Barbara Benish completes the circle
In the famous 19th century political travelogue, Democracy in America, Frenchman Alexis De Tocqueville describes a remarkable scene that he comes across in the wilderness of Alabama—in the southern United States, in 1831. The European intellectual traveler, on his visit in the New World, stumbles across two women and a child beside a stream. He sees an Indian woman followed by a “Negress” who is holding the hand of a “little white girl of five or six years.” The Indian is described as a noble, “her hair adorned with glass beads,” and the negress is described as a slave in squalid European clothing. The Indian caresses the girl, as the negress vies for the child’s attention. The little white girl displays a feeling of superiority and condescension to both—a strange contrast because of her age and physical weakness compared to the women. When the group sees Tocqueville with his entourage, across the spring, the atmosphere of the triad is broken. The Indian pushes the girl away and turns into the forest. The negress waits with the girl for Monsieur to approach. Richard Rodriguez’s analysis of this scene in “Brown,” his latest book of essays on race, proceeds to criticize Tocqueville for being the indulgent intruder (outsider)--for breaking the spell of nature.
But there is no need to criticize the Frenchman, who was just doing his job. This is one of recorded histories first depictions of Old World meets New World, with a poetic twist. This scene is akin to multiculturalism’s debut in world history. Not just two, but three civilizations merging at one spot—America’s wilderness. And not the usual, men merging for a fight, but women merging to caress and take care of an innocent child…
Scenes like this are at the roots of Europe’s spiritual connection to the Americas.
Two and a half centuries later, Barbara Benish, a young American artist from southern California attempts to revive these spiritual roots between the Old and New World.
Benish grew up in southern California. She studied at the University of California, Los Angeles, Mexico’s Institute de las Bellas Artes, the University of Hawaii (B.A. in Art/Ethnology), the Royal Academy of Stockholm, and Claremont Graduate School (M.F.A. 1988). In August, 1989, just before the Velvet Revolution, she co-curated the exhibition Dialogue: Los Angles/Prague. (See short history and review of Dialogue exhibits elsewhere in this issue.) Benish returned to Prague in 1993 on a Fulbright Scholarship and never went back.
Benish had first visited Czechoslovakia (Prague and Domazlice) in the summer of 1979. On that visit, she says the poppy flowers along the roadside mesmerized her, as did the old men in the pubs. She has Czech heritage, and heard the Czech language spoken at home, growing up in Newport Beach (California). On her first visit to Bohemia (at the age of 17), she says, “I felt instantly at home, even then…. Staying here was a natural step; my connection here is just one of those things that is unexplainable in words.”
According to Benish, “History is our book of humanity, for better or worse. As long as one pays attention to whom the author(s) are, then it can be an instrumental source.” So for her, moving to Europe was “more like taking on the responsibility of that history,” which she feels Americans are very good at repressing (for example, the repressed history and culture of the Native Americans).
Some of her most provocative sculptures and installations throughout the 90s to the present reflect this responsibility to the shared histories of Europe and the Americas.
In 1992, in Prague’s Powder Gate, Benish’s sculpture-installation, Encuentro created a mystical meeting point of Native-American artifacts in Central Europe. (Encuentro is the Spanish word for encounter, in English.) The Powder Gate is a historic gothic tower, an ancient entrance to Prague’s Old Town, not usually used as an exhibition space. Inside the tower, Benish constructed a pyramid of rusted scaffolding, representing the swords of Spanish Conquistadors; hanging from this were glass slides noting solar phenomenon and the astronomical belief systems of the Chumash tribe, natives of the California coastal area. Other cards were decorated with Indian, Greek and Roman motifs. In the lower part of the tower were obscured symbols of modern American culture: consumerism and media signs. Completing the spiral at the bottom of the tower were empty glass slides that mirrored the clear light and colors of the stained glass windows of the room. Encuentro introduced obscure, though highly advanced native-American astronomy to the homeland of European alchemy; in Prague, the natural light from the tower’s stained glass windows welcomed and nourished the ancient symbols of knowledge from the New World.
In 1995, Benish’s art “occupied” the symbolic Czech space, Manes, with another solo-exhibition, “Water Enough for One Root.” Built literally over the Vltava, Manes is practically a monument to Czech culture. In an interview in Atelier, in 95, she explained her interest in the space: “There probably is not a more symbolic site in all of Prague, perhaps in all the Czech Republic, for representing the spontaneous and autonomous history of the arts and culture…than Manes. Its hundred-year-old history has always been based on the representation of a ‘pure’ national culture, fully conscious of its roots in order to open up to the rest of the world, with respect to specific individual ethnic groups….” At Manes, she installed large objects, silky “flowers” on the ground and billowing parachute-like ones above suspended from the ceiling. Again, natural light from the windows facing the Vltava was critical for the objects, while atmospheric music by Czech-Japanese composer Philip Noshiro filled the room. With these sculptures (installation), she provoked Czechs by also staking a claim in her new homeland: “the Vltava is the life-source for Czechs, metaphorically and literally (at least historically). My working process questions what this place (or any place for that matter) then means to the newly arrived foreigners; socially, economically, and symbolically. In the end, all these aspects are brought up about how far one can be acculturated and still preserve one’s own identity or past….If consequently with this idea, the identity of Manes’ past was disturbed, it is all the more reason, we agreed to celebrate, that it is no longer as it was…. I wanted to find something like a homecoming, or a searching for roots.”
