Symbolism of hands and/or feet

How does it look when searching for ‘hands’ and ‘feet’ in social media?

Pinterest: Hands and Feet

Instagram: 5 Mio hits on ‘hands‘ and 10 Mio hits on ‘feet

Google: 9 Bio hits on ‘hands‘ and 1 Bio hits on ‘feet‘, and the results become more interesting when combined with ‘gesture’ : ‘hands gesture‘ and ‘feet gesture

What it tells me, that hands and feet are so abundant and present in our cultures around the world, that they play an important part of how we interact socially with each other. More than just mere body parts, they are part of identity. Hands and feet telling a story of the person, how they behave, how they live.

Hands are more connected with openness, the clean aspect, the head with a sacred aspect, and feet with the dirty ground, the unclean, the filthy aspects, eg. in Thailand it is rude to show the sole of the feet, and in Arab countries it is rude to show the shoe. The feet, the bottom of the body is the lowest rank, what adds the meaning to washing one’ s feet signifies humility and servanthood, to be second to another person. Christ as the sacred king subordinating himself to others.

Hand gestures are constrained by cultural conventions. Gestures are pre-lingual, infant start to explore the world with gestures, hand gestures do point and sign, they give meaning to content, and often lingual words derive from gestures. Hand gestures become a cultural secret language as today emojicons, signs for conventions. What is fine in one culture can be rude in another. Cultural appropriation need to consider differences. From my own experience and life in various countries and cultures, I became more humble to non-verbal expressions. At times hard to distinguish, other times one way to engage with people. But always with an attitude of not knowing how it might be perceived.

Besides hands and feet, body gestures and facial expression do also play a social role. Overall, we as human beings do communicate through many verbal and non-verbal channels. At the end it seems so complex, that eventually the wholeness of a person becomes the Gestalt that one perceives. The Gestalt that actually made its turn in art through Minimal Art.

Comparing and Contrast

At my visit to the National Portrait Gallery, London I came across her work Malala, 2018 (NPG 7052),  a photographic work of Shirin Neshat (b. 1957), an Iranian visual artist living in the USA. Malala Yousafzai (b. 1997) is an activist and recent Nobel Prize Winner. Yousafzai fights for human rights and especially the right of education of girls. During an attack in 2012 she was shot in her head, and fortunately recovered.  In the NPG her portrait was a focus point of attention to the vast amount of visitors walking through.

Neshat manually inscribed on the photographic print, the area of the unveiled skin, a poem by the Pashto poet Rahmat Shah Sayel, 2011. Whereas, in a second photograph (NPG 7053), not on display at NPG, the inscription is in the background, leaving the skin ‘untouched’. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find translations of the poetry, leaving me with the graphic and rhythmic appeal of an additional visual layer. For Neshat, poetry is a cultural heritage of importance, of cultural identity, poetry as a philosophical and mystic dimension of life (Bates, 2013). Interestingly, compared to her ealier series ‘Women of Allah‘, 1993-97 where she inscripted poems of female writers during the Islamic Revolution talking about their role and ‘martyrdom’, she took for ‘Malala’ the poem of a male writer.

She addresses questions of gender and conflicts from her remote place considering the life of women in Iran. The veil for women was enforced in Iran in 1983 after the Islamic Revolution. Before women did walk through the streets as men, unveiled. Neshat places through her photograph portraits women in a position of power, empowered by poems, and with a direct gaze, at times rather deadpan faces, towards the camera aka the viewer of the images. The gaze in reference to the prevailing conception of the male gaze is returned back, challenging the objecthood of women.

According to Young, Neshat appropriated four symbols reflecting Western conceptions of the Islamic World: the veil, the gun, the text and the gaze. Her use of B&W images puts more focus on symbolic meanings and less on portrait emotions. Overall, one could consider her works as a dialogue with conflicts and paradox situations, questioning conceptions of the role of an Islamic woman (Young, 2015) 

Another interesting photograph with a visual pun is her work  My House is On Fire, from The Book of Kings series, 2012 , as if the hand’s force on the breast created those graphic words.

Compared to Neshat bold women portraits, Douglas Gordon (b. 1966) uses split video sets in his workThe Divided Self, 1996 (Juliá, 2012). The gap and dislocation of body parts and the tension in that space between, the invisible, the viewer can engage with the narrative of the person struggling with himself. Over time becoming clear that the artist himself is wrestling with himself, not two people. I can relate this to the earlier video work of Richard Serra Hands Tight, 1968, where two performers wrestling with hands tied together. 

Gordon visualizes in a the paradox installation of contained TV sets and the gap in between both, the conditions of human nature, the at times rather paradox mental states, the eventually could result in mental disorders of dissociative ego states, like the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, two separate persons.

Often, his duo-screen videos are installed at an angle, corner, e.g. 24 hour Psycho , 1993, what makes the viewing experience more inclusive, kind of embodied experience around one.

In the OCA discuss forum a current thread is about self – portrait in photography, the anxiety and the unease that comes along with making self-portraits photographs (considering self-portrait in the conventional sense of making a reproduction of one own’s head, face or body) Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) uses props, costumes etc. to step herself into staged personas, enacted self or cultural identities, challenging conceptions of identity and how we perceive others through a superficial appearance. She appropriates still image from movies, commercials, and even pornography. Sherman explores through the staged personas and identities question of constructive selfs and questions related to ‘aging in a youth- and status-obsessed society’ (Stigh and Doyle, 2012). How we perceive beauty and how we consider honesty through photographic imagery. At times with quite some unsettling sensations when seeing her works, e.g. Sex Pictures, 1989 – 1992.

Featured Image: 

  • Screenshot from Pinterest search ‘Hands – Art – gesture’


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