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Be sure to check out the latest News from our Artists!

Gallery Al-Quds featured in the
Washington Post!


Reaching Across the World:
The Hand of Fatima

Reaching across
the World

at home in the garden

The symbol known as the Hamsa, or Hand of Fatima, in Arab and Middle Eastern culture, is also a potent symbol in cultures around the world, from Asia, Africa, Latin America and even to the tribal cultures of Native Americans. This exhibition will explore the origins, symbolism and interpretations of this potent design with objects from all these cultures, with examples and an audience-interactive lecture.

Exhibition continues January 15- February 19, 2016

Transcripts from opening night at Gallery Al-Quds

Dagmar Painter:
Images of the human hand have had powerful appeal throughout the ages. In Peche-Merle, France, a cave painting of horses, circa 20,000 BC is silhouetted with human hands, which scholars believe may have been painted by a shaman to induce magic within the hunting culture. In Catal Huyuk, Turkey, excavations have revealed frescoed walls with rows of hands from 7,000 BC.

Similar prehistoric hand imagery has been found painted on rocks in Wadi Sera, Libya and in the Dumboshawa region of Zimbabwe. In addition, cave paintings and carvings of hands have been found in Algeria dating from 3,000 BC. In the Punic era (from 250 BC) Carthaginian funeral stele incorporated carved stone hands as symbols of the goddess Tanit.

In ancient Egypt, the hand was the symbol of fortitude and power. Tomb paintings in Tel el Amarna depict the Pharaoh Akenaten and his queen Nefertiti receiving hands radiating power from Aton the Sun God. Pharaonic-era Egyptians carried faience amulets in the shape of hands. The hieroglyphic alphabet features hand imagery as well.

Anasazi petroglyphs found in New Mexico depict hand-shaped talismans in this pre-Pueblo culture (AD 900-1200). A 3- inch terracotta gorget from the Mound Builders, a pre-Columbian culture found in Alabama, depicts a solar symbol above a hand with a central eye motif. Also found at Moundville is a pre-Columbian stone plate, in which the eye-in-hand motif has been carved, surrounded by two snakes. In Illinois/Indiana and the upper Midwest, similar cultures existed with life-sized hand-shaped pendants made of mother of pearl.

Other Native American cultures using hand imagery include the Toltec Mound Builders from the Mississippi Valley (AD 700-950) and the Navaho, whose naja with healing hands silver pendant originates in silver horse brasses brought to the Southwest by the Spanish from their Moorish culture in the 16th Century. Similar shapes from a similar origin are found in Tunisia and used in association with hand iconography there.

More than a way to mark man’s passage, the image of the hand has long been linked with prophylactic magic. Gesturing to proclaim, to protect, to protest, to ward off evil, to give blessings or comfort, is culturally universal. From this it is only a step from the literal depiction of the hand to symbolically associating it with desired outcomes or philosophies.

Hand as amulet imagery arose in many cultures: Ancient Egyptian, Phoenician, Roman, Nubian, Berber and Arab as well as Christian and Jewish. As trade, travel and war spread iconography from one culture to another, similar imagery took on special meaning particular to each new locale.

During the Roman period, the hand appears in mosaics, often abstracted as a triangle (symbol of the female) and associated with the fish or serpent (symbol of the male). The Roman numeral V references this triangle/hand, sometimes written as IIIII to symbolize the five fingers. Berbers and Arabs adopted this symbol, to which they were exposed because of the proliferation of Roman mosaics in Roman territories of North Africa and beyond. They subsequently imbued it with a richness of meaning drawn from their own religious and folk cultural beliefs. For example, from its associated with the numeral V came the symbolic amulet khamsa ( Arabic for five) associated with the five fingers of the hand, the five tenets of Islam (shahada, salat, hajj, saum and zakat), the five letters of the name of God (Allah, the letterforms of which seem to be spelled out on the open hand.) Later, the hand itself took on the symbolic meaning, and became an amulet known as the Hand of Fatima, after the daughter of the prophet Mohammed by his first wife Kadijah, esteemed for her virtues. The particular association of the hand with Fatima derives, scholars speculate, from its ancient association with the female Venus (Roman) and later Mary (Christendom).

The hand amulet protects and wards off the evil eye, ain al-hasad (“eye of envy”). It appears in many forms throughout the Arab and Islamic world, particularly in the Maghreb, augmenting its protective powers with the addition of inscriptions, stones (especially blue stones, the “eye of the other” said to repel the evil eye) and animal figures such as birds, lizards, salamanders and bees. Additional power is obtained through repetition of the design on garments and adornments, thus multiplying its power.

