California Lutheran University plays host to two exhibitions that transport viewers to faraway places while making them feel right at home. Blue Like Me at the William Rolland Gallery features work by Siona Benjamin, an Indian-born artist based in New Jersey. In the nearby Kwan Fong Gallery is Time Traveler: Compass by Rotem Reshef, an abstract action painter who works in Tel Aviv and New York.
Blue Like Me, William Rolland Gallery
“It is nice to be reminded of shared aspects of humanity,” says Rachel Schmid, curator of Blue Like Me. “[I] was drawn to the way [Benjamin’s] work underlies a commonality across multiple religions, geographies and cultures. She can take something that is essentially very human — like loneliness, fear, vengeance, excitement, love — and translate it with motifs influenced by Persian, Indian, Muslim, Jewish and even contemporary American art. They’re so amalgamated that you’re likely to see Hebrew, English, Hindi and Arabic, and yet everything feels familiar because, if you’re able to recognize even just one aspect of the piece, like the American flag, you feel a sense of home.”
That sense of home and not home is central to Benjamin’s work. She was brought up Jewish in the predominantly Hindu and Muslim India, attended a Catholic middle school and a Zoroastrian high school, then emigrated to the United States. “I always had to reflect on and consider the cultural borderland in which I seemed to find myself,” Benjamin explained during an ELI Talk sponsored by the AVI CHAI Foundation. Schmid describes Benjamin’s work as “multimedia in every sense of the word,” adding that it “incorporates reproduction with painting, drawing, hand-embellishments, rhinestones, gold leaf, bullet casings, installation, projection, performance and more. I feel that part of the reason the work resonates is because in a sense she is the work.”
Many of Benjamin’s pieces feature images of women — sometimes a self-portrait, sometimes a dancer, sometimes a Syrian refugee — who are depicted in the most beautiful shade of blue. “My childhood was something that seemed hard to explain,” Benjamin has said. Her childhood was a world of what she refers to as “unexplainable things”: synagogues in the middle of Mumbai, Jewish women wearing saris, Jewish brides with henna on their hands. “In my attempt to explain these unexplainable things,” she adds, “my skin turned blue and I became the color of the sky and the ocean, belonging everywhere and nowhere at the same time.”
That sense of belonging “everywhere and nowhere” resonates throughout her work. “Exodus: I See Myself in You” depicts Syrian refugees set against a background of paradise motifs. Another section of Blue Like Me includes portraits from the “Faces” series, which earned Benjamin a Fulbright scholarship. A portrait of a decorated war hero shares the space with one of a local caterer. “I liked that all members of the community were equal in value,” comments Schmid.
Several other works rounding out the exhibit eloquently and powerfully challenge what Schmid calls “the othering of people that we do.”
Time Traveler: Compass, Kwan Fong Gallery
A lovely walk across campus to the Kwan Fong Gallery leads you to Time Traveler: Compass by Rotem Reshef. The work is striking in its size and impact. Bursting with color, movement and sheer magnitude, the work stretches two stories tall and includes six connected scrolls, each representing a season. “Reshef imprinted different materials, mostly plastics and threads, on the canvases,” explains curator Sagi Refael. “She added an additional feature representing each season: raffia for summer, cellophane for winter, ribbons for spring and leaves for autumn.”
Another version of Time Traveler was first exhibited at the University of La Verne. For the installation at Kwan Fong, explains Refael, “Reshef wanted to use the same scrolls in a new way. This transition represents both the changes that the world has been going through . . . as well as to show how art can shift and become completely different while using the same materials, much like the four seasons repeat each year but never in the same way.”
Time Traveler has been described as a lighthouse, representing “a safe land.” Refael explains that it invites viewers to “search for the compass within themselves and reflect on the times we live in. Its size inspires the viewer to move in front of it to catch every detail. Instead of the viewer standing still, Reshef aims to create an artwork that activates the entire body of the viewer, to make him/her walk back and forth, get closer to the painting in order to see texture and variations of color, but also to go back and see the fuller picture, both from the ground level of the installation and from the balcony of the Kwan Fong Gallery.”
The work bears the shape of a cross but is not meant to be religious. “Reshef suggests that art can evoke a spiritual and meaningful experience,” Refael says, “not by praying [to] a divine entity, but by looking inside and finding oneself reflected in the artwork. [The artwork] reveals the soul of the artist, connecting to the soul of the viewer.”
Both Benjamin’s and Reshef’s works break down barriers while celebrating differences and highlighting commonalities we all share. Every piece is a soulful dance to the rhythm of humanity. This being Women’s History Month (acknowledged with the understanding that women make history every single day), there’s no better time to take in the works of great women artists. To their credit, the galleries of California Lutheran University often feature the work of women artists. Today they are giving Siona Benjamin and Rotem Reshef their rightful places in the sun. Seeing their work promises to be enlightening.
See Blue Like Me through April 12 and Time Traveler: Compass though April 8 at California Lutheran University, 60 W Olsen Rd, Thousand Oaks. For more information, call 493-3697 or visit rollandgallery.callutheran.edu or blogs.callutheran.edu/kwanfong/.