March 9–April 22, at ACA Galleries, New York
In a time of increasing sectarianism, as global tensions erupt around immigration and expressions of ethnic identity spark violence, Siona Benjamin reminds us that nothing is pure. A native of Mumbai living in New Jersey, she is from a Bene Israel family, a descendent of Jews who found a welcoming home in India when they fled religious persecution sometime in the centuries before the Christian era. Her work reflects her hybrid background. Eschewing the Jewish tradition of iconoclasm, she has evolved a painting style that blends Bollywood flash with the intricate decorative tradition of the Persian miniature.
Her almost exclusively female characters are painted Krishna blue, paying homage to Hindu mythology and art, but they embody figures from both Hindu and Jewish traditions. These include Lilith, the rebellious first wife of Adam who has become a feminist icon; Moses’s sister Miriam, who helped lead the Jews out of captivity; Kali, the Hindu destroyer and protector; and Fereshtini, the Persian angel figure who appears to be Benjamin’s alter ego.
This exhibition at ACA Galleries amounted to a kind of mini-retrospective, presenting work from 2006 to the present and suggesting the evolution of Benjamin’s work as it has become more formally deft, more complex in its layered references, and as she has increasingly incorporated elements borrowed from South Asian dance. Certain themes thread through all the works—the longing for home, the lure of a lost paradise, the power of women, and resistance to oppression. These general themes are dressed in mythic garb, but they point toward the upheavals of the present moment. “Finding Home,” the name of one series, is a poignant reference to the immigrant’s sense of displacement, while “Exodus,” another series, pays homage to the mass migration of refugees currently dislodged by war, economic distress, and religious conflict.
Two major works anchor the current show. The first is a large tent installation that visitors may enter. With its transparent curtain enclosing a round Persian carpet based on Benjamin’s design, My Magic Carpet (2011) evokes an Arabian Nights fantasy. Inside there is a roulette wheel whose ball lands on various aspects of the idea of home. Above, on the ceiling, Benjamin has painted a humorous depiction of an Arabian Night tale about a camel who pushes its master out of his comfortable tent. This subtly introduces a more political message about the occupation of other’s territories, although its import is ambiguous. Because the work relies on folklore, it doesn’t settle the question: who in our current conflicts is the camel and who is the master?
The other major work is Exodus: I See Myself in You (2016), a seven-panel piece that addresses the anguish of the refugee. Again using mythic imagery, the work presents images of weeping women, mothers sheltering their children or carrying them across rivers, a man carrying a ram on his shoulders and fearsome blue demons leering at their distress. These narratives appear on six panels that flank a larger image of the winged angel who urges the migrants forward. The vividly painted tableaux are set against flat gold-leaf grounds that evoke medieval altarpieces and byzantine icons.
Benjamin’s works are visually dazzling and thematically provocative. Through narrative, mythology, and blended visual traditions, they draw attention to the human costs of our conflict-riven world.