By Richard McBee
Entire review article posted with images: The JEWISH PRESS/New York, NY Mar 23 2011
Siona Benjamin's Megillas Esther
Hebrew Union Collage Museum
One West 4th Street, NY 10012; 212 824 2205
Mon.- Thurs. 9am - 5pm; Friday, 9am - 3pm.
Free Admission (Photo ID required)
There is nothing funny about Siona Benjamin's Megillas Esther (2010). Unlike some contemporary illuminated megillas that emphasize the absurd and outlandish nature of the corrupt Persian court and the buffoonish character of the king, Benjamin takes the Book of Esther quite seriously. She is obviously deeply sensitive to the terrible consequences of God's hester panim (hidden face) in our own time.
Benjamin, a well-known Bene Israel artist originally from Mumbai, India, presents us with a singular perspective on the Esther story. Set in the visual context of traditional Indian/Mughal miniatures and infused with imagery from her extensive artwork on Jewish themes, this megillah casts the narrative into a potent brew of exoticism and violence.
Her illuminated scroll is eleven and a half inches by fifteen feet long, created over a year and a half in gouache (opaque watercolor) on a parchment prepared in Israel. She worked closely with both her anonymous patron and teacher Rabbi Burton Visotzky (JTS) to develop a megillah that was informed as much by traditional commentaries, her own Jewish/Indian background and contemporary experience.
Benjamin's images start innocently enough with a scene of the King enthroned amidst his royal court. One immediately notices the piled-up style typical of Indian miniatures, depicting the turbaned court sages and satraps, including a red-cloaked Haman, all toasting a dancing girl and her drummer. Her exotic pose evokes a flying angel, alerting us that this is no ordinary banquet and alluding to the unfolding narrative of Vashti's shocking rebellion
The artist intersperses seven full miniatures between three columns of text each, framed by a solid decorated border above and three rectangular panels of decoration and narrative images below. Additionally she has symbolic images (a brush, a sword, birds, flowers, etc.) flowing between the textual columns as a decorative visual commentary. The effect is hypnotic, calming turquoise borders punctuated by vivid greens and russet earth colors of the illuminations create a vibrant frame for the megillah text written by an Israeli scribe.
The intrusion of threatening long sabers, beautiful exotic birds, peacocks, elephants, deer, gazelles and lions along the top decorative border creates a subliminal counter text that becomes more strident, finally with fire-breathing dragons and prancing camels toward the narrative's conclusion. It is as if the natural world with all its mysteries is observing and commenting upon the deeply human story of Esther and her struggles to save the Jewish people.
While Benjamin's megillah is lushly beautiful to look at, a very serious message is subtly weaved into the fabric of the Persian/Indian images and sacred text. In a faraway time an evil man arose who planned to destroy all the Jews. By the intervention of a brave, beautiful woman was the plot uncovered. Ultimately the disaster was averted only by the annihilation of our enemies. And then we were free to celebrate. Today, as our enemies continue to rally, perhaps we need to ponder the lessons of this megillah.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art who is one of the founding members of The American Guild of Judaic Art. Excerpts of the article reprinted with the author’s permission.