism, hate, and war.

Technique-wise, my artistic practice has been importantly influenced by Indian and Persian miniature paintings. These paintings were made on paper in India between the 14th and 19th centuries. They are small works of art, originally intended to be held in the hands of a single person and examined closely. They originated in the court workshops of the Indian kings and are like jewels. They are known for their fine colors and their status as courtly accessories. The primary aim of these works, whether a religious epic or a portrait, was to tell a story, created primarily for private enjoyment, to illustrate religious, heroic, or domestic narratives.4 My mixed-media paintings reflect the tradition of these miniatures. In my work I collage found objects and paint them, thus making a playful assemblage of disparate traditions, stories, and forms. For instance, in my mixed-media series of paintings entitled Spicy Girl, I address contemporary American culture in context of my own background, having lived in two diverse cultural settings. My mixed media piece, Spicy Girl: Sefer Torah (box exterior and interior) bespeaks this heterogeneity. On the one hand, this mixed media (gouache on wood, baked enamel on steel, and found object) evokes the sefer torah of my childhood, the one my father bid for during the Simha Torah ceremony. When I was a little girl, I would sit in the synagogue and gaze at the mysterious chair always left vacant, wondering for whom it was reserved. Later, in the grounds outside the synagogue, we would “pick” fruits that had been fastened to a canopy made of palm fronds woven around a bamboo frame. These recollections are colored by the glow of my mother’s sabbath lamp. She would recount stories about the family, how the Jewish women, even in their saris, were distinctly different from their Hindu neighbors. When my grandmother used to go about the city, she said, the Hindu women would remark: “She looks like a Chitpavan Brahmin, but where is the red sindhoor on her forehead? Who is she?” When they learned that she was a Jew, they would whisper “Israel” as she passed. An ornamented Indian woman in the painting represents that part of my childhood world and my heritage. The “spicy girl” – a bluish self-portrait – stands next to this Indian woman. The “spicy girl” on the left (myself) tries to imitate the ornate woman by wearing a veil over jeans. She is a poor copy, a hybrid clinging to this ornamentation. But the “spicy girl” also projects an “in-your-face-attitude” toward, not only certain aspects of American culture, but also toward American stereotypes of Asian women. Distance sharpens my vision; far from my former home, I see more clearly what once was.

But this search for home is most thoroughly explored in my gouache-on-paper Finding Home series, where I combine traditional styles of painting, such as Indian/Persian miniatures, Byzantine icons, and Jewish and Christian illuminated manuscripts, with trans-temporal mythic and contemporary pop-cultural elements, to create a new artistic vocabulary of my own. This is a highly iconographic series. While growing up in India I recall being surrounded by Hindu idols and iconography that were taboo in my Jewish world. I eyed those figures from a distance, captivated with their radiance and richness. Since Judaism stressed monotheism and iconoclasm, I somehow resisted the lure of figurative drawing for years. Initially, I made abstract work, and, later, if I did venture to depict the forbidden fruit, my figures were shrouded with darkened faces. Then my work was filled with graven images, as suddenly it became clear, during my years studying and designing sets for theater, that I liked the narrative, the theatrical, the decorative lyrical line, this ornateness I carried with me all along. These figures have thus become characters in my paintings, actors that act out their parts, recording, balancing, rectifying, restoring, and absorbing, like in the paintings of surrealist women artists Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. Through all this experience, I understood how I can dip into my own personal specifics and universalize, thus playing the role of an artist/activist.

Thus, in the Fereshteh (“angels” in Urdu) subseries of Finding Home, I invoke the women of the Bible to make them agents of a present day battle against wars and violence. In Finding Home (Fereshteh) # 74 “Lilith” (see figure 1-1), I explore the character of Lilith. Based on Jewish Midrashic literature and legends, Lilith has been identified as the predecessor to Eve who was created from the earth at the same time as Adam. Unlike Eve, The Alphabet of Ben-Sira relates, Lilith was unwilling to forgo her equality with Adam and demanded sexual equality. Rebuffed by Adam she took her case to God, who responded to her seductive powers by revealing His divine name. Speaking His name out loud she earned her ticket out of Pardes, or Paradise, and into eternal exile. Thus Lilith has been called and has represented a mother of demons, slayer of newborns, corruption, indulgence, the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and the seductress of men.5 Lilith has made a return in feminist history many a time as an iconic symbol that represents the oppressed, both as a goddess and as an example of female strength, power, and mystery.6

In my painting Lilith dons symbols from many faiths. The snake armband perhaps symbolizing Hinduism, the head covering turns into a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl), the soldier’s bracelet is recast as the hamsa (or is it the hand of Fatima?), and the bullet wound invokes St. Teresa’s stigmata. Bringing her forth to today, the character of Lilith becomes the woman targeted, the sacrificing mother, the mourning war widow, the brave woman soldier, the rape victim in war. She cries out at this injustice after “a thousand of years” of waiting: Where is peace, justice, freedom, and equality?

