Monograph by 84-year-old Iraqi artist Latif al-Ani wins the Historical Book Award at Les Rencontres d’Arles 2017.
Art Radar takes a look at the practice of a photographer often credited for founding modernism in Iraqi photography.
A life interrupted
The career of Iraqi photographer Latif al-Ani can be read through the historical vicissitudes of national and regional political life. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries oil and its excavation has played a central role in dictating Iraq’s relations with other countries as well as its internal economic model. Between 1954 and 1960 Latif al-Ani worked in the photography unit at the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), where his photographs were frequently published in the IPC publication entitled “People of Oil”. During the 1960s and 1970s, a period characterised by cosmopolitanism and openness, Latif al-Ani was pivitol in encouraging the flousrishing of culture and art projects across the country, founding the photography department at the Iraqi Ministry of Culture in 1960 and later leading the official Iraqi News Agency photography team.
The consolidation of the Bathist regime in the early 1970s under President al-Bakr (with Suddam Huseein an influential general rising through the ranks) meant increasing pressure on and ultimately withdrawal of civil liberties. By the end of the decade – and with the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) on the horizon – creative practice in the country was out of the question for many of the nation’s artist, thinkers, filmmakers and photographers. Latif al-Ani took his last photograph in 1977. Further barbarity ensued with the 2003 U.S and U.K invasion of Iraq, during which the photographer’s historical archive was lost.
2015: the year that the work of Latif Al-Ani was commemorated in Europe
2015 marked an unexpected moment of visibility for Latif al-Ani. After forty years in “forced retirement”, the photographer was awarded the Prince Claus award, presented annually by the Dutch Royal Family to support freedom of cultural expression worldwide. The prize, which has been running for 19 years, was given to al-Ani and 10 other international artists and thinkers for their “pioneering work in culture and development”.
A few month later al-Ani was approached by Iraq’s cultural Ruya Foundation, who invited the photographer to exhibit his work as part of Iraq’s National Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Here al-Ani was able to share, for the first time in nearly two decades, a small collection of images, which had been rescued from oblivion by a chance collaboration with the Arab Image Foundation in 2000 – before the invasion of Iraq.
Latif al-Ani is now widely recognised as a unique voice in 20th century photography. Since then a number of articles, books and exhibitions have been dedicated to the photographer, namely “Every Building in Baghdad: The Rifat Chadirji Archives” at the Arab Image Foundation (AIF), where his work in displayed alongside the archive of Iraq architect Rifat Chadirji, and the monograph Latif Al Ani published by Ruya Foundation (which won the Historical Book Awards in 2017).
Colonial and corporate power relations in the “oil works”
The sudden visibility of the photographer had an early precedent: his work was featured in an exhibition and research project curated by Yto Barada at the AIF in the year 2000. As stated in the curatorial text, Barada began meeting with al-Ani in Beirut where he would join his former colleagues every day for tea, “always carrying a 6×6 camera with him”. After a few weeks of hearing about the AIF, he accepted Barada’s invitation to bring a small archive of negatives to the institution’s home base. This collection now forms part of the AIF’s collections from Iraq, which include a total of around 700 works by Latif al-Ani, Emri Selim and Murad Dagestani, among others.
Media theorist and specialist in Middle Eastern visual culture Mona Damluji offers a rich analysis of the role al-Ani’s work might play in understanding and analysing the corporate and colonial power relations structured by Iraqi state institutions throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Writing about the photographs taken during the artist’s employment with the former British owned IPC oil company, Damjuli writes:
The IPC played a powerful role in shaping what would be a dominant aesthetic approach to documenting modern Iraq. The company provided its staff photographers and filmmakers unmitigated access to a bird’s (or more precisely an oil company’s) eye view. IPC’s British and Arab photographers used the aerial vantage point to capture the impressive scale and vast extent of new infrastructural, urban, and architectural projects underway in Baghdad and beyond. As a result, whether shot from the air or an elevated vantage point, al-Ani’s photos reproduce a top-down perspective, echoing the hegemonic oversight that the company and government exercised over Iraq’s land, labor and built environments; or, in other words, this photographic practice made it feasible for the average reader to see like a state or corporation.
A photographer of daily life
Damluji notes how al-Ani’s work shifts on leaving the corporation, allowing a greater focus on what the photographer has stated he loves to capture the most: “daily life..the beautiful life without violence” (as quoted in an interview with Ruya Foundation). Damluji writes:
As is evident in his photographs from the 1960s, al-Ani made a significant shift in his approach and composition. His photos from this period come back to earth, and his camera plays inventively with different angles: low-to-the-ground (“Feast Day” and “Accordion Player”) over-the-shoulder (“Shopping in Baghdad”) and eye-to-eye (“Prayer at the Mosque”). Our gaze moves dramatically, no longer suspended above but rather walking through the city. Al-Ani’s career move in the summer of 1960, when he left the Petroleum Company to found the Photography Department in the Ministry of Culture, explains this change.
The 85-year-old sees photography, as well as his own memorialisation by cultural institutions, with a little suspicion. For the most part the artist mourns the destruction of culture and life in Iraq – between the various colonial occupations throughout the 20th and 21st centuries and the popular authoritarian regimes installed within the country.
Asked by Ruya Foundation if he will ever take photographs again and how he would characterise his relationship with his home city, Latif al-Ani stated:
I miss [photography] but I feel too old for it and have suffered the loss of my ability to see and move about. I lived in Baghdad, I grew up there, and I loved it very much. All of it has been devastated, and most of it has vanished.
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