Lines, color and war: Painting as a form of healing
In the summer of 2014, images of war filled our television and computer screens as Israel bombed the Gaza Strip and Hamas launched rockets into Israel. Palestinian casualties heavily outnumbered Israeli deaths (more than 2,100 Palestinians compared with fewer than 100 Israelis, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs). As tempers flared and fingers were pointed, media reports of the war’s toll in Gaza were criticized as anti-Israel propaganda.
Los Angeles artist Jaime Scholnick watched the bloody images with horror and helplessness. Not knowing what else to do, she printed out copies of the photographs that filled her Facebook feed, and began drawing over them with a metallic pen and acrylic paint.
Fifty of those images are on display in an exhibition titled “Gaza: Mowing the Lawn,” at the CB1 Gallery in downtown L.A. through July 18. The exhibition’s name comes from a term the Israeli military uses to explain the occasional bombing of Palestinian residents. The number of images corresponds to the 50 days of Israel’s systematic bombardment of Gaza in July and August last year.
“I could have looked away,” Scholnick said in an interview at the gallery. “That’s my problem, I guess. I keep wondering, ‘Are you a masochist? Do you like feeling pain?’ I don’t know.”
The images are abstract, with lines of red, yellow, black, white and blue obscuring the details of the photographs. Yet the emotional impact is felt just as strongly. If anything, the comic-book-like illustrations heighten the drama of the suffering victims. Crying fathers holding their children’s bodies; a group of women in chadors huddled together; clouds of smoke and flame set amid a mosque’s minarets — these images are powerful, regardless of the viewer’s political views.
One work includes a boy holding a large stuffed animal, the big, yellow toy in sharp contrast with the gray rubble of a bombed-out neighborhood. Another is of a boy leaning in to kiss a baby’s corpse, adorned with flowers.
“It’s such a poignant picture. It’s like, these are just children. They’re looking at this little infant. He’s dead,” Scholnick said. “They’re so young to see death.”
Scholnick was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her family moved to Southern California when she was in third grade, and she grew up in Tustin. She studied art at CSU Sacramento and later at Claremont Graduate University. She decided to move to Japan after attending a 1990 show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art titled “A Primal Spirit: Ten Contemporary Japanese Sculptors.” She went to the show four times, calling it “life-changing.” She lived in Japan for five years, teaching English and studying papermaking. She said her painting style draws from Japanese design aesthetics.
“I’m really interested in material and paper,” she said. “I’m kind of into minimalism. I’m very conscious of color and line, and I think that’s a very Japanese thing.”
Scholnick is Jewish, though she’s not religious and bristles at the idea of Jews as God’s “chosen people.” She’s never been to Israel and has conflicted feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She said she has received some criticism for her subject matter, including from other artists, which left her feeling wounded.
“I’ve had more disapproving looks from artists who are Jewish,” she said. “I’ve had more comments, and I’m like, ‘You guys, as artists, it’s your job to be above all this.’ ”
Scholnick said she began these drawings because she didn’t know how to look at the images. Covering them up felt natural, because that’s what we do with things that make us uncomfortable. But while photographs can be easy to ignore, she said, art is harder to avoid.
The photographs invite empathy, and yet, seen through Scholnick’s colorful lines, they take on an emotional distance. Seeing the horrors of war behind the paint brings to mind our own screens of perception, which filter such images through a system of rationalization. While a photograph of war suggests an objective reality, a painting represents one person’s perspective. Scholnick’s work shows that we all approach photographs with our own biases.
“The photographed images of suffering … [do] not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them,” Susan Sontag wrote in her landmark collection of essays “On Photography.” “Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more — and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize.”
The piece that has probably received the most negative attention in the exhibition is of a crowd of Israelis at an outdoor gathering, watching the bombings and devastation in Gaza. News outlets had reported the phenomenon: Israeli friends and families sitting on couches and chairs on hillsides, looking through binoculars and watching the bombs drop.
“They set up these lawn chairs and kegs and they go out and watch them blow up the settlements, and they cheer,” Scholnick said, her voice full of disgust and anger.
Despite receiving criticism for her paintings, Scholnick said she’s concerned with honoring the dead, not trying to push an agenda. She wants viewers to see a deeper story, and was inspired, she said, by Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” Francisco Goya’s “The Disasters of War,” Pieter Bruegel’s “The Triumph of Death” and Andy Warhol’s “Electric Chair.”
