The second most universally expressive body part… aside from the face. And why that matters!
There is a reason why so many social movements have used the imagery and gestures of hands to represent themselves. Hands, in their truest form, are universal and genderless… with varying degrees of color, of course, but as a symbol, they are well understood in their various forms and play a large role in both communication and creation… two elements that pretty much sum up art overall. During the Summer I enjoy spending free time hiking, and while I was on a recent walk I stopped to break for lunch and caught myself staring down at my hands for the better part of sixty seconds… something that I find myself doing often… they’re so strange looking! Sometimes a neutral feeling of dissociation creeps up on me when I stare at my hands for too long… as though I’m looking at a primate’s hand… which I am! But it’s more than that… hands represent humanity because humans make, do and build things with them. They are the catalyst of our creativity, releasing the electricity of our brains into the universe for nature to behold. This week, I wanted to create a tribute out of this post, an homage if you will, to the most badass appendage on the human body… the hand.
Let’s start early. If you’re an artist and you’re already doubting my love for hands… I’m here to shut you down. You’re going to appreciate these octopus-looking bad boys before the end of this post whether you like it or not, and I’m going to tell you why!
Buried in the cave of Maltavieso in Spain lies the oldest known cave paintings that have ever been discovered. They consist of depictions of animals and, you guessed it, hands! They were done via live stencils placed against the wall and likely spat over with paint. Using a technique called uranium-thorium dating, scientists have been able to place the date of the painting over 64,000 years ago… that’s nearly 24,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe, which means that these were likely done by Neanderthals or some kind of Sapien species. How bizarre to think there were likely beings of a different species making art long before we arrived in Europe!
Another beautiful thing about our marvelous mitts is the nearly infinite ways they can communicate both language and emotion. There are already multiple real languages that are composed of hand gestures… ASL for instance. Hands also signal different messages to both people and animals. We all know that there is a difference between these two gestural forms.
Devil Horns (Left), Bird Flip (Right)
Historically, hands have also been a symbol of solidarity with two particular uses for them coming to mind. The first one is the handshake. What are the origins of the handshake you ask? Well, it’s somewhat vague but it is likely believed that it is either a prehistoric gesture to signal that the hand holds no weapons, or it likely represents an oath or promise of allegiance. To me, it seems to represent both of these ideas in modern-day society, although less so since covid showed up. The below image shows the first artistic depiction of a handshake. This 9th century BC Assyrian relief depicts Babylonian king Marduk-zakir-shumi I shaking hands with Assyrian king Shalmaneser III which represents the sealing of an alliance.
The second usage of the hand as an image is the closed fist as a symbol of solidarity. The origins of the fist are unknown but early official uses of it date back to early 20th-century labor movements, including William “Big Bill” Haywood, a founding member of the IWW (International Workers of the World). In 1912, workers in Budapest would stage a general strike, demonstrating a demand for universal suffrage right in front of the Parliament building, with the Social Democratic Party of Hungary using this poster to represent the event. Look familiar? I’m sure most of us are acquainted with the Black Lives Matter emblem – an adaptation of the fist representing the continued fight for equality among Black folks and people of color.
1912 Budapest Poster (Left), BLM emblem (Right)
Hands have power. We’ve seen some examples above that prove it, but there is also harmful, destructive ways in which hands can be used. I’m sure most of us are familiar with certain unsavory or offensive hand gestures that can have either personal or cultural implications, and all of us are familiar with the ways hands are used to destroy. There are countless things I could list about the greatness of our meat-claws, but instead I sort of feel like going outside and using them right now. Make sure you use yours wisely and use them for good!