Saddam is Here
© Jamal Penjweny
After visiting Burnt Generation @ Somerset House (also ending 1 June), an exhibition by Iranian photographers, I read Newsha Tavakolian saying “There is more freedom in the art world than in journalism now”. How sad as it is and most probably as true as it might be, I was recently blown by Jamal Penjweny bold body of work presented @ South London Gallery.
He has garnered attention with his photography series Saddam is Here, featuring Iraqis in everyday places – on the street, in hotel rooms, in shops – holding a photo of the former dictator over their own faces, demonstrating the lasting impact of his brutal regime.
However, it is his two short films that had a profound effect on me documenting illegal trading on the border between Iraq and Iran. Another Life follows the lives of Iraqis smuggling alcohol to Iran. Why do they smuggle? Because they have no other jobs! Do they family agree? Most reject them! Is it risky? Instead of rolling credits, we are explained that some of the men appearing on the mobile phone footage that shot them got shot by customs police. There is no drama. Just blank facts!
His other short, There the Gun, investigates the illegal weapons trade in Iraq and how easily traders can access guns. Prisoners who have committed murder describe nonchalantly their crimes.
The South London Gallery presents a restaging of the group exhibition, Welcome to Iraq, curated by Jonathan Watkins (Director of Ikon Gallery, Birmingham), originally shown as part of the National Pavilion of Iraq in the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. Works in a variety of media by contemporary artists, most of whom live and work in Iraq, were selected to highlight the breadth of artistic practice in Iraq and a creativity borne out of necessity in extraordinary historical circumstances.
11 Iraqi artists in a pavilion documenting their lives in extreme conditions versus one artist in the Irish pavilion “documenting” RD of Congo! – I couldn’t help that one!
Other artists attracting my attention were Abdul Raheem Yassir for his “innocent” political and ironic humour cartoons; Hareth Alhomaam’s short film Buzz, for the way of communicating between the sexes in modern Iraq; Ali Samiaa, sort of telenovela film, The Love of Butterflies, a story in which dramatic tension is derived from a balance struck between marital infidelity and family commitment.
Other artists include Furat al Jamil, Akeel Khreef, Cheeman Ismaeel, Bassim Al-Shaker, Kadhim Nwir and WAMI, an artistic partnership quite rare in Iraq from Yassen Wami and Hashim Taeeh.
There is a convivial atmosphere when you navigate between sofas, extraordinary throws, Iraqi books or books on Iraq, a long table with Iraqi tea and addictive biscuits. A soothing effect that doesn’t condemn Iraq but shows it as it should be... as it might have been.
Installation view at the South London Gallery, 2014
Visitor information: South London Gallery (SLG) – 65-67 Pekham Road, London SE5 8UH Admission: free; Opening times: Tuesday – Sunday 11am-6pm, except Wednesdays and the last Friday of the month until 9pm. Closed Mondays; Until 1 June; Contact: www.southlondongallery.org - 020 7703 6120 - firstname.lastname@example.org
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