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Indepth Arts News:

"Siona Benjamin: Multicultural Identities"
2002-01-07 until 2002-02-08
Columbus College of Art and Design
Columbus, OH, USA United States of America

Siona Benjamin, who grew up a Sephardic Jew (Middle Eastern and Spanish ancestral heritage) in India, explores the dialogue between ancient and modern in her Muslim- and Hindu-inspired paintings and collage sculptures, which also incorporate Jewish iconography. Awareness of her hybrid background is enforced through simultaneously playful and sobering realization of multiple identities in two series of work entitled Finding Home and Spicy Girl.

I am currently working on a series of paintings entitled Finding Home. In this work I raise questions about what and where is home, while evoking issues such as identity, immigration, motherhood, and the role of art in social change. I am a Sephardic Jew from India (my ancestors came to India from the Middle East and perhaps also Spain centuries ago). My family has gradually dispersed (again), mostly to Israel and America, but my parents remained in India. I am now also an American. With such a background, the desire to find home, spiritually and literally, has always preoccupied me a concern that I feel many Americans can relate to, as this comparatively younger nation was largely formed by immigrants and their descendants. The feeling I have of never being able to set deep roots no matter where I am is unnerving, but on the other hand, there is something seductive about the spiritual borderland in which I seem to find myself.

My paintings also explore female energy and power, as I am inspired by tantric art (of ancient India). The work is informed as well by Indian miniature paintings, Byzantine icons and Jewish religious art from my childhood. Thus far I have completed forty paintings on paper in gouache and gold leaf for this project and I will create approximately twenty more. These paintings will be displayed on the wall along with an installation on the floor in the form of a mandala.

I envision the full series of paintings, once completed, to remain together as a unit, as part of a traveling exhibition. Rather than having only the usual (passive) display format, I will be interested in engaging the viewers in a dialogue, using the exhibition in a gallery as the focal point and backdrop for events during which the topics of the paintings would be discussed.

During the past few years I have been involved in teaching multiculturalism in schools and communities through the Illinois Arts Council Arts-in-Education program. While working on these cross-cultural projects with students in schools and communities, I have come to many realizations about myself as a painter. I am still trying to reconcile the conflicts I experienced in my own upbringing as a Jew who attended Catholic and Zoroastrian schools while growing up in (predominantly Hindu and Muslim) India! On top of this, I have lived in or made extended visits to Europe, the Middle East and, of course, the U. S. For a long time I did not know what to do with my own hybrid background and experiences. The residency projects suggested to me how I might delve into the essence of my own individual history. The point is that this has become a cyclical process, with my own research and paintings stimulating my work in my teaching, which in turn returns energy and inspiration back to my own paintings.

As I have said, this work emphasizes women's issues and raises questions about identity. The forms, though, may appear unconventional and exotic to some. In this multicultural society, I would like the viewers transcend this apparent exoticness and absorb the core message - tolerance of diversity.

Siona Benjamin

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