Spiritual Borderland

The Gallery at Bristol-Myers Squibb explores the personal stories of artists with extraordinary backgrounds.

By: Ilene Dube

Above, Julia Cowing’s "Trophy Daughter"; below left, "Bressler (not Lenin)" by Simon Gaon; and below right, Siona Benjamin’s "Beloved" from Finding Home.

   Bene Israel is one of the largest and oldest of several groups of Jews in India, believed to have fled Palestine to escape persecution 2,100 years ago. Legend has it they were shipwrecked on the Konkan coast of India, and may have belonged to one of the 10 lost tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
   Bene Israel Jews were absorbed into Indian society but maintained Jewish observances, such as circumcision eight days after birth and keeping the Sabbath, all while operating under the caste system.
   In 1796, the first Bene Israel synagogue was built in Bombay. As Jews from Europe and the Middle East came, the congregation grew. The Quran uses the term "Bene Israel" as a favorable reference to Jews.
   Then, in 1948, most Bene Israel Jews began an exodus to Israel.
   Siona Benjamin of Upper Montclair is a Bene Israel Jew. She attended Catholic and Zoroastrian schools while growing up in predominantly Hindu and Muslim India. (Zoroastrianism is the ancient religion of Persia, founded 3,500 years ago by the prophet Zarathustra.) Talk about a multicultural background.


   Hanibal Srouji of Paris, France, was born in Beirut to a Christian-Lebanese-Arab-French family. During his teen years, the family fled war-torn Lebanon for Montreal.
   And Simon Gaon grew up in Brooklyn, where five different languages, none of them English, were spoken in his house.
   "Finding Home" is a theme of their lives, if not their artwork, and also the source of their creative quests. Hearing Voices: Personal Narratives, on view at The Gallery at Bristol-Myers Squibb in Lawrence through April 11, celebrates the diverse heritage of 16 artists: African, Chinese, Japanese, American Indian, Indian, Lebanese/French and Latino.
   "The artists in the show use their art to communicate the wide-ranging emotions and experiences associated with their racial and ethnic backgrounds," says Jayne O’Connor, associate director of corporate affairs. "The sculpture, paintings, collages, photography and mixed media reflect the search for identity and understanding and how family dynamics are affected when cultures and personal experiences merge."
   The seed of the idea for the exhibit grew out of the African-American Affinity Group at the pharmaceutical company’s Lawrence facility. "They were interested in a multicultural show," says Kate Somers, curator of The Gallery. Meanwhile, Ms. Somers had been keeping a file of artists for an exhibit on identity and culture. While visiting artists’ studios throughout the state, "I became aware of the diversity and wanted to bring it all together."


   "It enriches our organization to bring beautiful artwork into the facility," says Thomas E. Costa, vice president and deputy general counsel for the company. "It enables us to have a special moment between meetings and lunch. And it’s a positive experience for international lawyers who visit." Mr. Costa is an art enthusiast who serves on the corporate board of directors for the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
   "What makes this exhibit stand apart is not only the beauty of each piece but the thinking of the artists behind it," he adds. "Everyone has so many interesting perspectives, it makes for thoughtful discussion."
   "Every day in our schools, workplaces and shopping areas we can see and hear American faces and voices from all around the world," writes Ms. Somers in the exhibit catalog. "The artists among them represent to us the faces they themselves remember and the stories they were told. These are the personal narratives that so enrich American art and culture."
   Debra Priestly is an artist who mines her family history. Her mixed-media work, "Mattoon #5, 2001," is a towering grid of her grandmother’s Mason jars, each containing a photographic portrait of a family member. "My work is about ancestral knowledge, cultural heritage and the memories fostered by common rituals and objects," says Ms. Priestly.
   "You can read this on many levels," says Ms. Somers. "On the one hand it is an homage to the artist’s grandmother; just as her grandmother canned food, she is preserving ancestors in glass. But perhaps she is also commenting on the restrictions and limitations imposed on her ancestors because of their (mixed Native-American and African-American) race."
   Ming Fay’s "Butterfly Twig" takes advantage of The Gallery’s views and its expanse of light and glass. Suspended from actual tree branches that have been painted to accentuate their lichen and moss are ethereal wisps of organic matter that, on closer inspection, are chamomile flowers pressed between round sheets of hemp paper with deckled edges. The effect is like dried Lunaria Annua (money plant), although far more enormous and interesting, especially when air from the ducts sends it into motion.
   "The chamomile seed was chosen for its curative powers and the beauty of its shape," writes Mr. Fay. The title of the piece comes from the Chinese name for chamomile: wooden butterfly.
   "His work is based in nature, is organic, and often has to do with fruits and vegetables. The first time I became aware of him was in an art magazine," says Ms. Somers. "He is a smallish man and he was walking down a New York street with an oversized red pepper.
   "I think his work is saying we live in a world that moves too fast and has gotten away from real meaning, that we should pay attention to nature for wisdom and understanding."
   On one wall is a large grid of 16 color photographs by Julia Cowing, expressing the tension and chasm within a mother-daughter relationship. "She is a young artist, Chinese American, married to a white American and very articulate about her struggles with her mother who represents the old country," says Ms. Somers. "Julia pushed her mother away because she wanted to be American. Over the years she has made peace with her mother but is still struggling with her identity."
   The young woman in the photographs, her pretty face cupped in a mother’s molding hands, is Ms. Cowing’s sister. Another image shows a pair of black cotton Chinese slippers alongside a pair of glittery gold pointy Lord & Taylor stilettos. There is a picture of the inside of a kitchen drawer, chopsticks and Chinese spoons lying side by side with silverware. In another, paperback books with Chinese letters up their spines lean against their bookshelf brethren, English Through Pictures, Effective English and 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary.
   Siona Benjamin — she’s the Bene Israel Jew — calls her series of gouache and gold leaf paintings Finding Home. She layers her work with embedded images that give it added meaning. In "Hagar" we see a woman with almond-shaped eyes, her head covered in a black head scarf with gold branches growing from her clothing. She holds a snake-headed scepter that punctures the azure water, creating ripples in patterns that take the shape of sleeping nudes curled in a fetal position. In the sky is a moon sliver and swirly clouds from which gold Monopoly-like houses arise.
   In the Old Testament, Hagar is concubine of the patriarch Abraham, handmaid to Abraham’s wife, Sarah, and mother of Ishmael. She is forced to flee into the desert, where an angel appears and prophesies greatness for her son.
   "I raise questions about what and where is home while evoking such issues as identity, immigration, motherhood and the role of art in social change," Ms. Benjamin writes. Her family has gradually dispersed to Israel, India and the United States. "The feeling I have of never being able to set deep roots no matter where I am is unnerving, but on the other hand, there is something seductive about the spiritual borderland in which I seem to find myself."
Hearing Voices: Personal Narratives is on view at The Gallery at Bristol-Myers Squibb, Route 206 and Province Line Road, Lawrence, through April 11. Gallery hours: Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-5 p.m., weekends and some holidays 1-5 p.m. For information, call (609) 252-6275.