Blue skin and artistic midrash

Blue skin and artistic midrash

Siona Benjamin exhibits her work in Montclair

Siona Benjamin stands by her work “Lilith in the New World,” 2023, banner mural digitally printed on vinyl with mixed media. (All the artwork in these photos is by Siona Benjamin; all the photos are courtesy Siona Benjamin.)
Siona Benjamin stands by her work “Lilith in the New World,” 2023, banner mural digitally printed on vinyl with mixed media. (All the artwork in these photos is by Siona Benjamin; all the photos are courtesy Siona Benjamin.)

Siona Benjamin, the Indian Jewish American transcultural artist, now has much of her compelling work on display at three locations in Montclair. Amid global tension, rising antisemitism, and alarming polarization, this is the right work by the right artist, available to be seen at just the right time.

The exhibits are at the Montclair Art Museum (until August 4, 2024), in Spiro Harrison & Nelson LLC (until January 19, 2024), and in the permanent collection of MC Hotel.

“Fereshtini #6, 7, 8, 9,” 2007, gouache and 22K gold leaf on museum board.

Knowledge of Ms. Benjamin’s biography enriches the appreciation of her beautifully crafted art, connecting Eastern and Western traditions. She was born in Mumbai and raised an observant Jew in the small but historic Bene Israel community, which is part of a predominantly Hindu and Muslim country. In the late 1980s, when she was in her twenties, Ms. Benjamin left India and came to the United States for graduate studies in the visual arts. Since 2002, she has lived and worked in Montclair, where she established an international art career.

“Lilith in the New World,” a title with layered meaning, was specifically designed as a banner mural for the Montclair Art Museum’s Laurie Art Stairway and measures a formidable 13 feet by 30 feet. At night, Ms. Benjamin’s work is illuminated and visible through the windows, making a dramatic impression.

Siona Benjamin works on “Montclair Shangri-La- Spring,” 2019.

After nearly eight months of work, the artist has realized her largest piece to date in “Lilith.” By taking digital images from nearly 30 of her past works — in a way, shopping in her own closet — Ms. Benjamin created a monumental tripartite-like composition that references midrashic lore, Hinduism, African American history, Persian miniatures, illuminated Jewish manuscripts, Bollywood, and pop art.

The central female figure is Lilith, Adam’s first wife, whose story is told in “The Alphabet of Ben-Sira,” a medieval Jewish text. Ms. Benjamin was introduced to Lilith when she studied midrash with Rabbi Burton Visotzky, professor emeritus of midrash and interreligious studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“Finding Home #29, 1999, gouache and 22 K gold leaf on paper.

Like Adam, Lilith was created from the “dust of the ground,” and she insisted on equality. She’s been seen in many different ways at different historical periods and became a much-admired symbol of courage and a role model of the feminist movement.

During a recent interview, Ms. Benjamin, with a subtle smile, described Lilith as “the first ex-wife” and “a vehicle to talk about many things.”

“Improvisation #15,” 2011, Gouache and mixed media on mylar and museum board.

Here, Lilith, whom Ms. Benjamin has been representing since around 2004, prays as she earnestly pleads: “You must save us from their wrath.” Standing on the staircase and looking at the mural, the artist questions: “Who is us? Who is them? Sometimes us becomes them; they become us. I don’t like to take sides.”

Blue-skinned female figures, including Lilith, have become signature features of the artist’s imagery. For Ms. Benjamin, pale blue symbolizes “being the other” as well as “a Jewish woman of color”; several Hindu deities, including Krishna and Shiva, also often are shown with blue skin.

“Directions on how to wear an Indian Jewish Sari,” 2004-2006, etching, aquatint, gold leaf and Chine-colle on paper.

“Blue is the color of both the ocean and the sky, stretching all over the world,” Ms. Benjamin said. “I could belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time.”

