Siona Benjamin Paints Lilith of the Present
Siona Benjamin has been making intricately detailed, transnational art with a feminist, Jewish, and political bent for almost two decades.
She paints the joys, passions, and anguish of both time-honored and unfairly reviled women in the Hebrew canon, from Sarah to Vashti and, most often, Lilith—using gouache, acrylic, gold leaf, and other media. Yes, these women have found representation through the ages; by male artists for centuries, and more recently by female artists, whose opportunities in the field have expanded greatly in the modern era. Benjamin is the beneficiary of a twenty-first century art world that has opened up (to a degree) to non-white male perspectives. Her critically acclaimed art has been featured in more than 50 solo exhibitions and over 95 group shows.
Benjamin’s artistic perspective is informed by several aspects of her identity but perhaps most salient is her distinct and unusual heritage: Benjamin is a Bene Israel Jew descending from 2,000 years in Asia. In predominantly Muslim and Hindu India, Benjamin was educated at Catholic and Zoroastrian schools, and at home lived as an observant Jew.
Since emigrating from Mumbai to the United States in 1986, arriving in her mid-twenties, Benjamin has been pondering the meaning of belonging in her adopted homeland from all five of her identity markers: South Asian, immigrant, American, woman, and Jew. Her personal story informs her work alongside, and intertwined with, commentary on the imperfect state of the world today. By looking at a few representative examples of how Benjamin appropriates Lilith, one can see how global crises fuel her artistic muse.
Like Jewish American artists from the previous generation, Audrey Flack and Nancy Spero to name just two, Benjamin feels that scripture can convey some of her feminist sensibilities. For Benjamin, and most feminists who have adopted (or adapted) Lilith in art or literature, the mythological first wife of Adam stands as an icon of independence and courage. Initially appearing in the Babylonian Talmud, Lilith has metamorphosed over the years from a dissatisfied wife who longed for equality with her husband in Eden, and was cast out for it, into a demon who seduces sleeping men, endangers women in childbirth, and kills infants. All this for her so-called insubordination? For being an ancient egalitarian?
Men traditionally disparaged Lilith because she rebelled against Adam, refusing subservience to him, whereas women have celebrated her stance. Take two literary examples. George MacDonald’s late nineteenth-century novel Lilith negatively characterizes the protagonist as seen through Adam’s eyes: “[Lilith] counted it slavery to be one with me, and bear children for Him who gave her being. . . . Vilest of God’s creatures, she lives by the blood and lives and souls of men.” By contrast, Enid Dame, who wrote poems from a feminist standpoint and in the voice of female biblical figures, assumed Lilith’s point of view on more than one occasion. Dame’s moving poem, from 1999, expresses Lilith’s reasoning, legacy, and regrets in just a few short stanzas. The last stanza reads: “sometimes / I cry in the bathroom / remembering Eden / and the man and the god / I couldn’t live with.”
Benjamin, like this very magazine, the abortion funding Lilith Fund in Texas, and the 90s female-driven music festival Lilith Fair, are just some of the contemporary artists and activists who have followed Enid Dame in proudly reclaiming Lilith’s perspective.
Benjamin’s depictions of Lilith are intriguing in their variety, despite their ubiquity in her art. Mingling styles derived from comic books, Pop art, Bollywood, Indian folk imagery, Persian miniatures, and Hebrew illuminated manuscripts, Benjamin illuminates far-reaching issues through reinterpretations that connect women from the Hebrew Bible and Jewish myth – Lilith most consistently – to the present day.
The ambiguous Lilith, unfairly cast as an outsider, allows Benjamin to grapple with world diversity and injustice. As she explains: “I can dip into my own personal specifics and universalize, thus playing the role of an artist and activist.”
The Finding Home series is Benjamin’s largest and on which she has been working intermittently since the 1990s. Subtitled Fereshteh (“angels” in Urdu), the series comprises 82 small scale paintings that explore the nature of place, both “spiritually and literally,” as Benjamin puts it. Twelve paintings from the series feature Lilith. Here a winged Lilith wrapped in a tallit dominates the wood panel. Leaving no doubt as to the identity of the angry woman, Benjamin has clearly written Lilith’s name in bold, Hebrew lettering at the bottom center.
Nodding toward the world religions to which Benjamin has been exposed in her native land and the diaspora, Lilith wears a necklace adorned with a hamsa (Judaism and Islam), a decorative snake armband (Hinduism), and of course the Jewish prayer shawl. A bullet has penetrated her chest, blood seeping down her torso, a Christian symbol of Jesus’ crucifixion. Benjamin references varied religious symbols because she wants her work to be identifiable to more than just a single subgroup. She universalizes the human experience, finding commonalities, not differences.
