Archive exhibitions available for loan

Portraits without names: Palestinian costume

Secret Splendours: Women’s costume from the Arab world

Symbolic defiance: Palestinian costume and embroidery since 1948

Woven from the clouds: the ikats and embroideries of Central Asia

New exhibition project: Threads of silver, flowers of gold: traditional textiles of the Sindh 

Portraits without names: Palestinian costume – exhibition history, availability for display, reviews

Installation photograph of Portraits without names: Palestinian costume in Melbourne 2002 (Peter Casamento)

Many Palestinians worldwide exist in a form of ethnic isolation, deprived of cultural heritage and becoming distanced from the meaning system behind that heritage.

The Portraits without names project was conceived in 1995 as a means of bridging that widening gap, by bringing together examples of historical costume and displaying it within the context of contemporary examples of costume held within Palestinian diaspora communities: to both give meaning to the old and a means to understand the language of the new. Such a project allows us insight into the changing perceptions of a people, as well as the changing status of their material culture.  

Few costumes and textiles are held by Palestinian families of museum standard, which has meant few diaspora communities contain enough material available to produce a major exhibition. Historical costume – that is pre 1948 material – is in short supply, wherever the Archive conducted research into Palestinian cultural heritage.

"Portraits without names" title panel (Peter Casamento)

The problem was solved by the Tareq Rajab Museum in Kuwait, whose directors, upon hearing of the almost total lack of any Palestinian cultural heritage in Palestinian diaspora communities, made available the best of their historical collection for loan. Contemporary (post 1948) costumes and textiles were drawn from the Archive’s collection, including products from refugee camp embroidery projects in the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as private collectors.  

The title of the travelling exhibition is drawn from Edward Said, who wrote in 1986, "to write of Palestine is to write of exile, and exile is a series of portraits without names, without contexts", which the Archive felt expressed not only our ongoing research into the cultural heritage held in diaspora communities, but also the story of the unknown Palestinian women who designed, embroidered and wore the exquisite costumes on display.  Portraits without names features over 200 years of Palestinian design, and examines how traditional costume and embroidery have long reflected the culture and identity of the Palestinian people.  It remains the only exhibition of Palestinian cultural heritage available on the international museum travelling exhibition circuit.

Wedad Boutagy, a member of the Sydney Palestinian community, stands in front of an exhibition exhibition graphic showing her in a Jerusalem studio photograph as a young woman, at the opening night of the Archive's travelling exhibition "Portraits without names: Palestinian costume" at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, 1996.  The story of the Boutagy family was one of the diaspora stories told in the Sydney installation of the exhibition (courtesy: Powerhouse Museum).

Curated originally for display in regions worldwide with Palestinian communities, Portraits without names is designed so that examples of cultural heritage held by the nearest community, or material held in nearly museums, can be incorporated into the display.  For example, when touring Australian venues, the exhibition includes a section on the Palestinian communities in Sydney, Melbourne or Adelaide (depending on venue location) featuring locally embroidered dresses and the weavings of Laurie Paine, an Australian artist whose extraordinary silk weavings are inspired by her Palestinian heritage.  Textile works by non Arab artist Christine McMillan, whose evocative works have been highly acclaimed by the Australian Palestinian community in Melbourne, are also displayed, showing how Middle Eastern culture has acted as a source of inspiration on the Australian art scene.  When touring international venues the Archive is more than happy to work with any local Palestinian community - of Arab community, in the case of our other exhibitions - to incorporate local cultural elements into the exhibition.

 Portraits without names consists of around 100 costumes, textiles and accessories, including rare wedding dresses and jackets from Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Hebron and Beit Dajan, coats of indigo and French brocade from the Galilee, heavily embroidered and coined headdresses from Bethlehem and Ramallah, intricate face veils from the Sinai Desert bedouin, nationalist 'flag' dresses and embroideries made during the intifada, and a variety of contemporary dress styles and embroidered products from refugee camp aid organizations, including exquisite dolls in traditional costume, complete with tiny gold coined headdresses and Damascus atlas silk belts.   The earliest piece in the exhibition is a Hebron wedding headdress with more that 1000 coins, some dating back to 1760, the newest a 'flag' dress of the al aqsa intifada embroidered with Dome of the Rock and Palestinian flag motifs.  Original prints and photographs are displayed, as are a variety of publications and rare first edition 19th century travel books.

