Research point 3

Although for my Assignment 1 used the female hands/gesture was explored as a conceptual (feminist) element, I find it interesting how I will be researching on the same subject matter, the hands but from a different context; that is the significance and symbolism of hands/feet across cultures.

Surprisingly enough, I do remember from a very young age the encounter of hands whether there was a design element or used as symbolic hand gesture. So I guess the best place to start is from my personal encounters.

The hand gesture symbolism within a Culture Context

One must acknowledge that it all depends under what context the hand is being referred within a culture, and by that I mean as a religious, political, social, numerical, language (means of communication) image, image symbol or gesture.

As a Christian Greek Orthodox one of the first symbolic gestures that I was taught by my parents was the motion involving joining the first three fingers (placing the thumb and the first fingers together) to symbolize the Holy Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So here the hand in motions represents symbolic religious significance; social religious context.


Hand gestures depicted in the religious Greek Orthodox iconography of Christ and the saints date back to the classical Greco-Roman and Roman where they were well-established as a complex means of gesture code communication which was used by both orators and rhetoricians as it was a matter of public knowledge of that era. So basically the hand gestures, was a coded language that everyone understood during that time but for contemporary time it is difficult to decipher.


So it does not come by surprise how the early icon painters included such hand gesture symbolism in their compositions. In most Greek Orthodox icons Christ is depicted raising His hand in the very same way as the classic Greek/Roman speaker but there is more depth and complex significance. In both the Byzantine Catholic or Orthodox iconic depiction of Christ raising his right hand represents the attitude of blessing just like the saints who were clerics and priests do to bless others in a liturgy.

In Christian iconography the hand ‘blessing’ gesture shapes the letters IC XC; an abbreviation for the words Jesus (/HCOYC) Christ (XPICTOC) which includes the first and last letter of each word; ‘the hand that blesses reproduces, with gestures, the Name of Jesus, the “Name above every name.”’(  Further to shaping letters, the Christ hand blessing gesture also conveys doctrinal truths where the three fingers used to spell I and X represent the Holy Trinity; the unity of One God in three Persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). The joining of the thumb and the index finger forms the letter C as it also symbolizes the Incarnation, the union of the divine and human natures in the person of Christ.

During the renaissance era painters such Leonardo da Vinci uses such hand gesture symbolism depicting the angel Gabriel bringing The Good News to the virgin Mary holding the lily flower in one hand as the symbol of purity/virginity and the right hand gesturing the blessing; ‘The Annunciation’ (1472-1475 ). I was fortunate to see this painting on an art trip to Florence at the Uffizi historical art gallery.

The Annunciation, 1472-1475 by Leonardo da Vinci

(personal photo archive: photo taken at the Uffizi art gallery 2017 art trip)

Referring back to the above Greco-Roman had gesture diagram, some of the gestures are still used today for example, the gesture for excellence or perfection.

It becomes interesting to discover how this very same hand symbol is also evident in the Buddhist and Hindu religions; it is considered a symbol of inner perfection; the epitome of perfection – a circle. (Mundra Vitarka/one of the six Mudras Hand Gestures of Budha). With further research into this I also discovered that within Buddhism there is also a Mundra hand chart gestures of symbolic significance which would take a lot more than a research point to gain a greater insight as it is a vast area of knowledge.

 This does make me wonder if there was any influence from one culture to another even during those historical times; through trade and commerce or if there is history influence of some sort. What becomes obvious is that throughout history mankind has a tendency to use hand gesture as part of the human communication system; part of the means of self-expression mannerism, where while speech/conversation is being conducted hand movement accompanies this form of communication.

(personal photo archive: photo taken at Porto, Portugal)

Hand gesture symbolism is created depending on the social context by which it is created. Where in one culture at a particular time and place it has a religious, spiritual significance in another place and era it might represent a political statement or movement. For example, where for Christianity and Buddhism there is religious philosophical significance, one of America’s oldest civil rights movements used this hand gesture as a symbol of white supremacy; white power sign symbol, so here one can assume that there is a more sinister conceptualism tendency in its use (racism).