“It’s almost like they’re universal themes of life and death,” she said. “I don’t want it to be just about this conflict.”
Artist Siona Benjamin brings Hindu and Muslim motifs to portrayals of biblical outcasts
In the space of a single painting, Siona Benjamin juxtaposes feminism, Indian mythology and Jewish imagery.
On a three-foot canvas, she’ll paint a portrait of a blue-skinned figure, usually a character from the Bible, with nods to Persian miniatures, Talmudic fables and Vishnu gods. Often there's a message in Arabic.
“I want people to realize there can be a universal message in Jewish art,” Benjamin told JTA. “I didn’t want to just be a Jewish artist, explaining my culture in my paintings, because it’s deeper than that. I’m a Jewish woman of color and a feminist with Islamic and Hindu influences, and they are all a part of me.”
Benjamin, 52, was born in Mumbai and her artwork combines the various influences in her life. Her favored subjects are biblical outcasts, and she aims to redeem them by presenting an alternative narrative.
In her home studio in this northern New Jersey township some 15 miles west of mid-Manhattan, Benjamin is wearing a modern version of a shalwar kameez, the traditional Indian dress of blossomy pants and tunic top. Her shelves are lined with books about Islamic leaders, Asian art and Jewish sacred texts. Doodles of Bollywood pop art and Buddhist statues serve as inspiration. But it has taken Benjamin years to grow comfortable with all the diverse elements of her art.
“I’m trying to use my Jewish heritage as a vehicle to create a universal message for their stories,” Benjamin said. “People think they know a full story, just like they see me as an Indian Jew and believe stereotypes. But there is so much more to these characters.
“If you look at biblical characters, there are deeper stories than what meets the eye. And I paint them blue because I’m redeeming myself through them, too.”
Benjamin grew up in the suburb of Bandra, the product of a wealthy family who enjoyed a comfortable and privileged life with cooks, servants and chauffeurs. As a child, she was envious of Indian friends who had large, boisterous families. Benjamin was an only child whose family lived mostly in Israel and the United States.
A ninth-generation Indian Jew, Benjamin's parents sent her to Catholic and Zoroastrian schools. Surrounded by this multireligious influence, Benjamin often found herself wrestling with questions of self-identity. Her mother lit an oil lamp every Friday for Shabbat, but she also believed in the Zoroastrian God Ahura Mazda and practiced Buddhist meditation.
At 24, Benjamin left India for America to pursue an education in fine arts, but found herself feeling even more lost and lonely.
“At that point, I was ashamed of being so different, of fitting into so many categories,” Benjamin said. “I spent so many years wondering what I was going to paint: Jewish themes of my ancestors or Buddhist ideas from my childhood? Where was home? Was India home to me? Or Israel? Or America? I think the estranged characters in the Bible felt just as confused as I was because I belong nowhere.”
Benjamin eventually drew comfort from her embrace of the Bible's lost characters. She paints characters such as Lilith, the mythological first wife of Adam, or Vashti, the dethroned queen from the Book of Esther. Benjamin often uses their stories to highlight feminist themes. Their faces are presented usually in blue in a nod to Benjamin's Indian heritage, which typically presents its gods in blue hues.
In one painting, Benjamin paints Sarah hugging Abraham's handmaiden Hagar as a suicide bomb explodes behind them. In another, Benjamin portrays Lilith wearing a prayer shawl and worshiping God as she catches fire.
Benjamin’s artwork has exhibited in museums across the United States, Europe and Asia, but she is most excited about an upcoming project featuring the Indian Jewish community, which she fears is slowly disappearing as its members immigrate to Israel.
Following the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, in which a Chabad rabbi and his wife were among the murdered, Benjamin said many people approached her with questions about the city's Jews and what they looked like. In the course of several trips, Benjamin took photographs. Her project, a photo collage of Indian Jews titled “Faces: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives,” will go on display at the Prince Wales Museum in Mumbai in September.
“Siona’s work has been recognized as extraordinary in the contemporary art world, in that she combines Judaism with a Persian-Muslim stylistic departure,” said Matthew Baigell, an emeritus art history professor at Rutgers University who has authored several books on American Jewish art.
Baigell has written that contemporary Jewish art is experiencing a “golden age,” and he points to Benjamin's interpretive paintings as one example.
“She’s provided one-of-a-kind perspective on female characters from the Bible,” he said, “and is part of a group of artists who are not afraid to expose their Judaism in a creative way.”