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Artist interview

Portrait of author-activist Jael Silliman as an artist

Exhibition of Jael Silliman’s artworks at TRIBE Cafe, Golpark, till November 30

Subhadrika Sen | Published 09.11.22, 12:28 PM
Jael Silliman at TRIBE Cafe, where her paintings are being  exhibited

Jael Silliman at TRIBE Cafe, where her paintings are being exhibited

All images: Arijit Sen / My Kolkata

Jael Silliman dons many hats. Known for her writings on Jews, Silliman is not only an acclaimed author, but also an activist and feminist. But that’s not all. Not many know that she also puts on an artist’s apron at times and picks up a brush.

Silliman, whose artworks are currently being exhibited at the TRIBE café in Golpark, has loved painting ever since she was a little girl but never got to take it up as a profession. Looking back at her early years she said, “I had a wonderful art teacher at Loreto House called Mrs Sengupta. She influenced me a lot. I wanted to be an artist when I was young. But then I went to study abroad at Wellesley College in the United States in the 1970s, a time of radical politics all over the world. It was the years after the Vietnam War, the feminist revolution, the sexual rights revolution, and we had this magnetic professor from Latin America. I took his class by mistake because I couldn’t get into the class I wanted and he changed my life forever. I never continued with my painting and I became a Political Science and History major. This gentleman went on to win the alternative Nobel Peace Prize. So, he had a massive impact on my life. And I stopped painting. I resumed it again about five years ago.”


Painting, Silliman feels, has given her confidence to explore the unexplored parts of her, parts that lay deep down in the subconscious. The way she describes the act of painting, it becomes clear that it is almost therapeutic for her. Silliman says, “I enjoy painting. I don’t think so much when I paint. Painting for me is a time of meditation where I don’t have to please the world. I know I’m not a very famous artist, I just do it out of passion and love and I don’t worry.”

My Kolkata got the opportunity to have a quick chat with Silliman, who picked her favourite paintings from the exhibition and answered a few questions on her artistic style and inspiration.

Favourite works

Three FTree Spirits

Elaborating on the painting and her vision for it, Silliman said, “These are dancing trees but these are dancing women at the same time. For me, what I really tried to do when I started was to draw trees but I found I was drawing women. So I merged the trees and the women and I do that very often. I think all of us are deeply connected to trees and the nature around us but we draw these artificial boundaries and borders. My painting actually breaks those divisions. I see us in nature in a constant vibrant joyous interaction and I think that’s what the dancing trees symbolize for me. This was probably painted last year.”


A powerful statement on womanhood, Replenish is where artist Silliman and feminist Silliman converge beautifully. “This painting for me is about regeneration and it’s about women as a force behind the universe but we are the universe at the same time. So we have the woman who’s bending over, she’s the ocean. It symbolises a woman because I’m a feminist. She feeds the Earth, which is also a woman. You see trees growing out of her hair. The Earth and the planets are also related and so the planets light her up and the moon. The flames go up again, they condense and they become water again. For me, the cycle of nature and women are deeply intertwined.”

Frida Kahlo, I’m a Fan

Silliman is an ardent admirer of the iconic painter, Frida Kahlo. She says, “I’m a Frida Kahlo fan and have been so for a long time, probably about 20 years. I saw her work in Mexico. Though I was much more drawn to the art of Diego [Rivera], Frida’s personality is so charismatic. To me, she is a woman who breaks all kinds of borders, a woman who is free about her sexuality in a manner that is way ahead of her times, who worried about indigenous people and their rights, someone who was broken in many ways. She was very vulnerable even on the canvas. So, I always find she’s a woman for every moment. I wanted to play with Frida. I thought I would view her as Begum Frida and she’s smoking a hookah in this. I have never seen her like that and she’s looking very comfortable but she’s got a mischievous smile on her face.”

Juggling roles

Silliman is a busy writer-activist and yet, one look at her paintings makes it explicit that a good deal of thought and effort goes into each. How does she find the time to paint? She answers, “Whenever I have four to five hours, I just go and start painting. I never know what I’m going to paint. I just start with a few lines and the painting emerges. But I’m never not been able to paint until now. Painting seems to come to me much more naturally than writing. Writing is a much more analytical process. In painting, I don’t think. I just let my emotions draw,” she said.

Artistic inspiration

Jael Silliman talks about one of her paintings with a visitor at the exhibition

Jael Silliman talks about one of her paintings with a visitor at the exhibition

It might seem unbelievable, but Silliman was never trained in the art of painting. She says, “I started painting again about five years ago and sharing my works on Facebook. I was really happy to see the response I got. I think it stems from my politics, my commitment to environmental and gender issues because my paintings are mostly about nature and women and the way they are fused together. I also have done some paintings on the Jewish community. Our synagogues are so beautiful, I wanted to document them. They are not here in this exhibition. Frida [Kahlo] is an inspiration for me. An artist who was able to be so vulnerable in her art and show her pain and politics to the world, has always been inspirational.”

Artists that inspire

Who are the artists that inspire the artist in Silliman? She says, Oh, I love Picasso because he was so bold, multi-dimensional. He was political. I don’t like his personality and how he treated women certainly. But in terms of his art, he is so flamboyant and the way he was able to move from one genre to another so fluidly is really impressive to me. I also like Diego Rivera who was Frida’s husband for his magnificent paintings. I like a lot of artist. I like Anjali Mennon’s work. That’s very inspirational. I always loved art so I have spent a lot of time in art galleries.”

Current colour palette

Silliman, whose preferred medium as an artist is watercolours, has lately been experimenting with newer colour palettes. She says, “My sister’s here and she’s inspired me to try a new palette, so the colours I’m using now which I didn’t use much before are a lot of pinks and purples. I am moving away from the greens and the yellows. So I’m trying to draw even less and just go straight to the paintbrush.”

Last updated on 09.11.22, 12:28 PM

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