Several different display techniques are used to display the costumes.  Many hang flat on the wall, others rest on headless tailor's forms.  We use mannequins to display full outfits and some of the more complicated costumes, such as the three metre long double dresses from Jericho.  Although accessories are displayed in showcases, we prefer to have as much of the exhibition as possible out from behind glass, as we believe glass distances and distracts from an accurate viewing.  The exhibition is accompanied by extended wall text information and large documentary photographs. Palestinian drumming, the songs of the intifada and Anatolia's "Lost Songs of Palestine" CD are played within the exhibition space. An area is set aside within the exhibition space for further study with the aid of a selection of books and articles, with a video featuring Palestinian refugee camp embroidery projects plays within the exhibition space.  A full colour catalogue, Exhibition Notes, postcards and embroidered refugee camp products.  Where possible we burn a small quantity of frankincense in the exhibition space prior to opening each morning.  Together with the music and the ambience of the costumes themselves, this creates a lustrous sensory experience.  

Portraits without names has been touring Australia and internationally since 1995. Venues have included Museum Victoria, Melbourne, the National Museum of Textiles in Adelaide, many regional Australian venues, and an 18 month run at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.   The exhibition is confirmed in US and Canadian locations between late 2004 and 2006.  Please contact the Archive for a display schedule.

Installation photograph of "Portraits without names" showing Palestinian dresses from the 1980s, Melbourne 2002 (Peter Casamento)

The exhibition is freighted in two crates, accompanied by eight boxed mannequins and tailor's forms. The Archive’s loan fee covers three months display (plus 10% GST for Australian venues). Transport costs must be met by the venue. The Archive will take responsibility for installation and de-installation, and will provide lectures and tours. The Archive will also supply teacher’s notes and catalogues for staff and volunteers at each venue, and will undertake staff training if requested.

Reviews of Portraits without names: Palestinian costume

"...a humbling display of awesome knowledge, plus a sensitivity to the beauties of the Palestinian past and present... well researched and beautifully arranged exhibits..." Dr Christine Asmar, President, Australasian Middle East Studies Association

" fine art and ethnographic example - superb..." Laura Back, Australian War Memorial

"...satisfying on all levels - senses and intellect indulged. Respect gives way to awe. It’s a privilege to see this show..." Janet de Boer, Textile Fibre Forum

"...fascinating exhibition..." Peter Haynes, Art Monthly

"...great to see costume presented with such accuracy. Would love to have produced such a laboriously researched exhibition myself..." Glen Dimond, National Museum of Australia

"...inspired, amazed and overwhelmed..."

"...brilliant. Excellent range of materials - all of them exquisite. Commentary informative and definately not didactic or preaching. The design of the rooms is lovely..."

"...made me proud to be Palestinian..." Reeda Kassis, Sydney

"...thank you seems inadequate..." John McSweeney, Canberra

"...truly beautiful..." Joanna Mendelssohn, The Australian

" ...delightful..." Costume (London)

"... I believe this exhibition has raised our self-esteem and confidence and developed our sense of identity as a small community in Australia. As the exhibition moves around the country it will continue to raise and re-inforce the identity of the Palestinian community...thank you..." Marcelle Mansour, Sydney

Secret Splendours: women’s costume from the Arab world – exhibition history, availability for display, reviews

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Southern Sinai Desert bedouin girl from Katri'in village 1997 - the image commonly used on promotional material for the Secret Splendours exhibition.

The concept for Secret Splendours grew out of the popularity of Portraits without names. The Archive's research revealed that very few Middle Eastern costumes were held in Australian museums. Access by migrants from the Middle East region to such material was therefore severely restricted and information on cultural heritage was being lost.

