Latif Al Ani / Reviewed by Erica Payet / 07.12.17
The Ruya Foundation has organised the first exhibition in London by Iraqi photographer Latif Al Ani, who documented life in Iraq during a very particular era in this country’s history: from the 1950s, a decade marked by the 1958 coup installing the Iraqi Republic; up until Saddam Hussein, having steadily risen to power in the ’60s and ’70s, invaded Iran in 1980 for what was to become the protracted Iran-Iraq war. Viewed from today’s perspective, Al Ani’s pictures represent an exceptional record of this under-recognised era of modernisation and cosmopolitanism in Iraq.
The 57 photographs in the exhibition are from Al Ani’s personal archive (regrettably, the exhibited prints are not vintage but digital), as his official archives have been sadly pillaged in 2003. Al Ani’s work stems from his employment first by the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), where he learned his craft within the company’s magazine. Then, when IPC was on its way to becoming nationalised, the Iraqi Ministry of Information hired him. He founded its photography department in 1960. There his task was to document the social and economic fabric of the country, in line with the state’s socialist agenda.
Albeit working within the framework of his institutional employers, Al Ani was not himself driven by political motives, and he evokes the creative freedom he enjoyed. He sought beauty and elegance above all else. He admits to “avoid[ing] the negative things that [he] didn’t want people to look at.” Al-Ani speaks of an increasing sense of fear, starting with the 1958 coup, that his world was about to disappear, which prompted him to document it in an archive-building mission.
His modernist, sharply focused photographs are wide-ranging in subject, from Iraq’s landscape and modern architecture and infrastructure, to street scenes and archaeological sites in the desert. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the traditional and rural is constantly juxtaposed with the modern and westernised. Highlighting these contrasts was one of Al Ani’s aims. Images such as Adhamiyah Corniche, Eid, or Building a Dam, North of Iraq are remarkable for their strong composition using geometrical lines, low-angle shots, and an attentive use of the stark shadows afforded by strong sunlight. While at IPC he also produced some of the first aerial photographs of Iraqi sites, some of which are presented here.
A few of the exhibited images were made outside Iraq (in East Germany, U.S.A., France, Syria). The curator, Tamara Chalabi, wished to expel the idea of Al Ani as the “native informant”, purely providing picturesque “local” images—although Al Ani does speak of what he felt at the time was a great responsibility to give a fair and sophisticated portrait of his country to the world. Today though, Chalabi wishes to present an artist who produced a visual archive of his time in a more global sense, an idea reinforced by the absence of wall captions, which chronologically and geographically homogenises the selection of images.
From 1983, Al Ani, while he did not exile from Iraq, definitively stopped taking pictures due to the danger induced by the restriction of freedoms in the Baathist dictatorship. He has never photographed since, not being able to find beauty in his country any more.
– Reviewed by Erica Payet
Note: All quotes and references are taken from Latif Al Ani’s interview with Ruya Foundation chair and co-founder Tamara Chalabi, in the exhibition catalogue Invisible Beauty: The Iraq Pavilion at the 56th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale Di Venezia, Milano, Italy: Mousse Publishing in collaboration with Ruya Foundation, Baghdad, 2015
Latif Al Ani continues at The Coningsby Gallery until 16 December 2017
30 Tottenham Street