The eye-in-hand amulet appears everywhere from the prehistoric versions to those in present day Nepal, Tibet, India, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas.

Algerian tribal hands, as well as those from Morocco and Mauritania often feature elaborate enameling. In Morocco, hand amulets appear in many forms, including right handed and symmetrical, as well as in the realistically shaped mains citidaines. Other symbolical forms found in Morocco include and abstracted version with a sun or moon shape in the “palm” surrounded by five semicircular forms, another style from the central High Atlas region in the shape of an arched doorway with two key-shaped cutouts and hands protruding from the sides, and the mains tribolees foulet khamsa, a squat rounded-off cruciform shape with five design elements, either incised or hammered on the four corners and the center. Similar abstractions of the number five, called schiemassa consisting of five abstracted triangular mounds forming a loose triangle, is found in Mauritania.

Larger amulets are often incised or have added-on hinges supporting a smaller hand, especially on large khamsa called luha (small board) which are hung in homes or used as door knockers.

Protection and adornment go hand in hand, as it were, in the tradition of painting the hands of the bride with henna. Whether painted with black henna as in sub-Saharan Africa, or with brown or red as in Islamic countries and India/Pakistan, the bride’s hands, palms, sometimes just fingertips, are dabbed with color or painted with elaborate patterns during special pre-wedding ceremonies. In many cultures, a ceremonial showing of the bride’s hands is part of the wedding ceremony, said by some scholars to be linked to images of ancient goddesses with upraised hands.

The symbol appears as well on textiles, especially in Tunisia, where it is woven into Berber kilims and is embroidered onto both rural and urban wedding garments, often placed strategically near points of particular vulnerability to evil spirits such as the head, or guarding the bride’s virginity. Hands, often associated with fish in the masculine/feminine dichotomy, made of felt or embroidered with colorful sequence, are found in the wedding souks, to be hung as talismans on marriage gifts for the bride and groom.

Some controversial research has shown Anatolian kilim rugs bearing hand imagery lined to the ancient hands and goddess figures of Catal Huyuk. These comb-like forms probably also influenced the hand imagery found on Berber rugs, especially in the Maghreb, where Ottoman troops were garrisoned across the desert, bringing with them the Turkish rugs that were adapted by Berbers and urban rug weavers alike. Today, Anatolian knitters create tiny hands to embellish textiles and be worn as talismans for children and animals, each decorated with a glass evil-eye bead for additional protection.

In sub-Saharan Africa, hand imagery appears in indigo starch resist adire cottons from Nigeria, strip woven adanudo wraps from Ewe, Ghana, and wax prints produced by the Haarlem Cotton Company in the early 1900’s for the East African market. Indian block prints and Indonesian wax resists, being the antecedents of these textiles, also bear hand imagery.

Incorporated into architecture, the khamsa can be seen carved into the keystone of a doorway in the Alhambra in Grenada, Spain; pressed into cement or plaster the protect new construction sites in Tunisia; painted on houses from Palestine to Nubian upper Egypt, to Udaipur in India as signs of completing the hajj pilgrimage; cast in metal for finials for processions or rooftops, and used as doorknockers across the Mediterranean, often clutching a pomegranate, symbol of fertility.

In the Sahel desert of Mali there is even a mountainous rock formation known as the Hand of Fatima.

The hand is seen everywhere in the Islamic world, dangling from the rear-view mirrors of taxis, painted on trucks in Pakistan and Turkey, hanging above shop doorways and on the walls of homes from India to Nubia. In North Africa, it is found above baby cribs and carved into wooden trousseau chests.

Similar iconography is found in non-Islamic cultures The hand figures in the Hebrew Kabala as the hamseh or hamesh, often inscribed with the words Tfu, Tfu, Tfu , an onomatopoeia for the sound of spitting three times to drive away the evil eye. The talisman is said to bring good luck and to commemorate the virtues of Merriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron. The yad (hand) is used as a placemarker for reading the Torah (A similar placemarker with a pointed finger is used identically for Koran readings.)

Hindu and Buddhist cultures incorporated multiple meanings into the hand positions used on their respective statues of gods and Buddha. On standing Buddha images, for example, the left hand is held palm up, granting desires and bestowing blessings (Dana) while an upright hand takes away fear (Abhaya). The other positions include Bhumisparsha (earth-touching), Dhyana (meditation), Vitarka (debate) and Dharma charka prayatana (teaching).