Damned through the ages, Lilith shouts in a classic comic book speech bubble, emphasized with all capital letters and an exclamation point, “A thousand of years have I waited keeping the embers of revenge glowing in my heart!” Those blazing embers surround Lilith, underscoring her fury – a fury borne of years of vilification. At the same time, Lilith stands more broadly as any targeted woman.
All of Benjamin’s Liliths have vibrant, turquoise blue skin, just as all of her women are colored blue. “Blue like me” is Benjamin’s calling card. “Being blue is a symbol of being other,” she says. Blue is the signature color of a woman of color, like Benjamin herself. She favors blue because it signals the sky and the ocean. Benjamin’s figures also assume the blue flesh traditionally used in depictions of the Hindu deity Krishna.
This 80th installment of the Finding Home series is inspired by the Amar Chitra Katha comics of her youth and two Christian sources: Gian Lorezo Bernini’s seventeenth-century sculpture Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, and imagery associated with Saint Sebastian. Painted many times over the centuries, St. Sebastian was martyred by arrows. Finding Home #80, and others, are influenced by what Benjamin deems her “personal mythology” derived from the belief systems of her youth: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Here again Lilith crosses religious boundaries: donning a tallis, wearing a hamsa, and impaled by a weapon. Lilith’s name appears in Hindi at the painting’s base.
Yet this suffering Lilith will not stand idly by. An arrow of war may pierce her, but she has not come unprepared to battle. This time she is empowered, a cowboy’s gun and holster dangle at her waist. She may die from her wound amid plumes of bold red flames set against a faultless blue background, but she will perish blissfully – in ecstasy like her predecessor St. Teresa – and in the strength of her convictions. Her head turns upward toward the heavens and the stars of the sky. A dove leads her to a place devoid of intolerance and strife.
Lilith in the New World, a multimedia installation, recalls a theatrical stage (Benjamin has a masters in theater set design.)
With Lilith in the New World, Benjamin moves from the tiny, delicate paintings that mostly characterized her work to this point. At center hangs a large reproduction of Finding Home #75: Lilith, a visual play in color and style on Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic Pop art canvas Blam!. Benjamin copies the flames triggered by the exploding aircraft in her predecessor’s well-known canvas but features a blue-skinned Lilith rather than a doomed plane. Oversized gold wings made of wood frame the painting, and more than two dozen tiny blue dancers, all hand painted by Benjamin, surround the installation. Other blue dancers occupy the base. At the bottom, sits a chess set on a Persian rug. The chess set serves as a symbol of war, further connecting the canvas to Lichtenstein’s canvas but while Lichtenstein (also Jewish) glorifies combat, Benjamin condemns war She firmly believes that it is pointless to play “chess,” her metaphor for war. This tactical game of wits with pawns and rooks on a board translates to physical combat with men and women on the battlefield. Such continued violence indicates that the new world is really not new at all.
The three-paneled format that Benjamin appropriates for Lilith’s Lair, a triptych, is decidedly not Jewish. In fact, triptychs have been typically employed for altarpieces and a staple of Christian art. Benjamin, though, has imbued the richly red hued triptych with a multicultural stamp. A radiant cerulean Lilith appears at the center with a gold halo, another Christian reference, surrounding her entire head. Eight photo-collaged blue dancers, recurrent figures in her art, sit atop that halo. Others decorate the four ornate corners of the central panel. Just as the side panels of Christian altarpieces open and close, so does this one.
At the bottom of the central panel, Benjamin has imagined Lilith entering the Red Sea following her exile from the Garden of Eden. Under the sea, Lilith is finally free to create a paradise of her own making. The dancers trailing behind rejoice in her liberation. Atop the right wing, Lilith carries her suitcase to begin her new, independent life.
In front of this altar of sorts, Benjamin has placed a blue cast of the lower half of her face as an offering. Benjamin views Lilith as her inspiration: “I have become Lilith and Lilith has become me.” Lilith is the ancient woman who asked questions and stood up for her convictions, and as such, she serves as Benjamin’s ideal.
Benjamin is currently working on a new triptych. Here we can see her delicately laying paint on the central wood panel and the beginnings of a thought bubble emanating from Lilith’s head. She paints in layers of transparent gouache here, and most of the time, because this medium allows her to build the richness of color. The frame constructed for the installation will be populated by over 100 identical tiny blue plastic, three-dimensional men glued to wood. These seated men will look as if on a ship, one that carries anonymous refugees across the oceans to find asylum from persecution.