Opening at the Museum of Islamic Art this month is a fantastic exhibition exploring the role and positioning of women in the artistic expression of 19th century Iran. FACT learns more about the upcoming showcase, called ‘Qajar Women’ from MIA co-curators Dr. Mounia Chekhab-Abudaya and Dr. Nur Sobers-Khan…

Tell us the process by which the paintings and photographs were curated?

In the case of Qajar Women, we started discussing the history of art in Qajar Iran, so roughly from the late 18th century until the beginning of the 20th century. We realised that a number of exhibitions and publications have looked at the way that powerful men are portrayed in the artwork of that period, such as kings and princes. Portraits of these figures often emphasise their long bears, regal stature, royal finery and jewellery and their prominently displayed weapons, thereby creating a visual language of masculinity. We wanted to look at the other side of the picture; what was the visual language of femininity during this period? How were women depicted in the artworks of Qajar Iran? Some excellent research has been carried out on this topic, and there is a brilliant online database about women in Qajar Iran, but no museum exhibitions have taken place on this topic, so we decided that it was worth exploring. In terms of selecting the objects and how they would be displayed in order to tell a story, this process involves reviewing the contents of our museum collections, researching the objects and figuring out what narratives and themes we want to explore. For instance, in the section on “notions of beauty,” we selected objects with depictions of women from earlier periods of Iran, for instance, the late Safavid and Zand periods, and juxtaposed them with images of women in artworks from the Qajar period, to demonstrate the ways in which notions of femininity and female beauty change in artistic depictions over time, as a result of shifting social and historical trends. There is also an implicit comparison with ideals of female beauty today, which are very different from those of the Qajar period. Furthermore, we juxtaposed the traditional artworks – such as paintings on lacquered mirror cases, manuscript illustrations and watercolours – with contemporary art production, to show the audience how the iconography of female beauty from the Qajar period still resonates with artists and viewers today.

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Why should the public visit this exhibition?

The museum-going audience would not normally have a chance to see these objects, as they are not on display in our permanent galleries, and will be presented in our fourth floor temporary exhibition galleries from March 2015 until January 2016, after which they will return to storage. It is a unique opportunity to explore the theme of the artistic representation of women in an important period of artistic production that still influences contemporary artists today. Also, it is a rare chance to view traditional art objects in juxtaposition with the contemporary artworks that they have inspired.

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Tell us about your favourite or most interesting pieces going on display…

For us, as curators, it is always difficult to choose which are the most interesting pieces going on display, as they are all important for various reasons. But, perhaps, it is possible to single out the lacquered mirror cases and pen boxes, as the depiction of women on these objects provides some insight into the ways that male artists viewed women during the Qajar period. The image of women in these artworks, which also had a utilitarian function, seems to be used to express a range of ideas, from intimacy, to domesticity, to motherhood, or women as a possible source of threat to the moral order. In addition to the pen boxes and mirror cases, the illustrations of women as the archetypal heroines of Persian epic poetry should also resonate with audiences today. While the stories are eternal in their appeal, the ways in which Qajar artists re-imagined the image of women in these ancient times, according to their own aesthetic standards, is fascinating to observe.

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What themes do the paintings and photographs explore and why do you think they will appeal to visitors?

There are four main artistic themes explored through the objects from our permanent collection: the daily lives of women in Qajar Iran; aristocratic pastimes and women in power; changing notions of beauty; and women as symbols in Qajar artistic production. Each of these themes is explored through specific objects, and we hope that by displaying these objects, the audience will make connections to their own lives and experiences, and perhaps question their own aesthetic preferences. The themes also touch on questions of how women in the Qajar period negotiated the passage between public and private spheres (as women today still have to do), how they engaged in public and private festivities, how they exercised power at the Qajar court, and how their image in artworks was used to express a range of complex ideas, ranging from the personal to the emotional to the political. We also hope that the juxtaposition of contemporary reproductions inspires young artists to draw on the Islamic art tradition for their own artworks. We hope that the audience will have learned more about an important and intriguing period in the history of Islamic Art, and also that they will have appreciated a new and sometimes challenging aesthetic.

GO: Qajar Women runs at MIA from March 25, 2015 to April 9, 2016. Visit mia.org.qa or call 4422 4444 for more information.