Sarah and Hagar explained on a cloud.

This might be a very boring page; it's a way of storing My Stuff in such a way that should my laptop go up in flames, it would still be here somewhere 'on a cloud'. I frequently become aware of how I cannot understand the inner workings of computers, but somehow I CAN grasp the idea of a cloud, and I'm pleased to hear that this is in fact a proper term from the world of information technology! There's hope for  me yet!

I created 'Sarah and Hagar' during July, August and September 2011, and many of my blog posts during that time show close-ups of the work in progress and tell of what was in my mind at each stage.

"A dress for Sarah and a dress for Hagar" by Vivienne Rowett.

"Textile exegesis" is my life's work, in which genre this two-piece example lies. I begin by studying the text as deeply as I can with the help of a battery of commentaries etc, looking at as much relevant art work as I can find too, and then continuing study of the text & making the artefacts proceed as a single and very slow process; the artefacts and the process both reflect and suggest new lines of thought and enquiry of the OT text. (See the current V & A exhibition 'The Power of Making', which shows how making things actually affects the way we think). I believe that meditating on the biblical text promotes mature reflection on our human condition. Doing exegesis in textile - or any - medium is to attempt more than illustration.

Here I had in mind the things Hagar and Sarah have in common, which are often the very things that divide them too; and I am mindful of the long history of the three 'Abrahamic faiths' which claim descent from these women, with its sometimes bitter rivalries. I also consider the mendings of these divisions, friendships that break down barriers, here summed up in the line 'Perhaps we could meet for coffee?' Themes of seeing and (over)hearing are to the fore in these complex narratives, communication between humans, and between the human and the divine.

I work with cloth and machine-stitch simply because these media are ones through which I naturally think and express myself, and have in mind the way textiles and cloth scraps have linked humans together both through and across time and space. (Thinking of the recent Foundling Hospital exhibition).

I reference traditional and contemporary practitioners of art and craft, Palestinian and Egyptian textiles, Tracy Emin - 'Sarah''s tent-pocket/ womb pocket is about sexuality too - and especially Grayson Perry who 'explains' his work in Jacky Klein's book in a series of meditation-like pieces. His 'Artist's Robe' is alluded to in 'Hagar', as God's eye whirling with thoughts of creation; I also had the 14thC Holkham Bible in my mind. Hagar's silver-centred eye reflects the God she encounters. There are many other layers of symbolic choices made in my work; Sarah's lines are straight, and she is ultimately confined and disappears - missing Isaac as he comes to miss her - in a black hole of a cave in death; Hagar's lines are flowing; cast out, God waters her and she becomes free and is an ancestor to multitudes.

In the words of Phyllis Trible*,
'She is the first person in the Bible to flee from opression; the first runaway slave; the first person whom a messenger of God visits; the first woman to receive an annunciation; the first woman in the ancestor stories to bear a child; the first surrogate mother; the first slave to be freed; the first divorced wife; the first single parent; and the first person to weep. Given all these distinctions, Hagar haunts the biblical narrative in ways that other characters do not'.

Imagine Sarah and Hagar conversing on Mumsnet! I sometimes work with Radio 4 playing, and the backdrop of life-as-it-is-lived-now contributes to how I think about the text. My blog (the August and September entries mainly) gives some insight into the 'backstory' to this work's evolution in words and pictures.

I am a professional student of the Hebrew Bible, and elected member of the Society for Old Testament Study, and have completed a Citiy and Guilds certificate in Fashion, and other post-A level art training.

*Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives by Phyllis Trible and Letty M. Russell. Westminster John Knox Press 2006.


Having won first prize in the Lancelot Andrewes art competition at Southwark Cathedral, my prize is exhibition space there next November. I'm going to be working very hard on something on the Psalms. But the best reward for me was to receive a response to the work from one of the judges, Ben Quash of Kings College London, who is professor of Christianity and the arts, and thus his words feed into my understanding of my own work and how it can be understood in relation to the text - a fascinating example of what scholars call 'reception history', in action before my eyes. But the work was never meant to stand alone; it has always been intended to contribute to and stimulate discussion about the text it seeks to reflect.

Ben Quash:

"The main comments I have are on the winning adult entry. It seems to me to capture some of the importance of the frequent 'doubling' effect in the OT/Hebrew Bible, where the significance of something emerges out of the juxtaposition of two versions of it. So, for example, there are two creations - the second being after the Flood. There are two givings of the Law (Moses gets the tablets a second time, having broken the first set). And in this case, there are two partners of Abraham (Hagar and Sarah), and two children of promise (Ishmael and Isaac). The matching garments (with their womb-pockets) are doubles of each other that invite us to attend closely to their subtle differences.
Then some wonderful surprises emerge. Hagar, often viewed by mainstream Judaeo-Christian tradition as the offcast one, emerges as the more free, colourful, joyous figure, and this is because she is in some way able to emerge from Abraham's shadow and become his equal, as herself the progenitor of a great nation. The colours are brighter and the lines more flowing. Sarah's are dominated by black, and by rigid straight lines. The '1st', which is Hagar's badge, is an ironic reference to her coming 'second' in Abraham's affections, but has the more positive meaning that she - like Abraham - is really an *originator*: the first of a new line...
The little attributes of the children in the womb are charming and meaningful. I always think that one could do a Freudian reading of Ishmael's becoming a great bowman, because when his mother set him down in the desert, believing they were both about to die, she moved a bowshot's distance away in order to sit down and weep. So the child's longing to reach the mother whom he fears might abandon him is measured by a bowshot, and his whole life's task becomes about crossing the distance he needs to cross in order to regain his mother... Of course he became an archer (Freud would say!)."