MONTCLAIR, New Jersey — In the space of a single painting, Siona Benjamin juxtaposes feminism, Indian mythology and Jewish imagery.
On a three-foot canvas, she’ll paint a portrait of a blue-skinned figure, usually a character from the Bible, with nods to Persian miniatures, Talmudic fables and Vishnu gods. Often there’s a message in Arabic.
“I want people to realize there can be a universal message in Jewish art,” Benjamin said. “I didn’t want to just be a Jewish artist, explaining my culture in my paintings, because it’s deeper than that. I’m a Jewish woman of color and a feminist with Islamic and Hindu influences, and they are all a part of me.”
Benjamin, 52, was born in Mumbai and her artwork combines the various influences in her life. Her favored subjects are biblical outcasts, and she aims to redeem them by presenting an alternative narrative.
In her home studio in this northern New Jersey township some 15 miles west of mid-Manhattan, Benjamin is wearing a modern version of a shalwar kameez, the traditional Indian dress of blossomy pants and tunic top. Her shelves are lined with books about Islamic leaders, Asian art and Jewish sacred texts. Doodles of Bollywood pop art and Buddhist statues serve as inspiration. But it has taken Benjamin years to grow comfortable with all the diverse elements of her art.
“I’m trying to use my Jewish heritage as a vehicle to create a universal message for their stories,” Benjamin said. “People think they know a full story, just like they see me as an Indian Jew and believe stereotypes. But there is so much more to these characters.
“If you look at biblical characters, there are deeper stories than what meets the eye. And I paint them blue because I’m redeeming myself through them, too.”
Benjamin grew up in the suburb of Bandra, the product of a wealthy family who enjoyed a comfortable and privileged life with cooks, servants and chauffeurs. As a child, she was envious of Indian friends who had large, boisterous families. Benjamin was an only child whose family lived mostly in Israel and the United States.
A ninth-generation Indian Jew, Benjamin’s parents sent her to Catholic and Zoroastrian schools. Surrounded by this multireligious influence, Benjamin often found herself wrestling with questions of self-identity. Her mother lit an oil lamp every Friday for Shabbat, but she also believed in the Zoroastrian God Ahura Mazda and practiced Buddhist meditation.
At 24, Benjamin left India for America to pursue an education in fine arts, but found herself feeling even more lost and lonely.
“At that point, I was ashamed of being so different, of fitting into so many categories,” Benjamin said. “I spent so many years wondering what I was going to paint: Jewish themes of my ancestors or Buddhist ideas from my childhood? Where was home? Was India home to me? Or Israel? Or America? I think the estranged characters in the Bible felt just as confused as I was because I belong nowhere.”
Benjamin eventually drew comfort from her embrace of the Bible’s lost characters. She paints characters such as Lilith, the mythological first wife of Adam, or Vashti, the dethroned queen from the Book of Esther. Benjamin often uses their stories to highlight feminist themes. Their faces are presented usually in blue in a nod to Benjamin’s Indian heritage, which typically presents its gods in blue hues.
In one painting, Benjamin paints Sarah hugging Abraham’s handmaiden Hagar as a suicide bomb explodes behind them. In another, Benjamin portrays Lilith wearing a prayer shawl and worshipping God as she catches fire.
Benjamin’s artwork has exhibited in museums across the United States, Europe and Asia, but she is most excited about an upcoming project featuring the Indian Jewish community, which she fears is slowly disappearing as its members immigrate to Israel.
Following the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, in which a Chabad rabbi and his wife were among the murdered, Benjamin said many people approached her with questions about the city’s Jews and what they looked like. In the course of several trips, Benjamin took photographs. Her project, a photo collage of Indian Jews titled “Faces: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives,” will go on display at the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai in September.
“Siona’s work has been recognized as extraordinary in the contemporary art world, in that she combines Judaism with a Persian-Muslim stylistic departure,” said Matthew Baigell, an emeritus art history professor at Rutgers University who has authored several books on American Jewish art.
Baigell has written that contemporary Jewish art is experiencing a “golden age,” and he points to Benjamin’s interpretive paintings as one example.
“She’s provided one-of-a-kind perspective on female characters from the Bible,” he said, “and is part of a group of artists who are not afraid to expose their Judaism in a creative way.”