Goodbye ‘Evil Eye’: Jerusalem’s Islamic Art Museum Showcases The ‘Hamsa’ (with VIDEO)
New show explores how popular palm-shaped symbol evolved throughout history
A new exhibition in Israel takes a modern look at one of the world’s most ancient symbols: the hamsa. Five hundred and fifty-five palm-shaped amulets from a wide variety of artists are on display at the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem, part of the Hamsa, Hamsa, Hamsa show devoted to exploring the rich history and cultural evolution of the Middle East and North African motif. Commonly used in jewelry or other decorative items, Jews, Christians and Muslims to this day wear or carry Hamsas to ward off the “evil eye.”
In Israel, the hamsa previously was associated with Mizrahi Jews, who immigrated in large numbers to the state from neighboring countries in the 1950s. According to Dr. Shirat Miriam Shamir, one of the curators of Hamsa, Hamsa, Hamsa, the symbol was initially largely unpopular in mainstream Israeli culture until the 1980s and 1990s, when it underwent a resurgence.
“We have a lot of hamsas [in the show] that came to Israel from Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Morocco and other places in the world,” Dr. Shamir told The Media Line. “These [hamsas] came with all the people who immigrated to Israel,” she noted, adding that wearing a hamsa is still believed to bring “good luck, health, happiness, and wealth.”
Also referred to as the Hand of Fatima, after the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, the Hand of Mary or the Hand of Miriam, the hamsa has long been associated with miraculous events.
There are several inconclusive theories relating to the amulet’s origins, though historians have found evidence of its representation as far back as ancient Mesopotamia and Carthage (modern-day Tunisia). Depictions of the motif have been uncovered in cave paintings that are tens of thousands of years old, including, notably, those found in what is now Lascaux in southwestern France.
In a private tour of Hamsa, Hamsa, Hamsa ahead of its opening, Dr. Shamir explained to The Media Line how she and co-curator Ido Noy traveled throughout Israel to hand-pick hundreds of hamsas to include in the show, some of which are etched with Jewish, Christian or Muslim prayers, evidencing the universality of the symbol. Another compelling element of the exhibition is a space devoted to modern interpretations of the figure, featuring subversive art installations, sculptures and associated videos by leading Israeli artists.
Druze artist Rami Tareef’s Eye Trap is a beautifully-sculpted and fully-functional mousetrap designed in the shape of a hamsa. “[The Hamsa] is an artifact that protects people from the evil eye. I wanted to realize the functionality of this protection with a physical [manifestation],” he related to The Media Line. A more child-friendly representation of the protection afforded by the hamsa is conveyed in the work of Ken Goldman, a U.S.-born multimedia artist who crafted large, palm-shaped stuffed animals that visitors were encouraged to “hug.”
“The idea here was to create an amulet that would be as appealing today as possible and I thought that doing a soft sculpture like a doll [would achieve that],” Goldman asserted to The Media Line. “What offers more protection than a stuffed animal?”
Israeli performance artist Zeev Engelmayer assumed a comedic approach, donning a costume fashioned in the shape of a giant cartoonish hand. “It’s the first time I decided to become a Hamsa and it’s great,” he proclaimed to The Media Line while stressing that was the “first walking hamsa in the world.”
But there is no denying the seriousness of the exhibition, as it showcases the evolution of the hamsa from its roots as a religious symbol and object of superstition, to its emergence as a trendy consumer item and, finally, prominent artistic model.