“Women: Navigating Presence and Absence” at the Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon

‘Khamsa’ [Five Poems] (detail) by Nizami. Persia, Shiraz, c 1591. Ink, gouache and gold on paper. Calouste Gulbenkian Museum ‘Khamsa’ [Five Poems] (detail) by Nizami. Persia, Shiraz, c 1591. Ink, gouache and gold on paper. Calouste Gulbenkian Museum

The geometric patterning in Islamic tiles, carpets and textiles bespeak the Chief Architect, and how He brings forth the beauty of the physical world through eternal shapes. Implicit in these designs are dualities, heaven and earth, light and shadow, and of course male and female. The curating tradition of museums focuses on the male element in Islamic art. From the great monarchs like Iran’s Shah Abbas, Turkey’s Suleyman the Magnificent and India’s Shah Jahan, museums display their silk ceremonial gowns, jade-handled swords and brocaded riding boots. Objects made by or for women rarely figure in the exhibit cases.

Increasingly uncomfortable about this absence, the Gulbenkian’s Middle East curator Jessica Hallett asked herself, where are the women in the museum’s collection? She recruited a group of young women, artists and researchers, Portuguese, Palestinian, Turkish, Egyptian and Mozambican, and asked them to help answer this question. The exhibit that resulted from their investigation contains some inevitable as well as some surprising responses.


ShirinWomen play a large role in Persian epic poetry, and so figure prominently in book illustrations. We see two fine examples of this in manuscripts from collections of the Timurid Iskandar of Shiraz. The first is a painting of Shirin, the alpha-female of Persian literature. This Armenian Princess sets off on her own black charger to look for Shah Khosrow, whose portrait has so beguiled her. She bathes unselfconsciously in a stream along the way, wringing her long locks out after a refreshing dip. Unbeknownst to her, Khosrow has undertaken his own journey to find her. The painting captures the Shah as he catches a glimpse of her bare charms, and is dumbstruck. There is no lack of female agency or self-effacement in this painting.

The second fine illustration shows Shah Bahram Gur confronted with the portraits of the seven beauties, each representing a different color, a different part of the world, and a different insight into life’s mysteries. These portraits inspire the king to undertake an initiatic journey, during which the women teach him divine wisdom. One does not have to look far to find women central to the tradition of book illustrations.

nucleo-1-2-1536x9601Women also frequently feature in Iranian tradition as entertainers. A delicate enamel bowl from the Seljuk era (12th century) shows an orchestra of women playing castanets, kamancheh (a bowed instrument), lute and tambourine. The calm poses and focus in the women’s eyes shows that they are playing learned music, like the complex mughams of today’s Azeri or Uzbek tradition, not frivolous entertainment. Their diadems and costly silk costumes suggest that they are not court entertainers, but princesses themselves. A counterpoint to this learned assembly decorates a glazed water pipe bowl from 17th-century Iran showing popular entertainers frenetically dancing to the beat of an oversized tambourine. We know women played a key role in the transmission of music and poetry (see Three Asian Divas), but here we see evidence of both learned and popular performances.


Hallett, her guest curator Shahd Wadi and their team identified less obvious evidence of the woman’s presence. A magnificent Egyptian Qur’an is dedicated to Safiye Sultan, one of the Ottoman Empire’s most influential rulers of either sex. As trusted adviser to Sultan Murad III and the mother of Mehmet III, she governed in the Sultans’ absence and received foreign ambassadors. The sumptuousness of this religious object makes clear what heights of power this enslaved Albanian concubine obtained.

Women have always been the major producers and consumers of textiles. Though the collection is rich in examples, the museum rarely showcases them, which speaks to Hallett’s point about the curatorial bias. In fact, Hallett had to review her collections’ reserves to find 100 little-shown objects connected with women, of which she selected 20 for this show. These include a delightfully light bath towel with embroidered flowers and gold highlights floating above our heads, hinting at the ethereal luxury of the hammam. Against this, a simple yet elegant undyed scarf demonstrates how a local woman’s craft was capable of creating a dignified and becoming garment. A Turkish woman practicing embroidery left us her enigmatic embroidery sampler on linen that reminded one of Hallett’s contributors, Leyla Gediz, of emojis.

An essential part of this exhibit is the podcast and accompanying website. Conceived during the Covid lockdowns, the organizers deliberately made their research process and conclusions accessible to a global audience. The link is here. In the podcast the participants use storytelling to help us experience the collection. I like very much one of the stories, told by Joana Simōes Piedade, to accompany a beautiful Ilkhanid era (13th century) enamel plate decorated with song birds. She explains how the dogma that only male songbirds have the ability to sing persisted as long as there were no women ornithologists. As soon as women joined the field, they found that female songbirds also sing. That’s a great example of how it is necessary to bring diversity into the museum space, to help us uncover spaces and stories we did not know existed.


The exhibition runs at the Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon through 22 March 2022.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). He is working on a new book about the horse in Asian history.