In the shadow of war: Photographer Jamal Penjweny on Iraq today – interview

Iraqi photographer and filmmaker Jamal Penjweny tells Art Radar how his work represents an Iraq overlooked by mainstream media. 

Jamal Penjweny is a photographer and filmmaker whose work has received international attention and acclaim. Turning to photography while working as a shepherd and café owner, Penjweny’s projects about everyday life in Iraq portray a side of the country not often seen in the media.

Jamal Penjweny, 'Iraq is Flying', 2006-10. Image courtesy the artist, Ikon Gallery and RUYA Foundation.

Jamal Penjweny, ‘Iraq is Flying’, 2006-10. Image courtesy the artist, Ikon Gallery and RUYA Foundation.

Jamal Penjweny (b. 1981, Sulaimaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan) started his artistic career as a sculptor and painter, but began to cover the Iraqi conflict as a photojournalist while based in Baghdad in 2004. His reportage photographs appeared in publications all over the world, including The New York Times, Washington Post, National Geographic and World Press Photo Magazine.

Penjweny was one of 11 artists representing Iraq at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, which was the first time that Iraqi artists living and working in Iraq were represented at the Biennale. (According to Reuters, in 2011, Iraqi artists in exile were featured). The pavilion sought to challenge the war-torn image of the country often seen in Western media. RUYA’s Tamar Chalabi told The Guardian that:

Tanks, bombs, rockets, blood. It’s not about whitewashing that – but rather about giving a voice to human beings that have been overlooked.

Jamal Penjweny, 'Without Soul', 2011. Image courtesy the artist, Ikon Gallery and RUYA Foundation.

Jamal Penjweny, ‘Without Soul’, 2011. Image courtesy the artist, Ikon Gallery and RUYA Foundation.

Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery is organising the first solo exhibition of Jamal Penjweny’s work. Titled “Saddam is Here”, it will run from 19 February to 21 April 2014. The exhibition is organised in collaboration with the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Art in Iraq (RUYA) and will display some of Penjweny’s best-known projects, including the photo series “Saddam is Here” (2009-2010), “Iraq is Flying” (2006-2010) and “Without Soul” (2011), as well as his film Another Life (2010).

Art Radar asked Jamal Penjweny about his work, inspiration and how he focuses on the everyday life of Iraqis to challenge mainstream media portrayals of Iraq.

Jamal Penjweny, 'Saddam is Here', 2009-10. Image courtesy the artist, Ikon Gallery and RUYA Foundation.

Jamal Penjweny, ‘Saddam is Here’, 2009-10. Image courtesy the artist, Ikon Gallery and RUYA Foundation.

Much of your work deals with war, conflict, and its legacy and effect on the everyday lives of the people in Iraq: the inside story often missing from mainstream global media. What inspired and motivated you to tell these stories?

My work is interlinked with the story of someone coming from the border. I come from a Kurdish village a few kilometres away from the Iraq-Iran frontiers, a place that almost no one would know as being a part of Iraq. In front of the border, “the state” becomes meaningless, given identities and languages mix together, and we find ourselves as women and men sharing a common life story that defies sex, colour and nationality.

My work started with the intent of reporting life on the ground in the capital Baghdad and at the very border of the country. In the making, it naturally developed, expressing long lasting concepts which transformed my work more into an art project rather than mere documentation. My work always begins spontaneously as I am not simply an unbiased observer. I am a part of the reality that my work represents.

It is the bare truth that is overlooked by the media which is the starting point for my work.

In the series “Iraq is Flying”, you present a positive picture of Iraqis jumping, almost flying. In the film Forgotten Women, it’s the resilience that shines through. What is the image of Iraq that you, as an artist, wish or attempt to present to the world?

My works seeks to combat stereotypes. The 2003 invasion paved the way for a leadership change, but the ten years that passed have proven that it is not enough. As a part of society, an artist ought to challenge policies that aim to segregate individuals in pre-defined identities and instead confront their fears. All the characters in “Saddam is here”, no matter where, whether that is in Baghdad, Erbil, Basra or Fallouja, we are all human beings with a shared history of fear that we should strive to overcome together. In this motion, art serves to initialise change.

Jamal Penjweny, 'Saddam is Here', 2009-10. Image courtesy the artist, Ikon Gallery and RUYA Foundation.

Jamal Penjweny, ‘Saddam is Here’, 2009-10. Image courtesy the artist, Ikon Gallery and RUYA Foundation.

Your photo series “Saddam is Here” has received widespread attention globally, being exhibited internationally as well as widely published. Could you tell us more about it?

“Saddam is Here” is a series of photographs that I shot whilst in Baghdad during the worst time of the war, back in 2008. It is an older body of work which finds its actuality in today’s Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s regime has left a heritage which penetrated the Iraqi society: a way of doing politics, a way of pursuing power, a way of being male in the Iraqi society. This has never been vividly documented before.

You started your career in photography covering the Iraq war. How has your work changed or evolved over time?

The truth is that I started my artistic career as a sculptor and painter, moving into photography whilst I was working as a shepherd as well as a café owner. I believe that “Saddam is here” and “Life at the Border” marked a big transition in my work from journalism to conceptual art in both photography and filmmaking. Artistic evolution for me is something that occurs naturally and empirically.

How did your film Another Life come about, and what was the process and aftermath of making it?

Another Life was also a project which developed organically through my reporting of daily life. The focus is smugglers and the illegal weapons trade at the border between Iraq and Iran, where I was born. [The film] has the grainy appeal of covert mobile phone footage, and is very matter-of-fact in its editing. There is no melodrama, but the last moments are like an emotional hammer-blow when, instead of rolling credits, I have edited in paragraphs explaining how two of the men in the film were killed by customs police a few days after filming.

Jamal Penjweny, 'Iraq is Flying', 2006-10. Image courtesy the artist, Ikon Gallery and RUYA Foundation.

Jamal Penjweny, ‘Iraq is Flying’, 2006-10. Image courtesy the artist, Ikon Gallery and RUYA Foundation.

Your work has been driven by current affairs and the political climate in your country. What role do you think art and photography play in such an environment?

Art in Iraq and Iran is inescapably political. There can be no physical or conceptual distance between one’s artistic practice and the societal ramifications which influence and, up to some extent, dictate how we live and experience our country. Photography is a medium through which an unbiased truth is captured and presented to the world as factual, placing the artist’s intervention as simply the bearer of the message. It is an absolutely vital element in the overall discussion around the current situation in Iran and Iraq.

In 2013, Iraq had a pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale – it had been a long time since artists living and working in Iraq were represented at the Biennale. How was the experience and response to Iraqi artists? How has this affected the art scene in your country?

The Iraq Pavilion in Venice was a milestone for Iraqi artists. Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq, the commissioners of the Pavilion of Iraq, and the curator Jonathan Watkins undertook a tremendous task bringing together the group exhibition of works by contemporary Iraqi artists. After decades of repression, censorship and conflict which have limited Iraq’s culture, the Iraq Pavilion was, for us, the culmination of many years of work. Art is now re-emerging from within the country despite the difficulties we have to face. There is an incredible diversity amongst artists now practicing in Iraq, and the pavilion provided an invaluable insight into this embryonic art scene by taking a small but significant step towards free cultural exchange between Iraq and the rest of the world.

Kriti Bajaj

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Related Topics: Iraqi artists, gallery shows, film, photography, interviews, political art, events in the UK

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