I was introduced to Siona Benjamin by a friend at a conference and despite shaking her hand, holding her eyes while speaking my name, and acknowledging her presence in front of me with a gentlemanly nod, I never really saw or met her.
Thinking back I realize how often I can meet people and yet never really meet them. What I mean is that quite frequently most people I come across are like leaves carried past on a breeze – occasionally brushing up against me to make their presence felt, but never such that I give them a lot of attention and are always quickly forgotten. And despite being aware of the many possibilities and imaginations lost in meetings casually and indifferently conducted, I can’t seem to break this pattern of behavior.
Siona Benjamin had the possibility of being a leaf blowing past my life. And then I heard her speak.
We happened to be on a panel together at a conference organized for Fulbright scholars. I had spent the previous twenty-four hours completely absorbed in working through the specifics of my own presentation, and had been working and reworking the words in my head to make sure that my audience was able to appreciate the scope and intent of my work in India.
The moderator had introduced her to the audience in the auditorium as an Indian Jewish artist currently in India researching her heritage and history. When I had met her the previous afternoon I had the impression of a reticent woman, shy and somewhat uncomfortable in the surroundings of the upscale hotel the conference was being held in. I had not paid her much attention to her after that first introduction, and frankly had not even bothered to read her biographical and professional details that were available to me on a handout the moderator had handed to me earlier.
As she stepped up to the podium to begin her presentation I applauded with the rest of the audience, but my attention and thoughts were focused on the notes for my own presentation. I had already determined, based on previous experience of course, that what would follow would be a conventional presentation where an artist simply shows some of her work up on the screen and simply explains the ideas that inform it. The panel presenters were artists working on subjects related to Indian identity, history and culture, using various techniques and mediums to explore these issues. It promised to be a pretty predictable talk.
Or so I thought.
As Siona carefully, meticulously and with great gravity, spoke about the intent and ideals that informed her works, I inexorably found myself being pulled away from myself and towards the world she was drawing for us. My mind moved away from what was in front of me, and in my notebooks, and towards what was being shown on the screen, and the language being used to explain it.
I realized that something remarkable and beautiful was making itself present. My mind cleared itself, my ears that previously had been hearing sounds, now began to hear words:
I am an artist originally from Bombay, India, of Bene Israel Jewish descent. My work reflects my background and the transition between my old and new worlds. Having grown up in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim society, having been educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian schools, 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. In this transcultural America I feel a strong need to make art that will speak to my audience of our similarities, not our differences as I feel I can contribute to a much-needed “repair” (Tikkun) through my art. I would like my audience to re-evaluate their notions and concepts about identity and race, thus understanding that such misconceptions could lead to racism, hate and war. (From Siona’s personal statement)
She drew me into her world with her words, and into the complexity and sheer creative universe of her works. And when she showed herself in blue, I finally began to understand.
Blue is a Jewish woman of color.
Blue is the soul that may be searching for a home, but realizes that there may not be a single place to call home, or even a single, pure self waiting to be discovered.
Blue is the liberation that comes from seeing that we are many things, in many places, in many moments and all at the same time.
In her essay ‘Blue Like Me’ published in From Word to Canvas: Appropriations of Myth in Women’s Aesthetic Production (Ed.) V.G. Julie Rajan and Sanja Bahun-Radunović, Siona pointed out that:
I am also … an American artist, as the environment in which I live inspires me. It is sometimes discouraging, though, when I am asked for information about the Jews of India… to ground me in a single valid category, in my Indian/Asian/Jewishness or my Indian/Asian/Americanness. Similarly the Jewish world has been sometimes puzzled by the hybridism of images of Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, and Jewish tradition in my work. Since the work does not fit into the typical Ashkenazi Jewish category, it becomes difficult to digest and process the images.
The desperation of the institutions of nationalism, academia, society and the culture industry to ‘categorize’ along pure,explicit lines, is perhaps one of the singular more devastating acts of violence against the individual. In the same piece Siona argued how her work remained an act of resistance and a determined refusal to surrender to the easy, yet devastating, erasures that our overly bureaucratic, xenophobic and myopic modernity demands of us:
This is exactly what interests me in de-categorizing my work. These are persistent issues that disturb me, so I choose to present them. I do not wish to be a token artist for any one category, as tribal impulses and nationalism are deeply ingrained in us and too easy to assume. Because of the lack of tribal security and comfort, I (as an artistic outsider) pursue special insights into this situation. This is the reason why I have always been on a quest for making hybrid images or characters in my work, a sort of universal being that comes from one point of view but that leads the viewer to unexpected destinations.
As she spoke – in a voice that implored, without pleading, insisted without demanding, and carried conviction without dogmatism, I heard the explanations and justifications of all that I had and have been attempting with my own work. I found myself disappearing, transforming, and re-emerging in front of my own eyes, reflected in this artist who was, a mere 24 hour earlier, invisible to me and had now become a mirror.