Painting A Spectrum: Jewish Women Of Color
"Lilith's Lair" by Sonia Benjamin c/o of ACA Galleries

In Siona Benjamin's new exhibit, the artist explores ancient, Jewish biblical figures through unusual color palettes

Color is at the core of an artist’s practice: a palette can function like a signature.

When painting flesh tones in a non-naturalistic way, the significance of color becomes especially apparent. In Siona Benjamin’s newest exhibit, she paints the subjects in her paintings — Jewish women of color —  blue.

On view through April 22nd at ACA Galleries in Chelsea, Siona Benjamin: Beyond Borders, features paintings, drawings and installations that highlight the way the artist combines historical, artistic traditions with her own complex identity. Originally from Mumbai, Benjamin grew up in a Jewish community among a predominantly Hindu and Muslim India. Now residing in the U.S., Benjamin uses her art to portray her role in America, while contextualizing her works in Biblical narratives.

Bursts of color greet visitors as they enter the gallery, like the bright, fiery orange background of Finding Home 97, Trap and Release (2016), or the vivid cherry red of Lilith Lair (2011). Instantly, the viewer is paying attention to the impact of color, as their eyes follow a visual path of vibrant blue female figures dancing, squatting, and posing throughout the paintings.

"Exodus I See Myself In you" c/o ACA Galleries

While it is unsurprising to see Indian women painted blue in history, it feels new to see a blue representation of Jewish characters like Lilith or Rachel. Benjamin explains her reasoning for selecting blue as the skin tone and symbol of being a Jewish woman of color: “Being a light blue, it could be the color of the sky and the ocean, and that stretches all over the world. So, I could belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time,” said Benjamin.

The paintings are busy and loud; alive in the way it might feel to walk down the street in Bombay, but the works are specific in their utilization of a cultural hodgepodge. Benjamin’s works are inspired by Indian miniature paintings and Sephardic icons. Hebrew and Hindi are sprinkled all over her compositions. Her collage-like paintings include biblical and Bollywood vibes. Each painting’s mosaic of cultures implies a quasi-self-portrait of the artist.

Portrait of the artist, Siona Benjamin by Sami Studio

As the holiday of Passover approaches, Benjamin’s focus on the story of Exodus becomes even more compelling. The story is central to Judaism – a nation freed from enslavement – but it is also a timely (tiny) point of hope to other enslaved people around the world.

Next to her immersive multi-media installation, My Magic Carpet (2011), complete with slippers, pillows, video work and ceiling paintings; Benjamin’s new work on Syrian refugees edits out the bells and whistles of her lavish Eastern and Western religious influences. As a cultural minority and an immigrant, Benjamin felt it necessary to focus on drawing simple pencil on paper portraits of 24 refugees as seen in Exodus portrait #1- 24 (2016).

"My Magic Carpet" Installation c/o Aimee Rubensteen

It is not simple, but understanding peace beyond borders starts with empathy. Benjamin strikes this chord with the title of her show-stopping gouache and gold leaf on wood panel work: Exodus: I See Myself in You (2016).

From the stories of Exodus to the current political climate, with or without the layers of color, art continues to teach us that we can find similarities … even amongst our differences.

Siona Benjamin




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