Time is an ocean and a river and a sun-dried puddle—there could always be more of it but most of the time we get by and appreciate what we’ve got. This week the Bowers Blog waves a fond farewell to a staff member who has served at the museum for over a decade. Farewells are always opportunities to give pause and—honoring this person's long-time affinity for several of these objects—this post looks at some of the paws in the museum’s collections, specifically the littlest ones. Objectivity is a difficult thing to come by when evaluating subjective qualifiers like “cute” and “adorbs,” but that has not stopped us from creating a ranking of the top ten objects in the museum with cute and little hands.
Really earning its tenth place slot through the distorted proportions of the rest of its principal figure’s body rather than the size of its hands is this piece of carved scrimshaw. Often carvings such as this would have been pulled directly from book illustrations, though this may have been an original work by the unknown New England scrimshander who made it.
The squat fingers of this ancestral spirit figure from the Nagum Boiken of Papua New Guinea’s Prince Alexander Mountain range make it stand out in terms of rankings. Boiken art is predominantly used as way of swiftly conveying concepts of masculinity, femininity, power, and nature. Using specific motifs and shapes, art became a kind of visual shorthand for transmitting fundamental norms about their society, about their place as a man or women, their purpose in the universe.
It is perhaps unsurprising that a baby doll has some of the smallest hands in the collection, but the hand size of Grace Storey Putnam’s 1920s-era Bye-Lo Baby Doll is too teeny to be disregarded in any Bowers ranking. This doll was the first ever to take on the appearance of an infant and was inspired by a three-day old girl that the designer met at a Salvation Army nursery.
Henri Joseph Penelon has been attributed as the first artist-photographer of Los Angeles. While this may not excuse the disproportionately enormous head and relatively little hands of Don Jose Andres Sepulveda in this painting, his lack of competition might explain it. In seriousness, this iconic work is a much-beloved and oft-published mainstay of the museum’s collection.
Though it might be difficult to gauge whether hands are correctly proportioned when evaluating a globular vessel rather than a more figurative object, having its arms held to its mouth makes this ceramic from San Agustin, Colombia a delightful find. Anthropomorphized urns appear with some frequency in pre-Columbian funerary art; however, the morphology of this object is almost entirely unique.
The secret that this doll’s coy glance holds is that its arms are way too small for its body. This handmade toy hails from Germany where it was made by Gebrüder Heubrach—a well-known doll maker of the late 19th and early 20th century. This style is known as a coquette doll which is a trade name given to dolls whose eyes flashed to one side. Between 1903 and 1912 such eyes were commonly referred to as "flirting eyes."
It is hard not to be a fan of this fan-shaped-ax toting figure, whose delicate digits juxtapose starkly against its vast torso. This standing warrior would have been used as a funerary offering. Its clothing may have been indicated some special function or status in the society of the culture that existed in Mexico’s Nayarit state approximately two centuries ago.
Unique to this post, this object has two individual sets of qualifying mitts. The first and most evident of these are the larger hands of the hampatong ancestral figure from the Ngaju or Benoa Dayak culture of Borneo. The second pair are the adorably sized hands of the infant child being loosely swung by the hampatong. Many of these figures appear quite fierce as are used to protect villages and other spaces against dangerous spirits with ill will, this sculpture appears to instead rely on the animals and child around it, all of which would have empowered it.
Gazing upon the hands detailed in this Felipe Orlando painting does not at all belie that the three subjects purportedly ate people, even if their faces might. As a Mexican-born artist who studied in Cuba, Orlando considered himself a world artist. This was likely painted in Cuba during the 1960s. Based on a typed Spanish description on its reverse, the three are cannibals, however, the title, Encandemo, appears to be a ritual role in Cuban Santeria. The Encandemo assumed the duties of a cook for ritual offerings. Another interesting bit of trivia is that Orlando's mother would have excelled at this ranking as she was herself a palm reader.
Proudly coming in first place are the hands of this temes nevinbur from Malakula Island in Vanuatu. Temes nevinbur figures are often referred to as puppets or marionettes and are danced at funerals and initiation ceremonies. Scholars disagree on who it is that they represent. Some say that they depict young boys, while others indicate that they are the intangible spirits of ancestors. Either way, one has to hand it to the temes nevinbur for coming in at number one.
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