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Inside PJCC - Sep 01, 2017

The Blue In My Skin

PJCC
Blue Like Me - Triptych

By Siona Benjamin

I am a transcultural artist. A transcultural person is rather like a chameleon, able to change their colors according to the situation and environment. Today’s world politics pushes and promotes a need for a sense of belonging, a categorization of sorts, a push to take sides, either black or white. The gray scale in between needs to be explored so that when one makes final evaluations, it is painted with a fairness that allows us to learn about all perspectives and points of view.

It’s important to view the world outside of the bubble of one’s own country, religion and race. I believe that art can be an important vehicle in this endeavor. This involves not just presenting to my audience the uniqueness of immigrant cultures but taking this exploration a step further and deeper.

I am a Bene Israel Jew from India. My family gradually dispersed, mostly to Israel and America, but my parents remained in India. I am now also an American, living and working in New Jersey, but I still recall the ornate synagogues of my childhood, the oil lamps, the velvet- and silver-covered Torahs, a chair left vacant for the prophet Elijah in our Bombay synagogues. Having grown up in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim society, having been educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian schools, and having been raised Jewish in India and now living in America, I have always had to reflect upon the cultural boundary zones in which I have lived.

Very often I look down at my skin and it has turned blue. It tends to do that when I face certain situations of people stereotyping and categorizing other people who are unlike themselves. I have, therefore, over the years developed many blue-skinned characters in my paintings. This blue self-portrait of sorts takes on many roles and forms, through which I theatrically explore ancient and contemporary dilemmas.

In White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh diligently expounds upon a list of scenarios that illustrate how a certain skin color is privileged over another. “One is taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow “them” to be more like “us.”

In my case, if “them” did not turn out to be more like “us” then the skin turns blue, standing out as “the other” but also as a realization that “the other blue skin” can, in turn, be celebrated and accepted as normal in its difference. Thus making my characters come alive and enacting their stories as they reach out from a mythological past, I show how these characters use their blue skin to tell their stories.

In this process of recycling and rejuvenating, they remind me, in making and sharing my work, that myth making is cyclical and timeless. Thus, the blue skin has become my symbol for Finding Home No. 74 (Fereshteh) Lilith being a Jewish woman of color.