“Very often I look down at my skin and it has turned blue,” says artist Siona Benjamin. “The blue skin has become a symbol for me of being a Jewish woman of color.”
Benjamin, who was born in India and now lives in New Jersey, reflects her upbringing as a Bombay Jew in her artwork — which is on display through Sept. 18 at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City.
The 56-year-old Benjamin includes familiar biblical figures such as Miriam and Rachel in her works. Almost all of the artwork included in the “Blue Like Me” exhibition depicts women — specifically, blue-skinned women.
Coming from a Hindu-majority nation in which the revered god Krishna is often depicted as having blue skin, Benjamin said that color represents a sense of crossing cultural lines.
“The blue color is the color of the sky and the ocean, of belonging everywhere and nowhere at the same time,” she said. “It’s about finding your identity. It sort of is a boundary-less color.”
About two dozen of her works — paintings, photographs, screens and even a blue plaster face molding — line the walls of a hallway leading from the lobby of the PJCC to the rear of the building and an entrance to the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School.
Though it’s a bit jarring to have Benjamin’s artworks separated by bathrooms, water fountains and a janitorial closet, the hallway setting ensures plenty of people will see the works on the way to yoga class or the PJCC’s child-care center.
“This allows all 10,000 of our members to see all of the artwork, whether they’re dropping off kids or wherever they’re headed,” said Kimberly Gordon, the PJCC’s cultural arts director. “The gallery is free and open to the public.”
The artwork subjects range from sacred to goofy, with one depicting a six-armed Statue of Liberty holding objects ranging from a guitar to a menorah.
Some are playful — including one in which the Jewish mythological figure Lilith is surrounded by an angel talking on a cellphone and another wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap.
Others are macabre, such as a screen depicting demons, dragons and dripping blood.
Benjamin is part of Bene Israel, a term that means “sons of Israel.” The Bene Israel are a community of Jews in India who once numbered about 25,000 but have shrunk to about a fifth of that size because of emigration to Israel, the U.S. and other countries.
Growing up in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim nation and having been educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian schools, Benjamin blends a mosaic of influences, including Indian painting and Sephardic iconography, into her work.
She still recalls the oil lamps and silver-covered Torahs in the Bombay synagogues of her youth, and for a long time she focused solely on abstract art and avoided the figurative imagery that is not accepted in traditional Jewish art.
Judaism “influenced me in so many ways [and] became very pivotal in all that I’m doing now,” she said. “The background of being Indian, of being Jewish and seeing all these religions when I was growing up — it made me think about where I belong and where is home.
“Jewish art is not supposed to be figurative, that sort of stays in your mind,” Benjamin added. “But painting these characters, they’re not gods and goddesses. They’re actors in a play.”
Benjamin moved to the U.S. when she was 23 for graduate school and ended up getting master’s degrees in painting and theater set design. She continued her education with two Fulbright scholarships — one to India in which she interviewed and depicted some of the Jews left in that nation, and one to Israel in which she focused on Indian Jews who had made aliyah (“the transition from mother India to father Israel,” she said).
Benjamin has had one-woman exhibits throughout the U.S. as well as in Israel, India and France. The Foster City show, which opened July 11, is her first in the Bay Area, and will be followed up with a similar exhibit at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael from Oct. 3 to Jan. 5, 2018.
From Sept. 6 to 11, Benjamin will be the PJCC’s artist-in-residence. Her schedule will include an Indian Shabbat dinner, lectures, classes and a “block party” in which she will lead kids of all ages in drawing with chalk on the pavement.