Visual Storyteller Siona Benjamin's Paintings Reflect Cultural Diversity

Nov 8, 2017

Painter Siona Benjamin grew up in Bombay, India in a community of Jews that had been there for thousands of years. She was raised Jewish in a Hindu/Muslim India, attending a Catholic middle school and a Zoroastrian-Parsi high school, and she says India has been a very tolerant society for Jews. 

Samson Solomon (Korlekar) Marathi Translator, Mumbai; 36” x 36”; Photo collage and paint on paper; 2013
Credit Siona Benjamin

Since then, she has lived in the United States for over 30 years and has spent time in Israel. Because of her unique experiences, home and identity have become central themes of her work.

Benjamin's vibrant paintings fuse Indian mythology, biblical stories, pop culture, current events, and near eastern, east-Asian and other influences. She also brings a feminist and modern perspective to traditional stories. 

She is currently represented by ACA Galleries in New York City and has received two Fulbright scholarships in pursuit of her art in the past decade.

A documentary about her, Blue Like Me, was presented at the Milwaukee Art Museum on Tuesday night. In the movie, Benjamin reveals that her identity was complex. She was "not Indian enough for the Indians, and not Jewish enough for the European Jews."

Benjamin recounts her experiences with the latter situation in her years in the United States: "People would ask me, 'You didn't grow up with matzo-ball soup?' and I'd say, 'no, not really, I grew up with Indian-Jewish coconut curries. And they'd say 'well, that's so strange...' and I said, 'what's regular for you is not regular for people coming form other parts of the world.'"

Finding Home #77 (Fereshteh) Miriam; 15 x 12 inch; Gouache and 22K gold leaf on paper; 2006
Credit Siona Benjamin

"And I really believe that until we as a human race understand that, there will be misunderstandings and intolerance and racism and wars. You have to understand that difference that we share, and instead of finding it weird and strange, once should celebrate it," she explains.

Benjamin says park of her work is about addressing those issues. "Not shaking my finger and scolding people about it, but just with humor pointing it out...[and] it's not just one kind of person that I'm trying to talk to, it's all of us."