Secret Splendours features approximately 60 costumes from Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Palestine, and the countries of the Gulf: Kuwait, the Emirates, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. There are elaborate wedding dresses from Siwa Oasis in Egypt and Bethlehem in Palestine, ceremonial costumes from Kuwait, Oman and Yemen, and everyday garments from Bahriya Oasis and the Sinai Desert in Egypt, from Gaza and Hebron in Palestine, and Oman and the Emirates. There are even examples of children’s clothing, including a tiny Palestinian dress embroidered with nationalist motifs worn during the intifada uprising and a wonderful sequined dress from Kuwait in the shape and colours of the Kuwaiti flag.  The exhibition also includes a section on hijab (contemporary Islamic modesty dress) and examines both historical and contemporary veiling and covering in Middle Eastern and other cultures.

Each costume is accompanied by photographs and extended text, as well as being displayed with related accessories, such as trousers, headdresses, face masks and veils, jewellery, perfume, henna implements and cosmetics. Another feature of the exhibition is the collection of dolls from the Sinai desert tribes, Jordan and Palestine.  Prints and original photographs accompany the exhibition, and eclectic music is played within the exhibition space. It is been said that the exhibition brings alive the private world of the Arab woman.

Installation photograph of "Secret Splendours," Melbourne 2002 showing Northern Sinai Desert bedouin costume (Peter Casamento)

As with Portraits without names: Palestinian costume, we use a variety of simple display forms that are easy to travel.  The exhibition contains over 40 large graphics and extended labels, some dealing with costumes by geographic region, others discussing the mythology of veiling or the art of henna design.  We make us of both music and incense - in this case a blend of frankincense and rose essence - to create an effective ambience.  Archive produced Exhibition Notes are available, as are coloured postcards and posters.  Jehan Rajab's 2003 Costumes from the Arab world, published by the Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait (whose costumes are on loan in the exhibition) can accompany the exhibition as a partial catalogue.

Secret Splendours has been touring through out Asia and Australia since 1997. It is available from display from October 2003.

It is a smaller exhibition than Portraits without names, and is freighted in one crate, accompanied by three boxed mannequins. The loan fee (plus 10% GST for Australian venues) covers three months display. Transport costs must be met by the venue. The Archive will take responsibility for installation and de-installation, and will provide lectures and tours. The Archive will also supply teacher’s notes for staff and volunteers at each venue, and will undertake staff training if requested.

Reviews of Secret Splendours: women’s costume from the Arab world

"…beautiful and inspiring…" Heidi McElven

"…it’s great to see a positive energy towards the Arab world in general and the Arab woman in particular..."

"…spectacular exhibition! Details well the regional and historical diversity in costume. A wonderfully rich tradition that has been reflected well in this exhibition…" Nikolai Haddad

"…the exhibition is wonderful…it is great to also be shown the spectacular visual anthropology of such misunderstood cultures…" Angela Kelly

"…quite exquisite - a fabulous collection, beautifully displayed…" E Seott

‘…many thanks for a fabulously interesting exhibition. Terrific to see such a rich culture of embroidery, previously not even guessed at…" K Kaeutspelek

‘…a lot of information in a small space. Beautifully presented and a delight to behold in a public space…" Laurie Paine

"…wonderful to see Islamic women’s dress recognized and appreciated. Good to see some

Installation image of Secret Splendours in 2002 in Melbourne showing Egyptian costumes (Peter Casamento)

unbiased facts written and that these cultures are genuinely admired. Very happy to see this…"

"…beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. History would be made just in the process of making garments like these…"

"…wonderful interesting display…a great atmosphere has been created as well as educating…"

"…another triumphant Allenby exhibition…" Christine Asmar, AMESA

"…this is a splendid way of showing the cultures of the Middle East…and excellent way to show the public that this is culture not religion…"

"…magnificent collection and beautifully displayed. What a wealth of variety is hidden…exhibitions like this do help to dispel the stereotyped view of the Arab woman…" Juliette Bentley

"…beautiful, fascinating, bewildering…" Miles Lee

"…an exquisite collection and an added bonus of curatorial input. All items are beautifully displayed with just the right amount of information to take in. Thank you". Dee Court