Roy Lichtenstein, the pop artist, and the drama of the Indian Amar Chitra Katha comics served as an inspiration for the Lilith series. Indian/Persian miniatures and Jewish and Christian illuminated manuscripts also creep into parts of the painting style. The blond heroine in Lichtenstein’s paintings has been recast as a blue maiden in my art. Very often I look down at my own skin and in my perception, it has turned blue. It tends to do that when I face certain situations of people stereotyping and categorizing other people who are unlike themselves. Over the years I have therefore developed many blue-skinned characters in my paintings. While, in some stories and cultures, such as that which created traditional Japanese ukiyo-e prints, a bluish hue to skin connotes sickness, death or something alien, the turquoise blue skin of my characters portrays quite the opposite: a confidence in their difference, health, and radiance, and a definite will to survive. Making them come alive and enacting their stories as they reach out from a mythological past, (besides Jewish myth, I am also inspired by Indian goddesses like Kali and the famous blue god, Krishna), I show how these characters use their blue skin to tell or retell stories. In this process of recycling and rejuvenating, they remind me (and hopefully my audience) that myth-making is cyclical and timeless.

This blue self portrait takes on many roles and forms, and theatrically enacts many ancient and contemporary dilemmas. In Finding Home # 45 “Sister” I employ an autobiographical dual blue figure to respond to the Middle East crisis (see figure 7-2). Since most of my family immigrated to Israel from India, I formed this two-headed, several-armed woman – half-Jewish and half-Muslim, both whose hands display the rich henna of the similarities between both religions. Although the juxtaposition of these symbols seems peaceful, a blasting plunger and wires that indicate a bomb connected to them are in front of them. The tension between the symbols surfaces questions such as: Will they destroy themselves, or, Is there any hope that they will be saved…from themselves? This global uncertainty informs many other paintings of mine, and it informs works such as Finding Home # 46 “Tikkun ha-Olam.” The latter phrase refers to “the restoration/repair of the world,” an inspirational story from Kaballah. The story compares the world to a pot or vessel that contains all the virtues. Because the cosmos was unable to contain this divine energy, the pot shattered, but the broken shards retained the divine light or energy. It is humanity’s task to reconstruct this vessel, and this is accomplished through various ethical, spiritual, intellectual, and aesthetic acts that re-establish values in our world. By making images that contribute to this “Tikkun,” I am participating in my own small way in this process of “Restoration.”

I would like to conclude by saying that making transcultural art is like sitting on top of a fence. Sometimes it feels safe to fit into a compartment and fall either way from the fence, but then I am reminded, that although precarious, this position gives me a wider perspective of being able to see both sides. Sometimes I share my art world with the rising group of South Asian-American artists and sometimes with diasporic Jewish artists, both of which feed the core of my being. I am also solidly an American artist, as the environment in which I live inspires me. It is sometimes discouraging, though, when I am asked for information about the Jews of India, not in a research effort, but to ground me in a single valid category, in my Indian/Asian/Jewishness or my Indian/Asian/Americanness. Similarly the Jewish world has been sometimes puzzled by the hybridism of images of Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, and Jewish tradition in my work. Since the work does not fit into the typical Ashkenazi Jewish category, it becomes difficult to digest and process the images. This is exactly what interests me in de-categorizing my work. These are persistent issues that disturb me, so I choose to present them. I do not wish to be a token artist for any one category, as tribal impulses and nationalism are deeply ingrained in us and too easy to assume. Because of the lack of tribal security and comfort, I (as an artistic outsider) pursue special insights into this situation. This is the reason why I have always been on a quest for making hybrid images or characters in my work, a sort of universal being that comes from one point of view but that leads the viewer to unexpected destinations.

I feel that there is a vigorous transcultural movement, now more than ever, and that this movement will only get stronger. The word “transcultural” seems especially pertinent here because it connotes the potential of crossing or straddling numerous boundary zones. It is this potential that enhances the possibilities of the artist coming from, not just one, but numerous influences, countries, and backgrounds. An artist “transcultured” in this way becomes an artist less static and more mobile, an artist able to continue to change identities and to be in a constant state of flux, engaging dialogically in numerous points of view. The characters in my world thus have to shed the skin of religion while in turn celebrating it, shed the skin of nationalism while at the same time being proud of it, and completely shed the skin of tribalism and the wrong use of power. Once these skins are shed, one can construct a new language of understanding, because what was once “the other,” is none other than – oneself.

Finding Home # 89 (Fereshteh) “Vashti”
Vashti was cast out
Now she looks in

A black and white setting from yesteryear
Postcards from another target
A chessboard of genocide
The ner tamid of a lost synagogue
A palace of another dictator
Smoke stacks of your ancestor’s crematorium

I search during my journey
But cannot find
How can they erase without a trace
I wonder
Now more than necessary
Along with her dignity
Will she restore yours.

-Siona Benjamin

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