By Julia Olson
Siona Benjamin’s vibrant, transcultural artwork is now on display at the Cincinnati Skirball museum. Benjamin grew up in India, part of a community of less than four thousand Jews in the country. “Having grown up in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim society, and around other religions too, because India is very multicultural, having been educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian school, being raised Jewish in India and now living in America, I have always had to reflect on the cultural boundary zones in which I have lived,” Benjamin said in her illustrated lecture at the Skirball on Thursday, April 20th. Benjamin took the audience through her process, and explained her understanding of transculturalism and its influence on her life and her work. Benjamin included that her art is “influenced by Indian Persian miniature paintings, as well as Jewish, Christian and Islamic illustrated manuscripts.” She is also influenced by comic books, Bollywood, and pop art like that of Roy Lichtenstein.
These influences are clear in her pieces, nearly forty of which are now on display at the Skirball museum. According to the exhibit’s curator, Dr. Samantha Baskind, Distinguished Professor of Art History at Cleveland State University, the works on display “consider and challenge perception of immigration, gender, race, religion, global politics, and the concept of ‘home.’” Benjamin’s art challenges black and white perceptions of the world and urges viewers to explore the gray area with the artist. Through her work, according to Dr. Baskind, “Benjamin blends tradition with innovation, and navigates feelings of inclusion and exclusion.”
One of Benjamin’s most striking works on display at the Skirball is her multimedia installation titled Lilith in the New World. The piece, created in 2008, features the goddess Lilith, with Benjamin’s signature blue skin, in a comic book style. The piece, according to its gallery label, is inspired by a theatrical stage, which draws heavily from Benjamin’s work in theater set design, in which she has a master’s degree. The center of the painting, the large rendering of Lilith, is a reproduction of her 2005 piece Finding Home #75 Fereshteh (Lilith), which engages themes found in Roy Lichtenstein’s 1962 Blam. Lichtenstein’s piece features san exploding aircraft, whereas Benjamin’s features the blue skinned Lilith, offering a prayer as she is surrounded by flames. According to the gallery label, the large wings that encompass the work indicate Lilith’s role as martyr and savior. The piece also includes a chess set, located in front of the installation. For Benjamin, the game board represents war, and serves as another connector to Lichtenstein’s iconic piece. The label describes Benjamin’s sentiments about war, indicating that the artist “firmly believes it is pointless to play ‘chess,’ her metaphor for war,” and that “such continued violence indicates that the new world is really not new at all.”
The commentary featured in Lilith in the New World appears throughout all of Benjamin’s works featured in the Skirball. In other paintings she explores the ongoing refugee crises, unrest in Israel and Palestine, and the role of women in an ever changing and constantly dangerous world. One of her most commonly occurring elements is that of the blue skinned woman. “For me, being blue is a symbols of being other,” says Benjamin. According to Dr. Baskind, “Benjamin’s figures assume the blue flesh traditionally used in depictions of the Hindu deity Krishna, and her prodigious use of blue references the prevalence of the color in the Jewish religion.” On her website, Benjamin further describes her use of blue skinned subjects in her art: “Many blue-skinned characters populate my paintings. This self-portrait of sorts takes on many roles through which I explore ancient and contemporary dilemmas. These characters enact their stories -– often recycling myths from various cultures and religions — becoming symbols of a timeless global identity free of prejudices and boundaries.”
Benjamin’s exhibit will be on display at the Skirball Museum until July 30, 2023. Dr. Samantha Baskind, curator, will discuss the works during her lecture “Siona Benjamin: Crossing Boundaries and Building Bridges,” Wednesday, May 31, at 7:00 p.m. The lecture, held at Mayerson Hall, will be available both in person and via livestream. Abby Schwartz, Skirball Curatorial Consultant, will also lead a guided tour of the exhibit, with coffee and conversation, Tuesday, July 11 from 10:30 a.m. to noon. Registration for both events can be found on the Skirball Museum website.