In the Japanese culture the one hand ring gesture is used as a symbol of wealth/money as the circular shape represents a coin. By forming this hand gesture and individual can use it to avoid the verbal awkwardness in asking about or for money. There is also reference to financial transaction or wealth status; a signal to enter an invitation into a business negotiation, bribe etc.

As mentioned previously the that it is within the human nature to expand its tendency on a human means of communication/self-expression. Where audio vision is impaired, meaning blindness or deafness there is hand gesture and hand involvement. Humans have developed a visual hand signal alphabet representing the alphabet but a system of vocabulary where there is command of its use. So for a deaf individual sign language becomes the voice and for a blind person the use of the finger tips the eyes; as sensory receptors to pick up coded brail language symbols gives particular significance to the hand involvement.

On the other hand, humans have been equipped with a complex sensory neurons system where its significance mostly on the tips of the finger (and other areas of the body) is to perceive the world that surrounds us. So it does make sense how mankind has evolved from sensory perception to more cognitive, conceptual means of communication/perception. Just like an infant that begins at 1 month of age to stare at its fingers, at 2 it begins to play with its fingers and start touching everything, by picking it up and placing it its mouth (asthesio-kenetic developmental stage) later on uses verbal and body (hand gesture) for communicating language.  And just like there is a coded hand gesture language to represent the alphabet there is also a numerical one which dates back to Roman times. So here the hand gains the significance of keeping track, counting, etc.   

The hand as a significant image

So far I have analyzed through research the significance of hands/ hand symbolism as a language/ means of communication; advancement in human evolution but I am going to go all the way back to caveman era, specifically make reference to the ‘Cueva de las Manos’ – ‘Cave of the Hands’ Rio Pinturas, in Santa Cruz, Argentina, South America, dating back from 13,000 to 9,000 years ago.

Cave of the Hands – Cueva de las Manos, Río Pinturas

The Cave of the Hands consist of an artistic sequence of stenciled outlines of human hands one juxtaposed onto another onto the cave wall surface.  This makes one wonder the context by which this particular “work of art”; as we contemporaries consider was created by the earliest hunter-gathered groups. It is speculated by scholars that the hands represent magical control designed to guarantee a successful hunting venture. One must understand that during their time the main concern of these early gatherers-hunters was sustenance, therefore the fear or concern for survival was of significance. Even though the exact meaning behind such images remains unknown, it can be assuming that this cave art was of the early form of symbolic or religious function, or both. This makes me wonder if humanity’s purpose of creating religion is driven by the fear. None the less, here the image of the hand gains symbolic importance that signifies the need of controlling fear or establishing sound esteem where the act or artistic ritual in an irrational manner creates the illusion of safety and security.

A Change of Culture

The move to Saudi Arabia had another impact on me; a whole new culture with its own context of hand significance, whether as image or gestural function. As a first impression in this new living environment, I was intrigued by the decorative henna designs on woman hands arms and feet.  Here you had these female figures almost completely covering their hair, face and body with the ‘amabyia’ as we used to call it (the Hijab) and the only exposed flesh that was permitted by their culture/religion were the hands.

Saudi Arabia - Jeddah somali girl with henna on hands

Even though such aesthetical embellishment by present generation of Arab women considers such decorative elements on the hands as fun, there is also superstition linked to its use; to protect against witchcraft or the “evil eye” as the many motifs used in henna design are intended to ward off the eye’s power. But henna also has healing properties when applied on the hands which does make sense especially in the past where medical care was nonexistence and people had to make the most of such knowledge. For example, henna has cooling properties as it helps cool the nerves, it reduces inflammation caused by arthritis. Traditionally it was used included as a coagulant for open wounds and a poultice to sooth burns and eczema. Thus a safe and effective means of curing head lice, dandruff, ringworm and to treat fingernail and toenail fungus. I remember being mesmerized by these beautifully decorate female hands but also the hand gestures of that culture; hands covering the face during prayer, gesture of hand during a traditional dance, self-expression. So in a way this all becomes part of cultural significance/tradition.

