‘I belong everywhere and nowhere’

Siona Benjamin is a Jewish-born transcultural artist from Bombay, India. Her work is a by-product of her own complex intersection of many seemingly diverse ideas and cultural influences. She was raised in a Bene Israel family deeply rooted in tradition but also submersed in the dominant cultures of Hindu and Islam and moved to the US in 1986 to attend Southern Illinois University for her masters in fine arts. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her family.

My work reflects my background and the transition between my old and new worlds. It is impossible to label my work as Jewish, Indian, eastern, American, western, contemporary, religious or secular. I am inspired by traditional styles of painting, like Indian/Persian miniatures, Byzantine icons and Jewish and Christian illuminated manuscripts but I blend these ancient forms with pop culture elements from our times to create a new vocabulary of my own. All of my works are inspired by myth and have reflections on gender, with an interest in Midrashic process – an ancient commentary on part of the Hebrew scriptures.

The terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008 has definitely brought awareness to the small group of Indian Jews that I belong to. There were 30,000 Bene Israel Jews when I was growing up and now there are less than 5,000. Most of the Jews from India began to move to Israel in the 1950s. India was one of the only countries where there was no anti-Semitism, so they left for better economic opportunities. For my next project I plan to visit the remaining Bene Israel people in India, photograph their faces and document their stories on video. I will then isolate their faces on large canvases and paint the stories and iconography around the faces, mostly reminiscent of the painting styles of Indian and Persian miniature paintings.

The ornateness of the culture from which I came once seemed difficult and unnecessary to apply in my work. Some of my professors wanted us to focus on what they considered high art, which was contemporary western art. In the early 1990s things changed. Western contemporary art was no longer considered the only valued form of high art any more. Artists were using their identity and ethnicity as inspiration. The narrative and ornateness that was so much a part of my youth was finally being discovered. It was an explosion due to globalisation and thus there was a greater appreciation of my work because I was able to deeply explore my Indian Jewishness. People wanted to know more about the narratives behind my work.

Having been raised Jewish and now living in America, I have always had to reflect upon the cultural boundary zones in which I have lived. I feel I belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time and I think that the world is becoming more this way. The term multicultural is overused. Stereotypes exist everywhere and it’s a matter of education that breaks down those barriers. Through my work I like my audience to re-evaluate their notions about identity and race, thus understanding that such misconceptions could lead to racism, hate and war.

At first when I came to the US I felt odd. I had been to New York, Cleveland and Los Angeles but the biggest shock was moving from a city like Bombay to Southern Illinois, surrounded by cornfields and flat prairie lands. I was a city girl-turned-small town girl.

“But you don’t look Jewish” people would say. I get all different responses and reactions and I am called anything from Puerto Rican to Persian. I also received questions like: “Jews in India, is that possible?” Since 9/11, people in the US have become more aware about other cultures, so I welcome these questions.

There is a very American capitalistic notion of success here. We have all thought about it and wanted it but gradually you see what is attainable for you. My idea of success can be very different from another person’s. You can become disillusioned if you feel you aren’t living up to someone’s measurable standards. Once you give up those preconceived notions of success, it frees you, you suddenly become relaxed and more doors open to you. For me it’s the personal gratification. When I make a successful piece it’s not about the money; I get great pleasure creating it rather than selling it. As an artist, it’s always a struggle. As much as I want to survive financially, my success is not measured in stereotypes. Your audience can see that. They know what comes from the heart and when someone is just following the next big trend.

Given that my daughter, Rachel, was born in the US, I think it’s important for her to be connected to both her Jewish roots and her Indian culture and to understand about being transcultural. We made sure to move to a community where she has access to many Jewish friends through our synagogue, yet she has a very diverse group of other social connections. Being a transcultural artist seems pertinent to me because it displays the potential of straddling boundary zones and the possibilities of the artist coming from not just one but numerous influences, countries and backgrounds. I want my daughter to be able to take this experience into her life.

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