Nowhere to Run
Commentary by Nyasha Junior
Karel Gomes’s Hagar is installed in a biblical sculpture garden in his native Netherlands. Even within the context of such a garden, one would perhaps not recognize the sculpture as a representation of Hagar since she is depicted entirely alone—without her son and without even a jug of water (her most common identifying attribute).
This sculpture could represent Hagar at different points in her story as it is related in Genesis: her entry into Abraham’s household, her abuse by Sarah, her first escape to the wilderness, her return to the household, or her expulsion. Given the lack of contextual clues, one might also interpret this figure as a contemporary African refugee. She wears a head covering and a thin dress. She has a full nose and lips, and her feet are bare. Her lack of belongings suggests she is without resources and without options. She is stoically resigned to her fate but her resolute expression suggests that she is still intent on survival.
Although Sarah ‘gives’ Hagar to Abraham as a wife, Hagar remains enslaved. Her connection to Abraham and her pregnancy do not exempt her from mistreatment. Furthermore, Hagar and her child are not safe even after carrying out Sarah’s plan. Life within the household continued to involve abuse. But Gomes’s work offers a glimpse of how life outside the control of the paterfamilias could have been even worse than that: a possible death sentence.
This work illustrates how the Hagar story is another instance in which a woman’s body is used for the benefit of those in power. This is an all-too familiar narrative of the expendability of women and their bodies. Like those today who are fleeing persecution in many forms, Hagar faces limited and life-altering choices, but despite the human and natural forces affecting her, she is determined to live.
Junior, Nyasha. 2019. Reimagining Hagar: Blackness and Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Williams, Delores S. 1993. Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll: Orbis Books)
Commentary by Nyasha Junior
George Segal’s Abraham’s Farewell to Ishmael focuses on the parting of Abraham and Ishmael, but it invites us to witness the tension and trauma within Abraham’s wider family. Although the biblical text does not provide details of their leave-taking, Segal captures a moment in time that permits the viewer to engage different perspectives on the family.
Hooded with hands clasped, Abraham’s first wife Sarah stands alone, waiting and watching dispassionately as Abraham and Ishmael say their final goodbye. Hers is a confident, supervisory posture; she is overseeing the execution of her second scheme to have the family she desires. The first was the use of Hagar as a surrogate which led to the birth of Ishmael. Now that Sarah has her own child, Isaac, she wants Ishmael out of the picture.
Though Isaac is absent from Segal’s depiction of the family, he is the future, while Ishmael is part of the past. The die is cast.
Like Sarah, Hagar stands alone, but she faces away from the others. Appearing paler than the rest of the group, her prominence and her separateness are underscored. According to the text, Abraham has provided her with bread and water for her and her son’s journey. With a single bag slung over her shoulder, one realizes how meagre are these provisions. Despite Abraham’s wealth (Genesis 13:2), no retinue of servants or caravan of donkeys will accompany her and Ishmael into the wilderness. Her arm and hand placement mimic that of Abraham, but her arms are empty as she hugs only herself.
Abraham and Ishmael appear emotional as they linger in a warm embrace with their heads resting on each other’s shoulders. Wearing shorts, Ishmael looks both very contemporary—perhaps like a young adult leaving for college—and also vulnerable. Although God has reassured Abraham that Ishmael will become a ‘nation’, Abraham is exposing his second wife and his first son to an uncertain future. Sarah’s plan, which is now God’s plan (Genesis 21:12–13), has been set in motion.
Exum, J. Cheryl. 2019. Art as Biblical Commentary: Visual Criticism from Hagar the Wife of Abraham to Mary the Mother of Jesus (New York: T&T Clark)
In the Wilderness
Commentary by Nyasha Junior
Hagar leaves her master Abraham’s household twice. In Genesis 16, while pregnant with his son Ishmael, she runs away to escape his wife Sarah’s abuse, but in Genesis 21 she and Ishmael are expelled.
In the wilderness, Hagar also experiences two theophanies or appearances of the divine. The angel tells her to return to her mistress Sarah in Genesis 16, while in Genesis 21, the angel appears after Hagar moves away from Ishmael so as to avoid watching him die of thirst.