Part of this Middle Eastern culture that prominently stood out to me was the hand symbol ‘The hamsa’ which is an ancient Middle Eastern symbol dating back to ancient Egypt; palm-shaped amulet, that holds a variety of meanings across cultures. None the less, it is regarded in all faiths as a protective charm that brings good luck and fortune, health and happiness; a protection from the ‘The Evil Eye’. In the Islamic faith, it symbolizes The Hand of Fatima, the daughter of the prophet Mohammed. The word Hamsa in Arabic is the number 5, thus the image of the five fingers in a palm representing the image symbol; symbolizing the five pillars of Islam (faith, fasting, pilgrimage, prayer and tax). Sometimes the symbol includes an image of an eye in the center of the palm which I thought to protect against the evil eye.|

Interestingly enough the Jewish culture recognizes this symbol in Jewish art as a Kabbalistic amulet, again under the context of the protection/warding off of the evil eye.

In India there is association of the good and evil with “clean” and “unclean”, where each side is strictly assigned to specific activities. For example, the right hand (clean-good) is used for cooking, cleaning and eating whereas the left (unclean-evil) is associated with bathing, elimination, and sexual activity. This particular association and imposed religious law is as I remember well followed by the Middle Eastern cultures/Islamic and there is clear understanding on how at the end of the day it makes sense. Dating back to the earlier Islamic times when there was an issue with hygiene, the only way to reinforce such conditioning, it had to be laid down as a strict religious law. By separating the task there was reinsurance that there would be no contamination fowl play, so it was a way of preventing disease spreading and people getting sick and dying. Even though there is effective access to hygiene the tradition of laid law of evil and good, clean and unclean is still in practice as tradition.   

We have to acknowledge that each culture has its own history of religious, social, political traditions that include ceremonial rites. What it might be considered in one society as an indication of social status, in another as a rebellious non-confirmative statement or a beauty statement/trend. Among the Balinese, wearing long nails is a social distinction statement; only priests may wear long nails on both hands.

In modern society wearing extreme long nails can be considered as an acceptable social norm associated with a statement of beauty/attraction but at the same time such extremity can be frown by another social group.

Where the length of nail wearing becomes a social class statement in modern society the painting of nails with decorative elements becomes a social sexual statement. After all it is within the female human nature to enhance the female body with decorative enhancements as a way to reinforce beauty and attraction.

And although we might think it is a contemporary trend it actually has originated in China detain back to 3000 BC, during the Zhoo dynasty (where the royal house preferred the silver and gold colors.) It is worth to mention that the mummified pharaohs also had their nails painted in henna for reasons perhaps which had to do with religious rites, social status but also medical protective properties as mentioned earlier on.

As humans we have been design to function on a survival basis with the aid of our hands where we are able to use them as tools of perception (stimuli sensors), means of communication/language but also a form of self-expression. And by self-expression I am referring to how the hand becomes the accomplice to the one’s artistic soul as it is able to exert one such tremendous sense of power called creativity. It becomes a means of channeling the human emotions onto an artistic surface; art form (drawing, painting, sculpture, performance, construction, knitting, etc.

 In a way it is as if the self-expressive hands have a language of their own on how they are able to convey such human emotions; when calm the hands lie quietly still, when angry they become tense with a wider sense of character that depict the felt emotion. As it is possible to convey a sense of emotional state of being through hand gesture which is a language of its own; the body language which others can read/understand and as humans have created sign language to serve literacy, part of the human reading, body language, there are specific hand gestures that become symbols of self-expression whether positive (such as the indication of the thumb up representing “ok” all “is ok” or negative symbolic hand gestures that could become a display of discord emotions, hate, or even provocation; invitation to an argument. But again the same specific hand gesture could mean a positive language sign in one social group/culture but a bad one in another. Or there might be a common language sign concept but a different hand gesture.  