Ms. Benjamin attached lotus blossoms and ghunroos, the bells worn on the feet of Bollywood dancers, at the grommets on the banner’s lower edge. To enhance the theatrical and sensory experience of the installation, a recording of “Aage bhi jaane na tu,” a Hindi-language song from “Waqt,” the 1965 Bollywood film, plays. The translated lyrics aptly proclaim: “You don’t know what lies ahead of you. Whatever is there, it’s there in this moment.”

“Improvisation #9, 2011, gouache on mylar.

The Laurie Art Stairway is framed by floor-to-ceiling windows. Twenty ceramic blue-skinned and blindfolded female torsos, presented like specimens in Victorian-like glass dome display cases, are on many ledges. They mimic the figures regularly spaced at the lower section of the mural. Are they symbols of blind justice or are they hostages? Though the display was planned well before October 7, these female figures now make an even more poignant and powerful statement.

The MC Montclair Hotel is a short walk along Bloomfield Avenue, just one block from the museum. At the exterior corner rotunda café, Ms. Benjamin and Yona Verwer created an illusionistic oculus so viewers feel that are looking up to a sky full of birds. The circular image is printed on Dibond and affixed to the ceiling.

“Lilith in the New World,” 2023, banner mural digitally printed on vinyl with mixed media.

The main public lobby has a hand-painted acrylic and gouache canvas representing a mythical landscape in a decorative linear style inspired by Persian miniatures; its bright green and purple suggest springtime. Working with a digital file of the original landscape image, Ms. Benjamin manipulated its palette and created a series titled “Montclair Shangri-La,” symbolizing different seasons, including three nighttime scenes. Claude Monet’s celebrated Impressionist series of haystacks and poplar trees immediately comes to mind. Each of Ms. Benjamin’s digital variations was printed on canvas, so a single image from the series is prominently hung facing the elevators on each of the hotel bedroom floors. Like a conceptual installation, the full series is best enjoyed by viewers who stop on each of the six floors.

At Spiro Harrison & Nelson, art is enthusiastically brought into the workplace. Nonetheless, the public is encouraged to make an appointment to visit. To coordinate with the nearby museum show, Ms. Benjamin is the subject of a mini-retrospective displayed in the reception area, hallway, and gallery. This provides a perfect opportunity to examine closely and admire the artist’s exquisite draftsmanship, rich coloring, and use of varied materials.

Displaying more than 30 works done over several decades, her themes of identity, immigration, and religion combine Jewish and Eastern traditions. In a phone conversation from his New York office, Rabbi Visotzky said that Ms. Benjamin is making “artistic midrash, synthesizing not only so many artistic traditions but also ancient Jewish traditions with the modern news.”

Moreover, her sense of humor and irony comes across in several pieces. Consider the menorah-armed women as belly dancers or the wings of the “Fereshteh” — that’s angel in Urdu — that are swords rather than feathers. In a very early work like “Finding Home # 9,” the animal has four faces of Mickey Mouse instead of its actual paws. The creature’s female head looks to the right, or possibly the east, while all the Mickeys look left, or to the west. In “Directions of How to Wear a Jewish Sari,” the colorful dress mimics the design of the American flag. At the left, the word “Shekinah,” which means the presence of God as a sustaining force, is written in Hebrew; on the right is “Pardes,” inscribed in Hindi to indicate a foreign land. The artist has a unique way of mixing cultural signs and symbols from myriad sources.

Ms. Benjamin strives to “make art that will speak to my audience of our similarities, not our differences,” she said. “We need to support each other.” On a wall plaque hung to provide context for the museum installation, Ms. Benjamin expresses her deep-seated hope for “a new tomorrow as we gather strength in the menorahs of our ancestors.”

Siona Benjamin’s art is on exhibit at:

Where: Montclair Art Museum, 3 South Mountain Avenue, Montclair

What: “Siona Benjamin: Lilith in the New World”

When: On view through August 4, 2024; visitor hours are Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For information: 973-746-5555

Where: Spiro Harrison & Nelson LLC, 363 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair

What: “Beyond Borders: The Art of Siona Benjamin”

When: On view through January 19, 2024

And also: View by appointment; to arrange, email

Where: MC Montclair Hotel, 690 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair

What: Permanent exhibit

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