Sandra Williams is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Art Department at the University of Michigan (U-M) and is Managing Director of Khamseen: Islamic Art History Online. She is currently writing her dissertation on gender representation in Persianate manuscripts. Prior to joining U-M, Sandy was an assistant curator in the Art of the Middle East Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Name: Sandra S. Williams
Degree, Minor, Graduation Year: PhD, History of Art, 2025
Hometown(s): Chicago and Los Angeles
Tell us about your summer, where and when did your fellowship take place?
In June and July 2022, I used GISC funding, combined with funding from my home department, History of Art, to conduct my first round of research for my dissertation, tentatively titled “Mardānagi/ Zanānagi: Gender Representation in Persianate Painting.” I visited archives in the US, United Kingdom, and Ireland, where I studied and photographed numerous illustrated manuscripts that will serve as the corpus for my dissertation. The opportunity to view the manuscripts in person was vital, as many did not have digital image records and I need to view them in person to determine their relevance to my project. Furthermore, through these site visits I was able to closely examine the manuscript paintings, and collect basic codicological information that will help me to better understand the context in which the manuscripts were produced and circulated.
I began my trip in New York, where I spent several days examining manuscripts, including several copies of the Khamseh of Nizami, in the New York Public Library’s collection. As my first experience conducting dissertation research, it proved invaluable in helping me determine what was most relevant for study and to refine my estimations for how much time to allot to each archive. From New York I flew to London and spent a week and a half at the British Library, studying fifteen manuscripts, including the unicum dictionary, Miftah al-Fuzala. I also had the chance to meet with the curator of the collection, Ursula Sims-Williams, and discuss my project and gain feedback on other manuscripts to study. My third stop was Dublin, where I visited the Chester Beatty Library. In addition to viewing several key manuscripts, including an early small Shahnameh, I was also able to view their exhibition of Safavid Iran, Meeting in Isfahan, and meet with the curator Moya Carey to discuss the show and my own project. Finally, my last stop on the trip was Oxford, where I worked in the Bodleian Library and while there determined that there are several significant manuscripts that I should return to view in the future.
Each leg of the trip deepened and expanded the ideas and questions I had put forth in my prospectus, providing the valuable primary material necessary to tease out answers to my overarching question of how gender was made legible in pre-modern Persianate manuscripts. Time in the archive shed light on several promising avenues of inquiry I plan to pursue as I process and synthesize the data I collected. Ultimately, where the prospectus helped me to sketch a general road map of the project, this period of research brought my questions to bear on actual objects and helped me to refine my thinking on the topic and determine my next steps, including potential further field research.
Tell us about you and your background:
I am a PhD candidate in my fourth year in the History of Art department. I am currently writing my dissertation on gender representation in Persianate manuscripts. Prior to joining UM, I was an assistant curator in the Art of the Middle East Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and my goal is to return to curatorial work after completing my dissertation. While at UM I’ve been lucky enough to meet a number of people who are passionate about art history and the Islamic world, and we started a digital platform called Khamseen: Islamic Art History Online, of which I am the managing director.
How did the GISC 2022 Summer Fellowship help you?
When travel costs such as flights and hotels began to rise this summer due to high demand and inflation, I feared I would need to scale back my research trip, by cutting archive visits and shortening my time abroad. Thankfully, due to the GISC Summer Fellowship, I was able to maintain my trip as I originally planned and cover the additional costs. This allowed me to not only visit the four primary collections I intended, but also carve out a small amount of additional time to visit a fifth collection, something I was only able to determine I could do once I was on the ground and had a chance to calculate the amount of actual, rather than estimated, time I needed in each archive. The GISC Summer Fellowship helped me to accomplish a greater amount of field research than I had planned and collect an immense amount of data that I am still refining.
What experiences during the summer inspired you?
Working directly with objects is always an inspiring experience for me and this research trip was a bounty of moments to handle and study priceless manuscripts. While digital surrogates are instrumental to conducting research (particularly with such portable and far-flung material!), the time spent in-person with a manuscript and the information that can be gleaned from examining it as a three-dimensional object, marked by the wear of time and use, is invaluable. This moment of direct engagement with objects left me feeling not only better prepared to develop the ideas laid out in my prospectus, but also with energized and excited to take on the analysis and writing phases of the dissertation project.
What are your dreams and goals for the future and does your summer fellowship relate?
Once I graduate from University of Michigan, I plan to continue my curatorial career and hope to work with a museum collection. This summer research trip was an ideal opportunity to gain familiarity with collections abroad and to build valuable hands-on experience, both of which are necessary curatorial skills. Furthermore, I was able to introduce myself to two curators who shared their insights on my dissertation project and with whom I hope to remain in contact, expanding my professional network beyond the United States and establishing relationships with key scholars in the field.
Wondering how this can be you? All students currently enrolled at the University of Michigan in an undergraduate or graduate/professional degree program (master's or doctoral level) are eligible to apply for the GISC’s Fellowship Funding.
The GISC Fellowship Funding may be used for the following:
- Language training - to offset costs of program fees for language learning.
- Research support - to offset costs for an original project supporting Senior, Master’s, or Doctoral thesis completion.
- Travel expenses (graduate students only) - associated with conducting original research or language training