Latif Al Ani @ Coningsby

Imagine Iraq between the years 1950 and 1970. What does it look like to you? In the west our idea of the country is of a hostile place, ravaged with war. But Iraq is an ancient place. Historically, what we now know as Iraq was Mesopotamia, it was known as the cradle of civilisation, where the world’s first governments were formed and mankind learnt to read, write and create laws. After being controlled by the Ottoman Empire, Iraq found itself under the rule of the British Mandate of Mesopotamia in 1920, a document that was proposed but never ratified. Iraqi photographer Latif Al Ani was born in 1932, the same year in which his country gained independence from Britain. He documented Iraq between the 1950s and 1970s, a period that is referred to as the country’s ‘golden age’, with 50 of his photographs now being displayed at the Coningsby Gallery in the artist’s first solo UK exhibition.

Latif Al Ani, Lady in the Eastern Desert, 1961, B + W digital print on Hahnemüle Baryta Fine Art paper 25 x 25 cm © The artist and the Arab Image Foundation, Courtesy the Ruya foundation

The London exhibition subverts the British notion of what Iraq is ‘supposed’ to look like. Women shop around Baghdad in knee-length dresses, men are dancing, towns and cities are full of cars, trains and modern infrastructure and, most importantly, people are smiling. Amongst all this modernity is a nod to Iraq’s ancient past, with relics of antiquity appearing amongst images of a cosmopolitan, modern and multicultural nation. These photographs, taken on a Rolleiflex 6×6 camera and printed on 35mm film, were long but forgotten, with much of Al Ani’s archive being destroyed during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Ruya Foundation’s Tamara Chalabi however, decided that it was important for the images to be brought back into focus, with his work being revived through an exhibition at the Iraqi Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

Al Ani received his photography training while working for the Iraq Petroleum Company in the 1950s where he documented the company’s projects from the air. He was the first photographer in Iraq to capture aerial views with his shots of Liberation Square and Mirjan Mosque from the sky on display here in London. In 1960, Al Ani founded a photography department for the Iraqi government’s Ministry of Information and Guidance, allowing him to create an archive of architectural, historical and social imagery for a range of governmental projects and, in the 1970s, he became the head of photography at the Iraqi News Agency. It seems shocking therefore, that the artist stopped taking photographs shortly after, with the Saddam Hussein regime making it almost impossible to photograph in public.

Latif Al Ani, Al Aqida, High School, Baghdad, 1961, B + W digital print on Hahnemüle Baryta Fine Art paper 25 x 25 cm © The artist and the Arab Image Foundation, Courtesy the Ruya foundation

One of the most memorable images is Tahrir Square, Baghdad, which is covered in a neoclassical frieze constructed by sculptor Jawed Saleem titled ‘Freedom Monument.’ The banner that covers the city’s biggest and most central square looks as though it might have been created in another century, but the liberation square was only established in 1958. Below Saleem’s commemoration to Iraq’s recent history, a woman is walking seemingly oblivious to the bas-relief embellishing the monument above her.

The Coningsby show succeeds in illustrating a multicultural, cosmopolitan, multi-faith Iraq. Not only is Islam photographed through images like Kufa Mosque, South, Baghdad, an aerial view of Mirjan Mosque, and images that celebrate Eid, but there are also photographs that capture Kurdish traditions as well as western tourists visiting the country. Al Ani’s images of the Kurds illustrate a beautiful, fluid look into their customs and celebrations in Kurdish Nowruz Festival, North of Iraq and Kurdish Men’s Dance, Aqra. This movement is also mirrored in ‘Al Aqida, High School, Baghdad, where more than a dozen young girls dressed in white shirt and skirt are seen playing with hula hoops in the Baghdad sun.

Latif Al Ani, US couple in Ctesiphon, 1965, B + W digital print on Hahnemüle Baryta Fine Art paper 25 x 25 cm © The artist and the Arab Image Foundation, Courtesy the Ruya foundation

All of the photographs, that are displayed here as digital prints, are the same size (25 x 25 cm), allowing differences and similarities to be spotted and compared to one another instantly. The uniform size and scale also means that no image is given more importance than the other. Not only are photographs of Iraq on display, but also images taken on trips outside the country from when the artist exhibited abroad. In this respect, images of women lingerie shopping in Berlin can be seen amongst prints of boats on the Tigris. It is also important to note, that as well as exhibiting Al Ani’s photographs taken outside Iraq, the Coningsby exhibition also includes images taken by the artist of tourists visiting Iraq. US Couple in Ctesiphon illustrates two Americans at the Sassanid palace in the ancient capital of the Parthian Empire, a scene that is all but unthinkable now. However, Al Ani’s images stress Iraq’s status as an ancient land steeped in history, a place whose culture really ought to be discovered.

Also of note is Stolen Head That Was Not Retrieved, Hatra, which shows part of a white sculpture photographed in front of a black textile. The head’s eyes are looking upwards towards a mound of heavily curled hair. What makes the image so interesting is the appearance of a right hand in the top left of the photograph. To the left of the black canvas that the hand’s owner is holding in place, one can make out the blurred ruins of an ancient civilisation. But where are they? And why is it being covered? And more importantly, by whom?

Latif Al Ani, Stolen head that was not retrieved, Hatra, c. 1960s, B + W digital print on Hahnemüle Baryta Fine Art paper 25 x 25 cm © The artist and the Arab Image Foundation, Courtesy the Ruya foundation

In addition to the predominantly black and white prints, there are three colour prints, injecting just the right amount of contrast to the show. Two of these images were taken in the United States. Train on Rocky Mountain, America and Chicago, both illustrate the transportation systems in America. What is so interesting about these images in comparison to those taken in Iraq is how seamlessly they blend in to the photographs taken several thousands of miles away. If the captions did not tell the viewer that they were taken on another continent, they would be none the wiser. The third colour print depicts a date palm tree in Basra, with Iraq once being the leading producer of dates in the world.

Latif Al Ani’s beautiful photographs at Coningsby draw light on a forgotten part of Iraq’s history. Through a series of small, compact images, the artist reveals the daily social life of the mid-twentieth century Iraqi experience, whilst also drawing on a culture that was once home to the Sumerians, Babylonians and Abbasids. From classical ruins in Ctesiphon to television studios and dancing in Baghdad, Al Ani reminds us that there is more to Iraq than what is shown in the media.

Latif Al Ani is on display at Coningsby Gallery until 16 December

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer with a special interest in contemporary Middle Eastern Art. She has a BA in Art History and an MA in Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and has written for After Nyne, Arteviste, Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, ReOrient and Suitcase Magazine. Lizzy is also curator of Arab Women Artists Now - AWAN 2018 (London).

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