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Art by Siona Benjamin. Courtesy: Cleveland State University.
Art by Siona Benjamin. Courtesy: Cleveland State University.

Arts & Culture

Siona Benjamin painted blue-skinned, Jewish self-portraits long before ‘Avatar’

Cleveland State University is exhibiting the Indian American Jewish artist, who draws inspiration from comic books, pop art, Bollywood, Indian folk imagery, Persian miniatures and Hebrew illuminated manuscripts.

A Bene Israel Jew, Siona Benjamin refers to her work as “transcultural art in a multicultural world,” on her website. Transcultural might be an understatement.

“I still recall the ornate synagogues of my Bombay childhood: the oil lamps, the velvet-and-silver-covered Torahs, a chair left vacant for the prophet Elijah,” she states. “Having grown up in a Hindu and Muslim society, educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian schools, raised Jewish in India and now calling America home, I have always had to reflect on cultural boundary zones.”

Her blue-skinned figures, which long predate the Na’vi in the 2009 film “Avatar,” are self-portraits that reflect her identity as a Jewish woman of color. “Finding Home #74” (2006) depicts blue-skinned demoness Lilith wearing a tallit and sporting wings amid a halo of fire, with a hamsa necklace and a snake armband. “A thousand of years have I waited keeping the embers of revenge glowing in my heart!” a word bubble states.

More recently, Benjamin’s 2019 painting “Exodus #10” contains seven works in one. In the central portion, fire emanates from one hand of a blue-skinned winged figure while water comes out of the other. Dozens of figures fill the rest of the space, with at least one apparent reference to the Exodus story—a man carrying a sheep on his back, evidently the paschal lamb or Moses the shepherd retrieving an animal, which led him to the Burning Bush. (Fire surrounds the figure.)

More than 40 of Benjamin’s works are on view in a solo show titled “Beyond Borders” at the Galleries at Cleveland State University (through March 25), which subsequently travels to the Skirball Museum in Cincinnati (April 20-July 30).

“Her art demonstrates that the Jewish people are not monolithic–that Jews come in different shapes, sizes and colors, and are not just white and Ashkenazi,” exhibit curator Samantha Baskind, distinguished professor of art history at Cleveland State, told JNS. “Jews live all around the world, and her work opens up conversations about difference and sameness.”

‘Refuses simple categorization’

Benjamin’s work—combining Jewish, Indian, Persian, Hindu, Islamic and Christian artistic influences, as well as American pop—creates an aesthetic mix that “refuses simple categorization,” according to Baskind.

“The stories and cultures Benjamin blends can be daunting because they are referential and unknown to many. Yet visual art can explore identity of this sort in a different way than other kinds of storytelling because it’s more efficient and effective than a novel,” she added. “The exhibition slowly unveils her personal story through brilliantly colored work alongside, and intertwined with, commentary on the imperfect state of the world today.”

Pieces in the exhibit contain Stars of David, mandalas, blue angels wearing tallises and saris, and U.S. flags.

To the artist, noted Baskind, the hybrid that emerges from the works is both “uncategorizable and yet a product of the interconnected world we call home.”

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