The Emoji Hand Symbols

It is approximately within these last 15 years that people from all over the world use exclusively as a frequent means of communication the emoji hand symbols; which are basically clip art depicted versions of the actual hand gestures with specific symbolic meaning or one could simply refer to such contemporary trend as a short hand writing system that; an extension of language communication and emotional depiction. To a certain degree I do find myself being skeptical of such excess use as there is a threat of a trend that is contributing to illiteracy. It is as if we are going back to ancient hieroglyphically written text where image symbols become the language text.   

The Fingerprint

Referring back to the significance and symbolism of the hands, I feel the need to mention the unique anatomical nature of the hand, specifically the human finger print that becomes the symbol character of identity as each human has its own different fingerprint/identity.

Shirin Neshat

Before I can proceed to analyze Shirin’s artwork I think it is worth researching into the context by which her artwork was created and by that I mean her background as it becomes the underlining basis for her art. Reading through her biography I can definitely understand where she comes from and her reaction to social oppression because I, myself having lived in Saudi Arabia most of my childhood I got to witness such socio-religious oppressions mostly imposed on the women of middle-eastern origin.

To begin with, her place of birth, Quzvin, North-western Iran; by majority an Islamic religious country where prior to the 1979 Islamic Republic Revolution there was a considerate amount of social religious “freedom”; something closer to any European being a Muslim (normal human being) even under the monarchy. More or less Neshat grew up within a warm loving, traditional religious Muslim family unit where both parent acquired a modern open mind; thus later on rejecting all their own values as there was more favor for contemporary wester social approach to living ideology. It was her father’s wish to enroll her into a Catholic boarding school in Tehran so right away there was western feminism influence that her father encouraged; to “be an individual, take risks, to learn, to see the word”, and attend college to receive higher education (for her and her sibblings).

While she was abroad on her studies, it was during this time in 1979 where there was a major social religious political overthrow; revolution by the Islamic Republic that was against western ideologies and in place imposed a radical theocratic constitution under the Sharia law; an Iranian law that still favors men as women are not of equal opportunities and acknowledgment in general. Upon her return in 1990 to Iran, one year after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death, she was shocked to witness such cultural change; a frightening but also exciting change according to Neshat. A country where there was ideologically based suppression, change of people’s appearance where especially women had to wear the jihab and in some cases cover up completely, change also in public behavior; a set-back from modernity. A society that represses the female human rights such as access to education, freedom of voice and expression and dress code, participation in politics and prominent social events, financial inclusion, deprivation of work permit and acquiring a modern life style. So imagine the artist becoming a witness to such culture shock where she bares Iranian roots but due to her new acquired contemporary western values there is culture conflict of ideologies.

Having been influenced by cultural laboratory creators such as artists, architects, and philosophers, it was enough to jumpstart her into making art again (1993), starting with photography.

This is an artist who combines by layering poetic text form the Iranina poet Furugh Farrukzad, whose work is considered to be most extreme radical form of expression in favor of female sensuality and independence (poetic infusion of the Persian culture from its religious mysticism to tis contemporary cinema) onto photographed imagery of aspect of the female subject matter which can include a female portrait, a composition of hand gestures or feet that convey a metaphoric sense of censorship within a cultural context that is concerned with tyranny, dictatorship, oppression and political injustice, especially for the women. Her work sets out to examine femininity in relation to Islamic fundamentalism and militancy in Iran, the contrast between Islam and the West, femininity and masculinity, public life and private life, antiquity and modernity in hopes of bridging the gaps between these contrasting subjects.

