Hue Raises Questions About Open Hands

By Phyllis Jeffrey - What does an open hand signify? Does it depend on to whom the hand belongs? On October 27, 2016, in a talk entitled "Hands and the Humanitarian Gesture: Buddhist Non-Violence and Black Lives Matter," Emily Hue of UC Riverside explored images of open-palm, up-raised hands in both activism and socially conscious art.

A UC Chancellor’s postdoctoral scholar in Comparative Literatures & Foreign Languages and Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside, Hue focused in particular on the ways in which activists from marginalized groups navigate vulnerability, both in spontaneous action and the use of rehearsed bodily gestures. She discussed the contrast in popular perception and reception of two instances of “open-handed” protest. The first derived from Burma’s pro-democracy movement—in particular, the 2007 “Saffron Revolution,” when Buddhist monks famously adopted the Buddhist open-palm abhaya mudra. The second was the iconic images of raised hands of Black Lives Matter protesters.

Observing that Western familiarity with the Buddhist gesture draws largely from yogic or “new age” practice, Hue noted that there is a related tendency for Western audiences to associate the gesture when employed by protesting monks, and others in the Burmese pro-democracy movement, with exoticized passivity attributed to Asian subjects.

On the other hand, the Black Lives Matter movement with its iconic stance of “hands up, don’t shoot!” is regarded suspiciously as a militant movement in which violence is always seen as potential. In both cases, perception by white American or European audiences is shaped by a narrative that understands Western liberal regimes as the ultimate guardians of freedoms and rights—a narrative Hue terms “humanitarian imperialism.” 

Humanitarian imperialism

In the Burmese case, the narrative informs an understanding of the U.S. as “savior” to Burma, engineering the state’s release of political prisoners in 2012 via foreign policy, and pressuring for other democratic reforms. In the case of Black Lives Matter, a nonviolent movement for justice is perceived as threateningly militant, or simply illegible.

Yet, in the face of such racialized reception, the open-hand gesture, Hue argued, is also used to challenge such interpretations. In Buddhist tradition, the abhaya mudra represents also represents protection, and the dispelling of fear. As displayed here by Aung San Suu Kyi, on whose palm is written the name of a fellow imprisoned activist, the abhaya mudra becomes significant of continued resistance. Similarly, Hue discussed how up-raised arms of Black Lives Matter activists—a gesture which has inspired acts of solidarity from groups ranging from schoolchildren to Harvard Law students—converts (as noted by Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce) an apparent display of vulnerability to a kind of nonviolent “weapon”: by imitating the position of surrender in which the victims of police violence have been shot, activists symbolically confront powerholders, demanding answers and redress for the violence of the state in the face of their own lack of arms.

Redressing wrongs

Hue traced the tensions and nuances of opened hands through the work of two artists. The first was Htein Lin, a Burmese artist who resided in London for a number of years prior to returning to Rangoon. Lin’s 2014 installation “A Show of Hands” involves the casting of the arms and hands of former political prisoners in Burma. Released from prison himself in 2004, Lin returned not only to make the casts but also to teach a Buddhist meditation course to guards and inmates. By casting prisoners’ forearms, Lin forces continued attention on and engagement with the matter of prisoners after their release (which the Burmese state is keen to avoid); as well as the matter (inconvenient to the American-savior narrative) of recent backtracking on prisoner release and democratization.

Ultimately, for Lin, a fuller definition of rights requires the state to do more than merely release prisoners; the state must aid in reincorporation to society. By dressing the arms of these individuals in plaster, Lin demands full “re-dress” of wrong by the state that imprisoned them. As the project has continued, formerly incarcerated individuals have begun to approach him, adding a dimension of agency. Lin and his thousands of raised, opened hands are a reclaiming of space, and actively call upon the state. Hence Lin’s art belies an orientalized interpretation of the opened palm as passive; it confronts understandings of Burmese protests in an orientalist frame. 

Vulnerability and strength

The second artist Hue addressed was Hank Willis Thomas, an African-American visual artist who has exhibited his work all over the world. Hue described how his 2014 Johannesburg installation “Raise Up” enables exploration of the fruitful tensions of the opened-hand gesture. By casting in bronze images of the heads and raised arms of Black individuals, Thomas shows us hands that “toe the line between prayer and protest.”

The work occasions considerations of the relationship between anonymity and universalism, and of the capacity of strategic juxtaposition to provoke reaction. This is because Thomas modeled his line of powerfully vulnerable individuals not on a scene from the contemporary BLM movement, but on a 1967 photograph of South African miners during apartheid. The models for the installation, then, were engaged not in protest, but submission. By deliberately invoking the gesture of BLM, Thomas turns this into a scene of resistance. And by exhibiting it in Johannesburg—on Human Rights Day—Thomas provokes engagement with yet more layered complexities.

Although differing assumptions about the significance of the open hand in Black vs. Asian activism and art have led to racialized processes of othering, the uniquely potent combination of vulnerability and strength offered by the open hand gesture has the potential to connect movements seeking justice on a transnational, cross-ethnic, level. 

Learn more about Emily Hue.