Today’s Advent image comes from contemporary artist Siona Benjamin (more details here), whose work reflects her Jewish-Indian heritage through her conflation of Hindu and Jewish iconography. Moreover, her engagement with biblical characters within her artworks typically invite us to consider these characters in light of the trials and traumas of contemporary life. The painting I’ve chosen for today is titled Beloved (Sarah and Hagar), which offers a fascinating and novel interpretation of the relationship between the matriarch Sarah and her Egyptian slave Hagar. In the biblical narratives of Genesis 16 and 21, this relationship is fraught to say the least. First, Sarah ‘gives’ Hagar to Abraham as a sex slave in order that he may bear a son. Yet when Hagar becomes pregnant, we are told that Sarah mistreats her (Gen 16.6) to the point that she tries to run away; even worse, once Sarah has given birth to her own son Isaac, she insists to Abraham that he expel Hagar and her son Ishmael from the household (21.8-14).
In Beloved (Sarah and Hagar), however, Benjamin offers us a glimpse of an alternative afterlife for these women, which transcends the tragedy of the biblical narrative. Here, Sarah and Hagar are reunited, returning to each other after Hagar’s exile. And, in their reuniting, they cleave to each other in a tight embrace. Sarah stands on the left, her head covered with a Jewish kippah (or yarmulke – skullcap) and a tefillin wrapped around her right arm, both of which may be traditionally worn by Orthodox Jewish men during prayer. Hagar, meanwhile, is adorned with a hijab, a veil covering the head and chest that is worn by some Muslim women. Cheek to cheek, body to body, these two figures look as though they are wound around each other, reflecting each other, despite their ethnic and religious differences; even the halos that crown their heads like golden tiaras are melding together. As Benjamin explains, ‘Being raised Jewish in a Hindu and Muslim India, I grew up having close friendships with Muslims. I cannot but see the similarities we share as human beings not our differences’.
Drawing on her Hindu roots, Benjamin has painted both women’s skin in a delicate blue (the traditional colour of supreme Hindu god Krishna). This is a common feature in Benjamin’s art, which she says helps her to ‘redeem’ herself as an artist. The blue skin reminds me of fragile porcelain, and sure enough, both women appear to be broken and bleeding. Surrounded by suicide bombers and soldiers, their vulnerability is made manifest and the blood that drips like tears from their wounds testifies to the continued pain felt by those who would rather reconcile and embrace than maintain a distance through violence. This is a tragic image, and also a powerful image, which testifies to both the hope that springs forth when we recognize in the other our shared humanity and the hopelessness of bloodshed that inevitably occurs when such a recognition is denied.