Shirin Neshat’s Unveiling (1993)

In her 1993 multimedia exhibition with the title, “Unveiling”, Neshat explores the politics of women existing behind “the veil”.  Her featured photographs, sculpture and film expressed how women felt through their experience of wearing veils. The intention of the juxtaposed Furugh Farrukzad’s poetic text onto is not to criticize or diminish the garment’s traditional values in contemporary times but to evoke that radical possibility of expressing the female sensuality and independence that all women are rightly entitled to. Here it is the text that becomes the veil but a veil of non-confirmative radically expressed thoughts for social awakening. Neshat questions what really shapes the female’s living experience, the veil or the female body, thus focusing the issues with transposing Western feminist identity politics onto Islamic cultures. Just like there is social imposition and oppression to wear the veil by the Islamic fundamentalist in way it is the same thing, taking an alien political feminist ideology and imposing it onto another culture. Change does not happen overnight and definitely cannot be forced but rather inspired but most importantly understood. Neshat is careful on how she tackles such sensitive issue by creating that new understanding of the veil, while challenging the stereotype Islamic female identity in such cultures.  One must understand also the purpose of the veil, or shall I say the imposing of wearing it as it is intended to conceal the female sensuality, identity; an attempt to silence and even mute any form of female physical, audio visual expression, in fear that the female sensuality will become an act of corruption and therefore provoking sin especially to the dominating male gender. I will daringly ask why is only that the women must conceal and not the men? The Quran instructs both Muslim genders to dress in a modest manner but it becomes apparent that male dominancy interprets such texts in their extreme favor. Modesty should be inspired and not reinforced through tyranny and repression.   I can literally gear this whole research with intended argument. Modesty is not simply defined by what one wears only but also their ethical actions and behavior towards themselves and others and most importantly the real contents of one’s soul; virtues. Then again what one culture might consider ethically correct another might not but there is no denial of common understanding of what the true virtues are which are really simple: love, companion, honesty, patience, etc. And is there a scale of where Modesty should fall?

Althoough, Nestat does not consider herself an activist, her art regardless of its nature becomes an advocate for such female repression and discrimination as it begins to give voice for the Iranian women.

Untitled (Women of Allah) by Shirin Nestat

What becomes evidence when viewing her art, Nestat creates turmoil within the viewer’s conscious. It is not pretty art but an art from where the female presence/ hands/feet become part of a narrated voice for justice and equality. Her art becomes the means for communication where the viewers are invited to decipher both the visual body/hand gestures in relation to the included text. It is these extreme forms of language expressions body through culture conditioning and radical contemporary ideology that becomes the artist’s intention; to minimize the gap between the opposing social norms. In her Untitled artwork (Women of Allah), Nestat celebrates the Iranian poet’s hand (with the poetic text) that gently presses against the closed lips. As the suppressed lips are forbidden to express voice it is the Persian text/passage that draws visual engagement as it begins to compare a woman’s desires to a garden dying in the summer heat.  The veiled female presence represents traditional Persian social culture that compels women to become passive acceptors. That simple hand gesture with the narrated text holds so much power in revealing the conflict between tradition and modernity.

“The hand, the gaze, the mouth—the things that are allowed to be seen are very poignant.”-  Shirin Nestat (

Douglas Gordon ‘The Divided Self’

The Divided Self (video) by Douglas Gordon

I found it impossible to find information about this specific suggested video art by Douglas Gordon. However, I did take the time to watch a couple of featured YouTube videos where this contemporary Scottish artist is talking about his work (although not this specific one). Though his performances, installation, photography and video art he daringly disrupts preconceived ideas about reality as he readjusts scenes, tinkers with time and appropriates cultural sources. Being fascinated with the mirror image it does make sense how in this video art he uses the two opposite hands which in symmetry are of opposite positioning (human anatomy) but by altering a variable of the same image the whole narrative takes on a new form. As the hairy arm begins to wrestle with the shaved one the artists challenges the viewer to see and reconsider multiple possibilities of perspective which in a way begins to eliminate stereotype preconceiving attitude when seeing something. He is basically taking us out of the one sided view point and invites us to consider that there are more narratives to such visual.

