"As Mulheres de Maria Lamas" at the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisboa, 25 de Janeiro de 2024 // TIAGO PETINGA/LUSA

Gulbenkian showcases photographs by “most remarkable woman of the 20th Century”

For the first time ever, “The Women of Maria Lamas” collection is on show in central Lisbon between 26 January and 28 May.

Lisbon’s Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation inaugurated yesterday an unprecedented exhibition in Portugalfeaturing photographs by Maria Lamas, described by its curator, Jorge Calado, as the country’s “most remarkable” woman of the 20th century and who, without being a professional photographer, managed to produce true “masterpieces” as part of her work.

“The Women of Maria Lamas” is the exhibition title that will be on show in the atrium of the Gulbenkian’s Art Library in central Lisbon between 26 January and 28 May of this year.

The display is an exceptional collection of 67 photographs selected by the curator and collector of the work “As mulheres do meu país” (The women of my country), which features portraits of women from the countryside, the mountains, coastal areas and the sea, on the docks, in the mines and the factories, but also working as teachers, nurses, postal workers, maids and servants, or as single mothers or prostitutes, among others.

Lamas is, according to Calado, “the most remarkable Portuguese woman of the 20th century” as a fighter for human and civil rights during the Estado Novo (New State) dictatorship and who “was always a woman of the left” throughout her life.

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“Known as a writer and journalist, I don’t call her an activist, a feminist or a suffragette, because I know she’d hate that,” said the curator during a press preview. “She fought to liberate women, not as women, but as citizens and human beings. These are not women’s rights, but the rights of all human beings.”

This is the first time that Lamas’s photography has been exhibited in Portugal, and it is her first solo show, said the curator, explaining that in 2009, he had already presented eight of her photographs in Paris as part of an exhibition dedicated to women photographers from around the world.

“I wanted to do a more developed exhibition,” he said. “I had to wait 15 years.”

In 2016, Curado also presented nine photographs by Lamas with works from around the world at a major photography exhibition in Dubai.

His fascination with the writer’s work comes from a very early age when a 12-year-old Calado, for the first time, saw “As mulheres do meu país” – a book he later returned to in the 21st century, only to realise that the writer was also responsible for the majority of the 150 or so photographs in the book.

For Calado, what opened up before his eyes was something “extraordinarily modern” in which the photographer’s and her subjects’ empathy shone through.

“For her, there was no decisive moment; there was the decisive woman, owner of her body and her work,” said the curator, explaining that the photographs on display – which represent women alone, in pairs, threes or groups, sometimes captured at work or in tune with the surrounding landscape – make each one the representative of her profession and way of life.

This set of portraits also reveals a “contrast” between, on the one hand, female solidarity and, on the other, respect for women’s individuality, he added.

Throughout the exhibition, mainly comprised of full-length portraits and several small photographs, Calado chose to highlight “two of the best photographs, good for the opening of the exhibition.”

One is an image of a young mother from the Serra da Estrela mountain range, holding her son with his characteristic shawl, in a figurative set that reproduces the atmosphere of a traditional threshing floor at harvest time.

The other depicts a girl, also from the Serra da Estrela, sowing rye from her family’s small harvest.

At the beginning of the exhibition, there is a photograph of a child in the field, in which you can see the shadow of Lamas herself, in what Calado described as the author’s “only self-portrait” in the display.

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According to the curator, Lamas was very interested in how women dressed, which said a lot about their situation. For example, he pointed to a photograph of an Algarve woman wearing a hat because she “worked from sun up to sun down.”

The exhibition has two subsections: one on the connection between women’s work and animals and the help they gave, and the other on groups of women working together, such as the portrait of a group of women in the codfish drying area in Gafanha, near Aveiro, which is why they called themselves “the grasshoppers” (since the Portuguese word for the insect is ‘gafanhoto’).

In Calado’s opinion, with these group photos, the author “is sending out a message: ‘Women of Portugal, unite’.”

The curator emphasised the quality of Lamas’s photographic work despite her not being a professional photographer and having little photographic material. After completing this set of pictures for her book, she “never photographed again,” he stressed.

“She had never photographed before; she used the most basic camera there was: a Kodak box, with just one button to press and no way of focussing,” she said. “These are photographs in which the percentage of masterpieces is absolutely extraordinary.”

Calado went so far as to make an association between Lamas’s work and the golden age of photography in the US.

Evoking the stock market crash of 1929 and the great drought – a period that gave rise to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s statement that he saw “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished” – Calado recalled how the then president “set an example to the world” by calling on artists to make them aware of this situation and urging them to write novels, compose music and make films that showed this reality.

“Artists, in any society, are always the last to be called upon,” lamented Calado, highlighting how “Maria Lamas did the same: showing Portuguese women in Portugal.

“There is no photographer in Portugal who did this, and she didn’t know American photography, so it’s unique,” he stressed. “What’s more, she took the photographs and wrote the texts, which is also unique. Nobody in America did this.”

As Mulheres de Maria Lamas

This is why, according to Calado, who said that he has always been interested in “women who have asserted themselves throughout history”, Lamas was a woman who was “always ahead of her time” and “above” conventions that tended to compartmentalise women into classifications.

“Maria Lamas was an absolutely brilliant woman, for me the most remarkable,” he said. “Sometimes people ask me: ‘What about Amália? Amália was a diva. I’m talking about women.”

The Gulbenkian exhibition also has an initial part in which Lamas’s personal objects, books that she wrote and translated and journalistic works are presented, as well as a portrait of her painted by the late Júlio Pomar in 1954 and a plaster bust of her, sculpted in 1929 by Júlio de Sousa.

The photographs on display are almost all originals, which were in her family’s possession.

The exhibition can be seen every day between 10h00 and 18h00. Entrance is free.