The neo-classical sculpture Hagar by Native- and African-American sculptor Edmonia Lewis captures the moment when Hagar’s despair is transformed.
Lewis presents Hagar as alone in the wilderness without her son. Only the empty water jug at her feet suggests the episode in Genesis 21. Hagar seems to be in motion. Her right heel is lifted, her left leg steps forward, and her clothing is pressed to her body. Yet, she does not appear to be running or fleeing danger. Although her single bared breast and knees are visible, she is not a dishevelled desert traveller crawling in anguish or panting with thirst. While other artists focus on Hagar’s grief and agony, Lewis offers a hopeful Hagar. With hands clasped together, her upturned eyes suggest that Lewis may be depicting the point at which the angel calls to her.
In the midst of this life-and-death crisis, Hagar is expectant. God has heard Ishmael. It is not clear how things will unfold, but she and her son will live. She is anticipating what God has in store for her, her son, and the nation that his descendants will become. Lewis’s Hagar seems grateful to God who has been faithful to his promises to Abraham’s first-born son.
Buick, Kirsten Pai. 2010. Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject (Durham, NC: Duke University Press)
Karel Gomes :
Hagar, 21st century , Bronze
George Segal :
Abraham's Farewell to Ishmael, 1987 , Painted plaster
Edmonia Lewis :
Hagar, 1875 , Marble
Legacy of Survival
Comparative commentary by Nyasha Junior
Despite Abraham’s expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, we know that they survive. When God opens Hagar’s eyes, she sees a well of water and provides for herself and her son. He grows up, and she procures for him a wife from Egypt.
Within Islamic tradition, Abraham (known as Ibrahim) took Hagar and Ishmael (Isma’il) to Mecca in Arabia to spare them from Sarah’s jealousy (Surah Ibrahim 14:37).
In the biblical text, we hear no more of Hagar’s story as the focus turns to Isaac. Ishmael, meanwhile, is nearly forgotten such that in the following chapter Isaac is described as Abraham’s ‘only’ son (Genesis 22:2). Still, in later years, both sons come together and bury their father (25:9).
The story of Hagar is often treated as a minor incident within the larger Abraham saga. Although Genesis 21 moves quickly from expulsion (v.14) to theophany (v.17), these three representations by George Segal, Edmonia Lewis, and Karel Gomes allow us to pause and linger within the narrative. In these three representations of Hagar, two involve Hagar by herself without even her son. Although typically, we think of Hagar as part of a unit or family, these images help us to focus on her plight and her feelings as an individual.
Although Segal’s family portrait includes Hagar, she stands alone facing outward. Segal’s Hagar does not appear to be ethnically distinctive in comparison with the other figures. The viewer focuses primarily on the presumed age of each figure and their placement in relation to each other. While Sarah seems cold and distant, Abraham is portrayed sympathetically as he appears reluctant to carry out Sarah’s wishes.
Lewis’s sculpture illustrates the hopefulness of Hagar perhaps at the moment of her second theophany. It is the most optimistic of these three images as Hagar seems to be anticipating a change in her circumstances. While Segal presents Hagar facing forwards and Gomes presents her with eyes closed, Lewis shows her gazing upward in anticipation.
Like Segal, Gomes does not provide any clear clues to identify Hagar. It is the most sympathetic view of Hagar as it focuses attention on her victimization and emphasizes her impoverished state. In contrast to Lewis’s expectant Hagar, this is Hagar in anguish. In contrast to Segal’s Hagar who is leaving the household, this is Hagar in isolation.
Together, these images raise questions about the legacy of survival. Hagar does not ask for marriage with Abraham and unlike many other biblical women, she does not ask for a child. Despite being Abraham’s wife, she remains enslaved and subject to Sarah’s whims and abuse. Eventually, Hagar and Ishmael make it through their wilderness encounter. Before we are assured of their survival, these images force us to sit and reckon with the horror of the expulsion. Although Hagar and Ishmael survive, what physical and psychological scars remain? Do we consider this story a happy ending? And if so, for whom?