Funnily enough, when I was trying to research into YouTube a video on ‘The Divided Self’ I came across professor Geoff Beattie video “How a Better Understanding of the Human Mind Could Transform Society” which was basically about our relationship with the planet and with each other. So borrowing such idea, perhaps this conflict of the same pair of hands of the same self becomes the inner struggle of our existing traits of duality; the virtues and vices, our good side and our bad side, the conflict between our conscious and subconscious, our strengths and our weaknesses (the list can be indeed an infinite one). There are so many conceptual narratives here that one can engage in imagining, considering. For example, how we struggle for self-acceptance. Pretending that the information about how the artist prepares himself as a visual prop, that is where he shaves one arm, is not known prior to viewing, one could very easily assume that there is a conflict between two different individuals. This does make us realize how we are quick to judge a book by its cover, running to stereotype conclusion based on what we see. One thing is for sure that there is a conflict. The artist masterly takes on something that is of abstract essence and presents it in a tangible manner.

Cindy Sherman- How does the artist use her own body, make-up, prosthetics, costume and props to speak about issues around the depiction of women in society and culture?

As and American photographer and filmmaker, Cindy Sherman uses her body as the canvas onto which she will apply thickly plastered make-up, add prosthetics (false noses, false breasts) use props, cheap costume jewelry and everyday fabrics, so as to elaborately disguise herself and recreate a persona within a depicted social role where it is the visual image that determines the fabricated social identity. What is intriguing is how she successfully creates entirely different visual characters and yet her underlying canvas body is the same.  As she takes on the role playing task of presenting herself in various costumes and poses she begins to portray an array of female stereotype engaging, seductive, colorful and luscious characters/personas found in film, television and advertising; an examination and distortion of femininity as a social construct.  

“It seems boring to me to pursue the typical idea of beauty, because that is the easiest and the most obvious way to see the world. It’s more challenging to look at the other side.” –  Cindy Sherman (

Untitled #747 (2008)

Untitled # 209, 1989

As she continues to explore the female subject matter, that is the women social identity role under the dazzling bright studio light in a way it is as if her art becomes a statement of mockery. Exaggerated overall impressions of female personalities even the ones explored through historical paintings such as Raphael, Rubens, Fragonard and Ingres ‘History Portrait’ set the social standard resulting to how individual female identity is a by-product of preconceived imitated social behavior and imagery; the tendency to draw identity from direct and indirect social influencing imagery, (prototype behavior and imagery). The knowledge of historical portraiture during the Italian Renaissance era served as clear social statements, ‘delineating the roles of gender and class through outward appearance and cultural hierarchies. By re-configuring these pre-existing portraits, through the lens of the camera and using her altered own image for each portrait, Sherman clearly blurs any boundaries between class, status and hierarchy, commenting on the possibilities of equality, contesting the very notion of originality and authenticity in art, while simultaneously raising complex questions about the representation of the self, as a female artist among male dominated world.’ As Sherman takes on the role of both the subject matter and the artists she instills in her modern viewer a critical re-appraisal of the role and significance of women in art history.(
“Cindy Sherman’s art is certainly postmodern.  Her works are photographs; she is not a photographer but an artist who uses photography.  Each image is built around a photographic depiction of a woman.  And each of the women is Sherman herself, simultaneously artist and model, transformed, chameleon-like, into a glossary of pose, gesture and facial expression.”
(L. Mulvey, ‘A Phantasmagoria of The Female Body’ in Cindy Sherman, Paris, 2006, p. 284)

Sherman’s photographed art evokes the art of painting as her make-up takes on the role of her paint and her face the canvas. Her multi-disciplinary approach to create her art images involves multiple roles; that of a photographer, model, makeup artist, hairdresser and stylist and even though her characters are not based on actual women, Sherman makes these stereotypes look entirely familiar.





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