Today’s Advent offering follows on from yesterday’s, taking another look at the biblical character of Hagar. And again, our image today presents us with an afterlife for Hagar that stands in stark contrast to her more traditional portrayals in the visual arts, where she often appears as an abject, powerless figure who remains at the mercy of Abraham and Sarah. Instead, American artist and urban muralist Van Arno gives us a powerful, proactive Hagar who is quite literally fleeing the biblical traditions that entrap her.
Van Arno’s Hagar is an incredibly imposing figure, whose positioning in this painting makes her look Amazonian in size and strength. Clutching Ishmael in her left arm, she races forward (a bit like a rugby player heading for the try line), her speed of travel indicated by the way that her clothes, beads, and son stream behind her. The dark clouds of her biblical heritage loom above, but we are confident that she will outrun them. Mad march hares leap around her feet, typically symbolic of rebirth and resurrection, fertility and sensuality. Although still a sexualized figure here, as she is in the Genesis 16 and 21 narratives, her potency and presence give her new life and empowerment, as she screams, at the top of her lungs, heading towards the future freedom that she so richly deserves.
Remember to join me tomorrow for more Advent visual goodness.
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.