New exhibition reveals a forgotten Iraq through the lens of photographer Latif Al Ani

The 'father of Iraqi photography' captured the country's changing face and spirit at a time of unparalleled optimism, from the 1950s to 1970s

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Latif Al Ani’s exhibition of photos at The Farjam Foundation in Dubai presents a cultural milestone. Not only does it celebrate the work of a pioneering 20th century Iraqi photographer, who died in 2021 aged 89, but it is also a glamorous and, in hindsight haunting, record of Iraq from the 1950s-1970s.

Entitled Latif Al-Ani: Documenting the Unforgettable and the Forgotten, the ongoing exhibition at the Dubai International Financial Centre gallery contains three sections of Al Ani’s work. The first focuses on his photographs of Iraq’s changing architectural landscape, the second captures Baghdad’s postcolonial society and the third features his work in rural Iraq.

“Latif's photographs were very much driven by this idea of a postcolonial nation in the making,” Morad Montazami, art historian and curator of the exhibition, tells The National. “I approached his work as documentary photography, trying to find the patterns which unveil the narrative of this documentation.”

The narrative of Al Ani’s work is a profound one. He is known as the “father of Iraqi photography” for his work chronicling the country before the rise of Saddam Hussein, but Al Ani did more than merely document a changing nation and its people. He is celebrated for capturing the spirit of Iraq's golden age, a country experiencing a socioeconomic boom during the postcolonial monarchy, as it headed into a modern, exciting future, while retaining its rich heritage.

Latif Al-Ani: Documenting the Unforgettable and the Forgotten exhibition at The Farjam Foundation. All Photos: The Farjam Foundation

Whether the photos in the new exhibition are viewed in the order presented in the space or sporadically, the impression is the same. Stunning sites and arresting moments, filled with optimism, idealism and nostalgia.

Images flash by, depicting fragments of Iraq's magnificently varied cultural heritage: humble factory workers, ceremonial parades, the great minaret of Samarra, modern urban architecture, a young woman playing the accordion, a boy holding a baby goat on a desert road, pre-Islamic monuments in Hilla, Jewad Selim's Freedom Monument in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, a farmer watching over his sheep as they graze in front of ancient ruins, palm trees, waterfalls, flowers, mountains, rivers.

Through these black and white glimpses — sharp, perceptive and layered with meaning over time — Al Ani captures the cosmopolitan life of Iraq during a period of rapid change.

“You can see the pre-Islamic and somehow the Islamic [influences], maybe because of the coexistence of so many archaeological sites, and also, the westernised modernist architecture,” Montazami says.

“All these things coexist in the same space, in the same time, which is the Baghdad of the 1950s and '60s. What Latif’s photos are showing is almost science fiction in a way. Because if you asked me today, where in the world would you find pre-Islamic archaeology or artefacts, and Islamic, and a kind of westernised modernim, existing together… I'm not sure.”

Latif Al Ani in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, in 1957

Through a discerning eye, a profound understanding of the current zeitgeist and his artistic instincts, Al Ani’s work made Iraq’s unique tapestry of history, heritage and change something concrete and real.

Montazami believes that through his photography, Al Ani was able to capture a distinct time and spirit while recording a unique cultural landscape better than anyone else in the region.

“It still continues to challenge our conception and challenge our boundaries on these notions of pre-Islamic and Islamic, and traditional and modern, in a concrete space at the cost of ending only in photography, a kind of visual memory. But it's a strong one. You can reproduce it, you can print it.”

The sense of nostalgia in Al Ani’s work is almost overwhelming.

His photos are as beautiful as they are tragic, for those who have heard of Iraq’s “golden era” and perhaps more profoundly for those Iraqis who have inherited the stories from their parents and grandparents, of a homeland ripe with potential to become, as it once was in ancient times, a centre of cosmopolitan life, a beacon in the region and beyond.

Al Ani’s understanding of Iraq’s cultural, social and political fabric went beyond his work as a photographer documenting the changing times of his country.

Industrial School, 1961, by Latif Al Ani

Born in Karbala in 1932, Al Ani completed an internship at the Iraq Petroleum Company in 1953, where he recorded the company's projects for its two newspapers, Ahl al Naft (People of Oil) and Iraq Petroleum. During this time, he developed photography from a hobby into an art form.

Reflecting on his inspiration, in a previous interview with the National, Al Ani said, “I was interested in the social and human life of the Iraqi people," adding: “That’s what I sought to document.”

In 1960, Al Ani worked at Iraq’s Ministry of Culture, setting up its photography department and its magazine ‘New Iraq’, before going on to head the photography division at the Iraqi News Agency in the 1970s. In many ways, through his own observations and his work in government sectors, he was able to foresee the nostalgic potential of his work.

“He felt that all this beauty and all this social growth was already threatened and already somehow meant to be lost through political crisis and coups and political corruption,” Montazami says.

“He was he was quite bitter, and that bitterness explains how he just bluntly stopped taking any photographs, putting the camera aside for the whole rest of his life from 1979.”

When Saddam Hussein came to power and banned public photography, Al Ani suddenly stopped capturing the world around him.

Housing project office, Yarmouk, Baghdad, 1962 by Latif Al Ani

After decades in creative hibernation, in 2015, when the Ruya Foundation, an Iraqi cultural foundation, staged an exhibition of his photographs for the Iraqi Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, international interest in Al Ani's work began to surge — especially after a subsequent retrospective held at Sharjah Art Foundation in 2018.

Looking at his work today, it’s hard not to wonder if Al Ani was purposely photographing what he foresaw as quickly disappearing. His work, whether slightly staged or capturing what unfolded in front of him, is effortless but imbued with multiple meanings.

“There is this kind of visual strength or visual attraction, that almost each, any detail of the frame become relevant in Latif's photo,” Montazami says.

“They have so much of this documentary impulse, which is this capacity to seize a moment or a figure or a place, and almost give the most dramatic, or the most crucial, representation of that figure or that place or that moment.”

And while one should appreciate Al Ani’s artistic choices and stylistic prowess, it’s difficult to look past the glaring nostalgia of his images, especially given the unrest Iraq has experienced over the subsequent decades and continues to face.

“Most of these photographs are memorable,” Montazami adds.

“They are as impressive in their seizing of the moment, or the place, as they are for your capacity to remember them. They have this kind of iconicity. They look like the best viewpoint upon each place or each figure of that time.”

Latif Al-Ani: Documenting the Unforgettable and the Forgotten is on view at the Farjam Foundation in the Dubai International Financial Centre. More information is available at farjamcollection.org

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Updated: December 31, 2022, 1:35 PM
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