Siona Benjamin’s beautiful, riveting exhibition screams India, in New York

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NEW YORK: Ever lived in a transparent boudoir in the middle of a busy pedestrian pavement? Or exposed your life of forced exile, hibernation, humiliation or isolation, an inmate in prison with a thousand peepholes for strangers to peer in through gossamer veils? That’s the feeling one gets looking at the installation ‘My Magic Carpet’, part of Mumbai-born and raised, of Bene Israel Jewish descent, and now who calls New Jersey her home, Siona Benjamin’s wonderful and beautiful exhibition ‘Siona Benjamin: Beyond Borders’ at the ACA Galleries in Manhattan, New York, through April 22, 2017.

The hugely talented Benjamin’s riveting paintings explodes in myriad colors from every wall of the gallery. It blossoms into incandescent poetry as one looks long enough; the layers of complex meaning unraveling like spools of multi-colored thread unwinding in slow motion, leaving trails of unnamed sadness that lingers long after one walks out of the gallery in twilight, to be comforted by the more predictable lights emitted from buildings, towers and hoardings.

The irony of a stationary ‘My Magic Carpet’ is not lost in Benjamin’s works. In many of her works, worn-out, anguished women imbued with blue skin like that of God Krishna have wings, but fly too close to the ground, in perpetual peril of being ambushed, pulled down to the ground, ravished of the last vestiges of happiness, identity.

Benjamin’s women drip blood, look beseechingly for divine help, succor, shrouded in the company of men, ghouls, devils, beasts and snakes, who encompass them, seem to offer panacea, death, or worse. Some women, as if shorn of their wings, try to bring down those escaping wings with arrow, as futile perhaps as trying to get a severed umbilical cord back. Some seem to be on the verge of immolation, of performing Sati.

On one wall is Benjamin’s new works: a grid of 24 black-and-white portraits of Syrian refugees framed in marbling – a technique she uses a lot in many of her new works, a composition of anguish and grace in times of despair, collated from news reportage, titled ‘Exodus’. The inviting and tastefully decorated ‘My Magic Carpet’, replete with its comfy cushions and offerings of chocolates, is empty for another reason: the inmates have been perhaps hounded out, killed or maimed, driven to lands far away; the exodus is real as it can ever be in today’s world of blocked boundaries, gun-toting guards at borders.

The isolation and emptiness of that illusion of promised fulfillment in ‘My Magic Carpet’ is complete when one looks at the pain of humanity that Benjamin has nurtured to evoke as a work of art, in those 24 portraits. As the men, women and children of Syria get eviscerated with chemical weapons, bombs, rapes and murder, it’s portraits like that drawn by Benjamin that will be testament to cruelty and lost dignity.

Benjamin’s influences are from miniature Indian and Persian paintings, Byzantine icons, Jewish and Christian illuminated manuscripts, with pop cultural elements like Bollywood film posters.

But perhaps, what comes out in great clarity seeing Benjamin’s exhibited works at ACA Galleries, and her wider repertoire, is the utter helplessness of the artist herself, to her sub-conscious reality, derived from her dislocation from India. It seems she cannot shake off India and its influence no matter how much, or how far she travels, how many rich colors of gouache she applies to her works.

Siona Benjamin with one of her works.

It seems despite her attempt to seek new homes, or perhaps a semblance of home, in Israel – where she travels to frequently, has got two Fulbright fellowships to explore art – the upscale suburb of Montclair, New Jersey, where she now has a house, India is what has caused an indelible impression, like a tattoo on her mind, that comes screaming from her art. She does still travel to India.

For Siona Benjamin, however, India travels with her like her shadow, grips her brush like her silhouette, when she paints. It consumes her.

Benjamin’s exhibition at ACA Galleries is not to be missed. It’s as beautiful a work from an artist of Indian-origin as there ever has been.