",,,it’s wonderful to see this side of the Arab world in a more cultural, positive sense…the insight is wonderful…"

"…this is a truly great exhibition …"

Installation image of Secret Splendours in 2002 in Melbourne showing Yemeni costumes (Peter Casamento)

"…a really worthwhile exhibition, exquisite to behold…"

"…this gives insight into another culture [into the] mysterious Orient. It helps demystify the region by exposing it’s culture, artwork and history. We need more of these exhibitions to help us understand and therefore deal better with this part of the globe…" Rami Meo

‘…inspiring and enriching…"

‘..excellent exhibition. Please continue this project on unknown treasures…" N Ken

"…an absolutely stunning exhibition full of information…" Ann Baker

"…a wonderful display with most informative information panels…" Sandy Wather

"…a truly beautiful exhibition and evocative of the wondrous lands and cultures which are so inadequately understood in our immediate world. Greatly admired and appreciated…" Marie Shehadie

Symbolic defiance: Palestinian costume and embroidery since 1948.


Symbolic defiance: Palestinian costume and embroidery since 1948 travelling exhibition installation, showing intifada dresses designed by the ANAT Workshop, Yarmouk Refugee Camp, Syria, displayed at the First World Congress of Middle Eastern Studies, Mainz, Germany, 2002 (courtesy: Jeni Allenby)

Symbolic defiance: Palestinian costume and embroidery since 1948 was curated in 2001, and was most recently displayed at the First World Congress of Middle Eastern Studies in Mainz, Germany.

Symbolic defiance reconstructs the last half century of Palestinian cultural history, bringing to life the almost complete loss of that heritage after the events of 1948, and documenting the extraordinary revival of Palestinian costume and embroidery that occurred in the late 1980s.  The exhibition examines the establishment of Palestinian refugee camp embroidery projects and the effect of this upon embroidery's traditional role in Palestinian society.  It also documents the development of Palestinian village life, including traditional dress and embroidery, as a nationalist symbol, and explores how women’s traditional costume became one of the dominant representations of Palestinian cultural identity.

The exhibition includes material never before displayed, including examples of traditional dress styles from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, as well as rare intifada dresses and political embroideries, many on loan from Palestinian refugee camp and village embroidery projects in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

A full colour brochure is under production, with a monograph of the same name forthcoming in late 2004 with Brill Publishers in The Netherlands. Costs and fees will be kept to a minimum to promote maximum venue participation. The exhibition is available from 2004 onwards.

The Archive would like to thank the author of this review, Vicky Mason, for forwarding the following review to us:

Symbolic defiance: Palestinian costume and embroidery since 1948 travelling exhibition installation, showing intifada dresses designed by the ANAT Workshop, Yarmouk Refugee Camp, Syria, displayed at the First World Congress of Middle Eastern Studies, Mainz, Germany, 2002 (courtesy: Jeni Allenby)

"One of the highlights of attending the September 2002 World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies (WOCMES) conference in Mainz, Germany, was attending the outstanding Exhibition of "Symbolic Defiance: Palestinian Costume and Embroidery Since 1948" organised by the Palestine Costume Archive in Canberra, Australia. I felt honoured to have been able to see first-hand such a world-class collection of this priceless nature. In the course of my research I have read much about the key role costume and embroidery have played for Palestinian people, and to see such first-rate and unique examples of this work – such as with the Intifada Flag Dresses - was a truly amazing experience for me. I also have to say that the exhibition was a particular success because of the professionalism of the organiser of the exhibition – Jeni Allenby. In particular her paper "Re-inventing Cultural Heritage: Palestinian Traditional Costume and Embroidery Since 1948" gave a wealth of information enabling the true value of the exhibition to be appreciated. Moreover, I was not the only one who felt this way about the

 exhibition and Ms Allenby’s paper. Many other scholars attending the conference that I spoke to personally also expressed their appreciation of the exhibition, a notable example being the Palestinian singer and musicologist Reem Kelani. I hope that the Archive continues their wonderful work taking this amazing collection to new audiences across the globe".