These were unique and provocative shows for the Czech scene in the early 90s, because of their emphasis on culture clash, which is a sensitive topic to Czechs then and now; however, she says that the response from locals can sometimes be difficult to fathom. She says, “It’s always difficult for me to judge how my work is received here, as the climate is not conducive to dialogue, especially with a foreign woman. There is probably some level of competition involved, and the lack of a history of talking about issues out loud here sometimes makes me think I put my work out there into this big black hole. But then something happens, like the time I was teaching….[in Brno] and one student said she had seen all my shows and she could talk in depth about each installation.”
In 1997, Benish moved with her husband and children to southern Bohemia—to a town in the Sumava Mountains near the German border. Her studio and family are there, and that is all she needs. Since then she has not exhibited often in Prague; her only show in this country, in 2003, was in Pilsen (The Bride in the Enclosed Garden, City Gallery; and already in 1994, she had exhibited in Klenova, at Galerie Klatovy (Apokalypsa—“Songs from Hell” & “Hum, Hum, Lines for Pleasure.” For her, this is a natural development: when she lived in Prague, she was active in the Prague art scene. Now that she’s in southern Bohemia, she’s more active there. “Showing my work regionally is part of my commitment to the idea of community,” she says. “A lot of artists at a certain point in their careers stop doing this; I hope I can continue doing small, local shows as it is part of that outreach beyond the normal limits of the art world, and I like that.”
According to artist, Ben Shahn, in his book The Shape of Content, “The sense of reality and meaning in any person’s life and his work is probably vested in a community of some sort wherein he finds recognition and affirmation of whatever he does. A community may, of course, be only the place in which someone lives; or a community may consist in a circle of admirers, or again it may be some area of self-identification, the place of one’s birth, or some way of life that appeals to him….”
Benish’s work is exceptional not because she has dislodged herself from one community into another (from the California coast to the “coast” of Bohemia), nor altered her self-identity (she identifies herself as both a Czech and American artist), but wherever she is, her art has consistently created an opportunity for thoughtful dialogue with not only the community that it exists in, but also its primeval history, genius loci, myths and spirits, and her long-term desire to connect the histories of the New and Old World is pioneering.
Shahn, who was an American photographer and painter, says, “The public function of art has always been one of creating a community.” Benish is committed to her region, locally to her community; but this is not to say that she does not exhibit much beyond south Bohemia. Just last year, she showed in Paris, Los Angeles, Italy, and she’s now preparing for a show in Chicago.
Benish’s recent work represents an even deeper form of community than Shahn describes: her community includes marriage, motherhood and her children. The Bride in the Enclosed Garden was a theme inspired by the Song of Songs (Psalms) in the Old Testament. The fact that this is the oldest written text in the Western world fascinates her, as does the way that the text has been manipulated over history. Religious leaders have interpreted this text to represent man’s relationship to God; however, according to Benish, it is an erotic and mysterious love song, above all. Her “Bride in the Enclosed Garden” represents contemplation (meditation), i.e. a place for creative process, and the sculpture of the bride is both Male and Female.
In an interview with Jana Ticha from the catalogue for “the Bride,” Benish discusses gender and sex, celebration of the female body, and its power and capacity of bringing new life to the world. She says, “As a female artist, I naturally have always been addressing these issues. At the beginning of my career, the work is much more about sexual energy. Now I am a middle-aged artist, a mother—so the energy is different. The body is changing; it’s [the bride exhibit] about being a lover, but also a mother, a wife....”
In this exhibition there were also delicate Mother-Daughter drawings, which originated in collaboration with her oldest daughter. One would start drawing and the other would continue and contribute her own part. More recently, Benish says, “Their [her children’s] creativity has re-inspired and nurtured my own. To watch them draw is like seeing that film of Picasso doing the drawings on glass; total abandonment, spontaneity and pleasure. And art is just a matter of staying open to such things, is it not?”
Benish’s community is on two continents, at the least. Though she effectively pulled herself out of the competitive American art-scene just as she was getting recognized, she has not disappeared into obscurity. On the contrary, even though she has been a mother of two children for eight years, she has “taught, lectured, and created enough work to exhibit in over 30 exhibitions, including five solo shows.”
Benish’s work is in major museums and private collections around the world, including the prestigious Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which overlooks the coastline of Santa Monica and Malibu, at the edge of the western world.
Ironically, she wrote in 1990, “Czechoslovakia and California, each at the edge of the so-called western world, looks east and sees the other. When Walt Whitman looked west from California’s shores, he completed the circle, ending up back in the east, ‘Now I face home again, very pleased and joyous.’” Benish, growing up on the coast also looked west from California’s shores, and ended up in the east. She ended up much further than Whitman, and with a bigger clan; but all the same—she has completed the circle, returned “home again” and she seems very pleased and joyous about this decision.
Tony Ozuna, Umelec magazine,