New Skirball Exhibit Showcases ‘Grayscale Of Identity’ Through The Color Blue

A new art exhibit, “Beyond Borders: The Art of Siona Benjamin,” opened at the Cincinnati Skirball Museum on April 20. It features the multifaceted work of Indian-American Jewish artist Siona Benjamin, known for her use of deeply blue figures to make statements about contemporary politics and immigrant identities. 

“My work explores the grayscale of identity,” she said, about moving beyond an American-centric Black-white approach to societal and identity issues in her art.

Benjamin’s unique perspective will be showcased at the Skirball until July 30, alongside the “Frank Stella: Had Gadya” prints, which are on display until July 2. The styles featured in Benjamin’s work come from comic books, Persian miniatures, Hindu iconography, Bollywood, and Sephardic Hebrew manuscripts. 

“I was thinking about being trans-cultural, and what it is to be a Jew in this global world – an Indian Jewish woman, American artist,” Benjamin said. “Blue skin characters in my work are the color of the sky and the ocean, but they’re also the color of the tzitzit and the tallit.”

To Benjamin, her art is about crafting a larger story from aspects of every culture. “How do you take from your specifics and make it universal?” she said. 

During her visit, Benjamin spoke about the challenges of navigating multiple identities and cultures, and about the ways in which her art has been shaped by her diverse background. 

“I belong everywhere and nowhere,” she said. “There is freedom to not belong. When you don’t belong, then you can find the freedom to express yourself.”

Benjamin is a descendant of the Bene Israel Jewish community that has a 2000 year history in India. She was raised in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim society and educated in Catholic and Zorasatrian schools – all while living in an observant Jewish home. 

She came to the U.S. in her mid-20s in 1986. Benjamin has degrees in painting, and theater set design. She was awarded two Fulbright Fellowships to document the Bene Israel community remaining in India, and those who recently immigrated to Israel. 

As part of that work she took family and community portraits, and combined them into collages depicting relationships between people and places, like synagogues. In doing so, Benjamin also documented the state of each community.

“I did photographs where I included people together with their families, [and] I asked them their story about, what it is, to them, to be Jewish in India,” She said “How did they retain their culture? How do they practice it? How do they keep it alive? Some people do and some people don’t.”

Benjamin’s use of the color blue is one of the most striking things in her art. Blue skinned characters are traditionally connected to Hindu iconography through the god Krishna. By using this color she explores the intersection of these two traditions, and finds her place in the world. 

“[I thought] the best color would be blue, because it’s so Jewish,” she said. “It’s in the tzitzit and the tallit. It’s in the Israeli flag…it’s also most importantly, the color of the sky in the ocean.” 

Part of her work is reimagining older mythical and midrashic concepts like the classically demonic character of Lillith, the first wife of Adam. Lillith in recent years has become a symbol of Jewish feminism

“I bring [Lillith] forward to today and she becomes anybody,” like a Ukrainian woman fleeing Russia’s invasion, Benjamin said. “How do you recycle [myths]? How do you make them relevant? There’s so much [to do], it’s like I’ve barely scratched the surface.”

One of the key themes that runs through Benjamin’s work is the concept of migration and displacement. Her work often reflects this theme, using symbols like boats and maps to evoke the sense of movement and displacement that characterizes the experience of migration. 

From 2016 to 2018 Benjamin worked on a series she titled “Exodus: I See Myself In You,” connecting the refugee experience to the pursuit of paradise, much like how many immigrants came to the U.S. for the hope of the American Dream. She “sees refugees roaming the world in a constant search for their lost paradise, or in a quest for a new one,” as Benjamin’s site describes the works.

Becoming a mother in 1995 is when Benjamin started thinking more about her identity and when her instinct to connect others through her art was cemented. 

“What is my identity? And where do I belong?” Benjamin wondered. “And making the connection of how similar we all are, instead of showing the differences. It’s about finding those connections, and then celebrating that.”