Victoria Mason

Research Associate

International Relations and Global Security

Curtin University of Technology

Perth Western Australia


Woven from the clouds: the ikats and embroideries of Central Asia exhibition history, availability for display

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Man's chapan from Bokhara, an example of the style and standard of Central Asian material to be featured in this exhibition.

Woven from the clouds: the ikats and embroideries of Central Asia is the Archive’s third travelling exhibition project and it's first in association with Hejira Exhibitions. Drawn primarily from a major private collection held in Australia, with loans from Australian and international museums, the exhibition examines the intricate and beautiful textile traditions of Central Asia.


Reaching from the Eastern shore of the Caspian Sea to the borders of China, Central Asia is currently divided into the Republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, Kirghizia and Kazakhstan, and reaches over into north-eastern Iran and northern Afghanistan. It is an area rich in textile traditions, ranging from the intricately embroidered susanis from Bukhara, Tashkent and Samarkand to the dramatic silk ikats, known as abr silk, which means ‘cloud-like’ in Persian, which were worn in various regional centres.

Curtains, cloths and robes were made from this ikat, which, while mostly made of silk, were also

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Sart woman in summer dress 1882 (Bernisches Historisches museum, Moser Collection)
woven of cotton and velvet. Ikat patterns changed constantly in style and a man’s social status and wealth were indicated by his keeping up with current fashion. It was not uncommon for very wealthy men to wear five or six ikat coats at one time, to portray their position in society. Tribal women also wore richly embroidered clothes and large quantities of jewellery. Their most striking garment was a hip length mantle called a kurteh which was worn over the head like a cloak, and were always covered with dense embroidery depicting stylized floral patterns.

Woven from the clouds examines both urban and tribal costumes and textiles, with particular emphasis on the spectacular ikats of the region. The exhibition includes large wall hangings of 19th and 20th century ikats, as well as a large array of different costumes featuring ikat, including male and female chapans, khalats and kurtas. Contemporary examples of ikat, now machine made, are also be displayed. Patterns are regionally identified and discussed in detail. The exhibition also examines the forms of applied decoration seen in nomad, village and urban traditions. Embroidery was solely the craft of women and motifs and production methods will be examined in depth. Embroidered and appliquéd costumes are displayed as are a variety of large and small susani hangings. Other tent embroideries, such as the popular saye gosha, the V shaped pieces, are exhibited, as are other costume accessories, such as headdresses and boots and a wonderful display of jewellery. There is also, to conclude the exhibition, a section on contemporary costume and refugee textile products.

Woven from the clouds consists of approximately 60 items, including ikat wall hangings, susanis, male and female costumes (including ikats, brocades, felts and cottons), assorted accessories such as ceremonial headdresses, and jewellery. As the exhibition is designed to travel, display is simple: textiles are either hung on walls or, in the case of costumes, on T-forms. Display cases are needed for jewellery and smaller accessories. The exhibition is accompanied by large black and white photographs documenting the region and the wearing of the costumes. Audio tapes of local music accompany the exhibition. A full colour catalogue will accompany the exhibition. Textile products from Central Asian refugee camps will also be available for sale.

Woven from the clouds is transported in two crates, together with 10 dismounted T form display forms. It is available for display from 2003 onwards. The loan fee of the exhibition (plus 10% GST for Australian venues) covers three months display. Transport costs must be met by the venue.. The Archive will take responsibility for installation and de-installation, and will provide lectures and tours.

New exhibition project: Threads of silver, flowers of gold: traditional textiles of the Sindh

The Archive is planning, in association with Hejira Exhibitions,  a major travelling exhibition of costumes and textiles from the Northern India and Pakistan region. Again, like Woven from the clouds: the ikats and embroideries of Central Asia, this is drawn from an Australian private collection that has not been previously exhibited. It will feature over 80 costumes, textiles and accessories, and will be accompanied by a full colour catalogue. Proposed exhibition dates are for 2003 onwards. Further information will be posted regularly.

For further details please contact the Archive.

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