The hand appears both as talisman and symbol in Eastern cultures. In Thailand, tiny protective amulets with hands covering bodily orifices are carried in pockets for protection from marauding spirits. In China, the five fingers of the hand symbolize the elements air, fire, earth, water and energy, and small jade hand amulets are worn or carried (the jade stone offering further protection and luck).

In India, the ancient practice of suttee in which a man’s wife kills herself upon the death of her husband is memorialized in stone at the gate of Meherangarh Fort in Jodhpur. As each woman passed through the gate on the way to immolation on her husband’s funeral pyre, each left a hennaed palm print on the wall. These would then be carved into the stone and anointed with red dye and silver leaf to mark her achievement of redemption for herself and her husband. Indian amulets such as those from Tamil Nadu have tribal origins and certain stylistic similarities with those from Nepal and Tibet, with the eye-in-hand and solar symbols.

European Mediterranean cultures use a symbol of the first and fourth fingers of the hand outstretched to bedevil the devil and pierce the evil eye (maloccio); small charms of this form called mano cornuto are sold in jewelry shops. (Romans and Etruscans had a form of this hand, called a figa, similar to those found in Italy and Latin America.)

In Latin America the figga or fico is a hand symbol with the thumb tucked between the first and second fingers, often worn by children as an amulet in ebony, jet or crystal, with a bit of coral, all as protection against the evil eye. In Peru, the mano ponderosa (powerful hand of God) is found as charms, package amulets and on votive candles.

Mexican milagros are small symbols in metal or silver that are attached to pictures or statue of religious figures in supplication or gratitude for answered prayers. Metal hands are popular milagros, often appearing in painted versions as part of the tree of life symbols found in Mexican homes and at festivals. The artist Frida Kahlo was often pictured wearing, large khamsa earrings, as well as hand-shaped milagro earrings, including a pair given to her by Picasso.

The wearing of wedding rings, a Western Christian custom, links the hand to the heart by the third finger of the right hand, the veins of which are said to connect directly to the heart. This hand/heart imagery appears in ornaments, talismans and household objects, usually in the form of hands holding hearts in the fingers or palm, from Asia through the Middle East to Europe, Latin and North America. Other Christian hand symbolism, such as swearing an oath with an upraised hand, or placing a hand on the Bible, are customs actually originating in Asia.

The hand’s connection with the occult originated in Far and Middle Eastern history. Palmists display a porcelain hand outside their stalls, delineating the lines they read to predict events in the lives of their clients. Palmistry, also known as chirology, is an ancient art referred to in Vedic and Sumeric scripts. Legend has it that Aristotle send an Arabic treatise on reading the hand to Alexander the Great. Sanskrit writings refer to samudrik hastra, interpreting lucky marks of the hand.

Tarot cards, derived from the ancient Egyptian “Book of Toth” have hand iconography in each of their suits, symbolizing power, abundance and happiness. One of the symbols in the Major Arcana of the Tarot is the Hierophant, often depicted with a hand symbol on the cards, and associated with the number 5. The Tarot is also linked to the ancient Hebrew Kabala, in which the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet correspond to certain universal elements. The preparation of talismans based on the Kabalistic system has influenced other groups such as the Freemasons.

Western art and craft has made ample use of the hand symbol, often pairing it with a heart to indicate love or willingness to work. The Irish claddagh love trinket in which a hand holds a heart is linked to ancient Celtic lore, probably from Roman influences. American quilts and folk art, especially among the Amish and the Shakers, feature the hand and heart motif. The heart-in hand design appears carved or painted on everything from barns to benches, to “love spoons” and trinkets. Cookies baked in the design were said to be love tokens.

National commemorative flags feature hands, such as the red hand of the Algerian Liberation flag (a late flag was green). The Lebanese Jumblatian flag features a hand holding a sword, while the hand holding a rose is found on the flag of the Russian Social Democrats. Upraised fists are found on many a revolutionary banner.

In the 1930’s through the 1950’s, the hand was a popular accessory motif. Famously designed as a pin by Coco Chanel, the hand with ring design alluded to luxury and love. Similar to the door knockers of the Mediterranean basin, the bejeweled hand appeared in art deco Bakelite jewelry and decorative objects.

Hands do indeed cross cultures, reaching across the world and across centuries with a ubiquity and similarity of imagery that speaks a universal language.

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