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‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’ – that is what art does. Phyllis Novak

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Benjamin, Sonia - VM - Aaron Rosen

Siona Benjamin: Beyond Borders

Next Year in Nineveh?

by Aaron Rosen

“Next year in Jerusalem.” Every Passover, Jews around the world intone this deceptively simple formula, freighted with centuries of both diasporic disappointment and messianic hopefulness. While the Passover seder commemorates the ancient Israelites’ emancipation from bondage, in the same breath it insists that freedom—true freedom—belongs to the future. It is this tension, balanced on the knife’s edge of possibility, that Siona Benjamin probes so powerfully in Beyond Borders. Benjamin’s images recall the travails of Egypt, the shackles of slavery left dangling behind. But above all, her works remind us of fetters that remain, escapes deferred to the next year and the next. Benjamin paints Jerusalems of the mind: paradises gained, lost, mourned and imagined. Though she takes inspiration from the stories and rituals of Judaism, she conjures images capable of bearing the hopes and disappointments of Jews and non-Jews alike.

Her works are haunted by the tragedies of recent events, especially the struggles of Syrian refugees who have fled the brutality of ISIS and Assad. Benjamin sees a contemporary Exodus unfolding in the journeys of these refugees, and she utilizes biblical imagery and symbolism to lend them dignity. She honours their experiences not by merely recapitulating images of their suffering, but by inventing stories that speak to their dreams.

Closely following the conflict in Syria through the news, Benjamin has assiduously gathered clippings and digital images of forced migration over the past year in preparation for her new work. She began her process by isolating and focusing upon single figures in photographs, attempting to understand their pain one by one rather than en masse. Using drawing to identify with people who would otherwise remain anonymous, Benjamin found herself repeating the words which later found their way into the working title of this body of work: “I See Myself in You.” The lines in her drawings are never merely mimetic, never simply copies of the faces captured in photographs. Through the act of drawing, she accomplishes a much more profound and complicated act of transformation, shifting gazes, postures and gestures in ways which return to these weary figures some of the peace and tranquillity which has been stolen from them. There is pain in these drawings, to be sure, but there is also a determined quietness. Even as she renders a woman crying out in anguish, for instance, she gives her the space and stillness to grieve. With palpable softness Benjamin’s pencil cradles the people she draws.

Benjamin not only brings to these figures a personal empathy but a wealth of art-historical allusions and affinities. Persian and Mughal miniature paintings from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries have been a consistent source of inspiration for Benjamin over the past two decades. While she channelled the jewel-like precision of masters such as Bihzad (1470–1506) in her earlier work, in recent creations she has extended her engagement with this tradition in new directions. Her studies of refugees recall sketches and paintings by Riza-yi `Abbasi (c. 1565–1635) and his disciple Mu’in Musavvir (active c. 1630–97), who pioneered a new direction in Islamic painting, developing single-page illustrations of characters observed from life, documenting people on the margins of society.

At the same time that Benjamin brings to bear on her subject a refined grasp of Islamic art, she also channels precursors from across the history of Western culture. The woman and child in her Exodus panels recall Käthe Kollwitz’s haunting images of mothers mourning their children, as well as Marc Chagall’s depiction of the biblical Hagar, who fears her young son Ishmael may die in the desert. The figure of the whale evokes parallels with medieval Christian illuminated manuscripts, in which Jonah’s three days and nights inside the “great fish” prefigure Christ’s entombment and resurrection. In Benjamin’s image, the sad-eyed whale harbours mother and child like a womb. This protection is painfully undercut, however, when we remember the fate of Alan Kurdi and his mother, for whom no miraculous assistance appeared from the deep. The reference to Jonah adds yet another interpretive layer. The wayward prophet was called upon to prophesy to the city of Nineveh, which today lies in northern Iraq, near Mosul, an ISIS stronghold currently in the process of being re-taken. Do we dare hope, Benjamin asks, that the citizens of modern Mosul will be spared like those of ancient Nineveh?

Rising up from behind the whale, emerging from the sea, Benjamin paints what is—if not an answer—a prayer. A man browned by sun and grime from a long journey carries a ram over his shoulders. The artist’s source is a photograph of a refugee bearing a sack slumped against his neck. Benjamin, schooled in Jewish tradition, cannot help but render this lumpy mass as a ram. And not just any ram, I suspect, but the ram of the Akedah, the “real hero” of Genesis 22 as Yehuda Amichai once called him. When God stays Abraham’s hand from sacrificing his son, the patriarch looks up and spies a ram caught in a thicket, which he slaughters instead. This is no random, dumb, unlucky beast, Midrash tells us. This ram was created in Paradise, at the beginning of time, for this one special purpose. Ever since Creation it had been running as fast as it could in order to arrive atop Mount Moriah at that very moment, that it might offer itself instead of Isaac, ensuring the future of the chosen people. Maybe we have left Paradise, maybe we have lost it forever.  But perhaps, this story teaches us, it can still save us. This is Siona Benjamin’s offering.

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Siona Benjamin, Beyond Borders2016, Gouache, Acrylic & 22K Gold lead on Wood Panel, 41 x 120 in. (104.1 x 304.8 cm.) 

Siona Benjamin is a painter originally from Bombay, now living in the US. Her work reflects her background of being brought up Jewish in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim India. In her paintings she combines the imagery of her past with the role she plays in America today, making a mosaic inspired by both Indian miniature paintings and Sephardic icons. She has her first MFA in Painting and a second MFA in Theater Set Design. She has exhibited in the US, Europe and Asia. She has been recently awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in 2010-11 for art project titled: Faces: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives. Her work has been featured in numerous newspapers, magazines, journals and books. The documentary film Blue Like Me: The Art of Siona Benjamin was recently released and shown at numerous film festivals across the United States, see www.bluelikeme.com. For further information, see www.artsiona.com.

Siona Benjamin: Beyond Borders. March 9 through April 22, 2017 works from Sonia Benjamin’s Exodus series will be shown at ACA Galleries, 529 West 20th Street, 5th Floor, New York.

Aaron Rosen is Professor of Religious Thought and Director of Cultural Projects at Rocky Mountain College in in Billings, Montana, USA, and Visiting Professor at King’s College London, England, where he was previously Senior Lecturer in Sacred Traditions & the Arts. Rosen has also taught at Yale, Oxford, and Columbia Universities. He is the author of Imagining Jewish Art and Art and Religion in the 21st Century, named one of the best books of 2015 by The Times. He is the editor of Religion and Art in the Heart of Modern Manhattan and co-editor of Visualising a Sacred City: London, Art and Religion. Rosen has curated various exhibitions, including a series of shows at the Jewish Museum in London (2015) and Stations of the Cross, opening March 1st in Washington, DC.

ArtWay Visual Meditation February 26, 2017