Siona Benjamin

An artist who paints from the East.

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Jewish art tends to be associated with European painters like Chagall, Liebermann, Pissarro, and Soutine. But Bombay-born painter Siona Benjamin, whose art combines Jewish, Indian, and American elements, shatters the misconception that Jewish art is essentially Western.

A Shipwrecked Ancestry, a Rootless Identity

The history of Benjamin's ancestors, the Bene Israel Jews of India, has been disputed. Legend has it that they were shipwrecked in India, either fleeing the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C.E. or Antiochus IV Epiphanes 600 years later. According to one version of the story, most of the refugees drowned, but a few swam to safety, where the local non-Jewish population welcomed them. The survivors, who lost their holy books at sea, remembered just the Shema prayer. Cut off from extra-biblical writings and Jewish customs, this community borrowed traditions from the native culture.

Much like the stories about the Bene Israel, Benjamin's life has featured a great deal of cross-cultural exchange. Born in 1961, she grew up in a largely Hindu and Islamic culture, and received her education as a child at Catholic and Zoroastrian schools. She was trained in fine arts in Bombay and Illinois, and married a Connecticut native--a man who was raised Russian Orthodox, has Judaism as part of his "family mix," became a Buddhist in the 1970s, and studied Indian classical music in California. She lives with him in New Jersey.

Given her past, it is not surprising that Benjamin has called the anxiety of finding home, both spiritually and physically, the perpetual preoccupation of her life and career. But she has also described her "rootless" heritage as "seductive," and indeed her unique story has informed her large body of critically-acclaimed works.

Benjamin's work has appeared in more than 30 solo shows and more than 60 group shows. She has been reviewed in major U.S. dailies and in Indian-American publications, and has been featured in scholarly articles and books by Jewish art historians Ori Soltes and Matthew Baigell.

Delicious "Miniature-Inspired" Paintings

Benjamin's art is always eclectic, including Sephardic images, Byzantine icons, and styles derived from Jewish and Christian illuminated manuscripts, all blended with contemporary Pop Art imagery.  She combines these diverse elements in very small paintings, following the technique of Indian/Persian miniatures.

Largely developed between the 14th and 19th centuries, Indian and Persian miniatures are illuminations on paper, generally two to four inches in size. According to miniature painter Ambreen Butt, who taught at Massachusetts College of Art and studied miniature painting in her native Lahore, Pakistan, Benjamin's works are "miniature inspired" but not technically miniatures, since they do not use traditional materials.

Butt uses the word "masala" (a blend of spices) to refer to the collage of diverse elements in Benjamin's work. "That's what I'd call her paintings," Butt says, "delicious food."

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Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.