Latif Al Ani: A Life in Photography

Latif Al-Ani, Pipe construction for the Darbandikhan water pipeline project, Iraq, 1961. Photographic process gelatin silver negative on film, 6 x 6 cm. Latif Al-Ani Collection. Image courtesy of Arab Image Foundation 1- Latif Al-Ani, Pipe construction for the Darbandikhan water pipeline project, Iraq, 1961. Photographic process gelatin silver negative on film, 6 x 6 cm. Latif Al-Ani Collection. Image courtesy of Arab Image Foundation
Latif Al-Ani, Photographer Latif Al-Ani in the North of Iraq. Gelatin silver negative on film, 6 x 6 cm. Latif Al-Ani Collection
Latif Al-Ani, Shepherd, Iraq. Gelatin silver negative on film, 6 x 6 cm. Latif Al-Ani Collection
Latif Al-Ani, Babel, an English company filming about tourism in Arab countries, Iraq, 1961. Gelatin silver negative on film, 6 x 6 cm. Latif Al-Ani Collection
Latif Al-Ani, Pipe construction for the Darbandikhan water pipeline project, Iraq, 1961. Photographic process gelatin silver negative on film, 6 x 6 cm. Latif Al-Ani Collection. Image courtesy of Arab Image Foundation
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Since their 2015 rediscovery, Latif al Ani’s decades-long sociological documentation of the nature of Iraqi life, being shown as part of the exhibition Invisible Beauty at both the National Pavilion of Iraq, 56th Venice Biennial (2015) and Museum for Contemporary Art, Ghent, Belgium (2016).

His works have found a wide audience, both within the art world and among urban Arabs in the region and diaspora who feel nostalgia for the cosmopolitan, optimistic Iraq his work documents. Although he was trained by an English photographer, the oeuvre of Latif Al Ani, the in-house photographer of “People of Oil” the Iraqi state petroleum company magazine are more visually similar to photographers from socialist countries- for example, the magazine China Pictorial, a propaganda magazine focusing on Chinese development in the Maoist era- or with similar developing countries, like the photographers of Saudi Aramco magazine- than with Western photographers such as August Sander, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, or William Eggleston- rather than freaks, Latif’s work is a sort of index of what Iraqi independence looked like, in those optimistic years. Jacob Dreyer spoke with the artist in Sharjah.

TEXT: Jacob Dreyer
IMAGES: Courtesy of the Latif Al-Ani Collection and the artist

 

Latif Al-Ani, Photographer Latif Al-Ani in the North of Iraq. Gelatin silver negative on film, 6 x 6 cm. Latif Al-Ani Collection

 

What is the subject of your work? People? A new Iraq? In light of the warfare and chaos in today’s Iraq, how should we look at these images today?

My work is, above all, about the nature of Iraqi life, an attempt to document this life at all levels – and for me, Iraqis and the Arabic world in general are more or less the same. In the magazine I worked for, whose name could be translated as “the workers of oil”, I had free reign to travel everywhere, and watched the country evolving and changing over decades.

During those years, Iraq was stable and prosperous, but I had a sort of premonition of the impermanence of that situation; documenting it felt important, because I knew that the happy country that Iraq was could disappear at any moment. And it did.

 

Latif Al-Ani, Shepherd, Iraq. Gelatin silver negative on film, 6 x 6 cm. Latif Al-Ani Collection
Latif Al-Ani, Babel, an English company filming about tourism in Arab countries, Iraq, 1961. Gelatin silver negative on film, 6 x 6 cm. Latif Al-Ani Collection

 

What was your own personal experience of the Ba’ath years in Iraq- which roughly coincides with the years of work shown in the exhibition?

I was trained as a photographer with Jack Percival in pre-independence Iraq; he said he wouldn’t leave Iraq until he taught me everything about photography! Then he died, so we ended our lessons.

I had many adventures in those years. In 1958, a friend at the British Embassy asked me to photograph in color everything in the embassy, just in case a revolution happened. I told him he was crazy – Iraq was calm – but did it anyway. By coincidence, the revolution did happen a few weeks later, and my British friend was able to get insurance money for everything destroyed using my photographs.

In 1963, I visited the US, traveling from New Orleans to Chicago, from Los Angeles to San Francisco; I had a traveling show of photographs, but since we wanted to show in many places, we split the collection down the middle, 50/50. America was much poorer than I had expected.

Then in 1965, I visited East Berlin, invited by the Communist government, to participate in a big show. I had a private exhibition of my own as well. I visited the Pergamommuseum, and took photos of the Iraqi antiquities that are on display there until this very day, and also of the ordinary Berliners who I met. In 1966, coming back to Iraq, I witnessed the death of president Abdul Arik; we were in a three plane convoy, his went down, mine did not. I took photos of rebel leaders like Mustafa Barzan, of Saddam Hussein laughing in 1971… Looking back, in 1968, the golden years were coming to an end, but it wasn’t until the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war that things really got bad. The Sunni-Shiite warfare that started then has never really ended. The exhibition ends at 1979; right before the war began.

 

Latif Al-Ani, Pipe construction for the Darbandikhan water pipeline project, Iraq, 1961. Photographic process gelatin silver negative on film, 6 x 6 cm. Latif Al-Ani Collection. Image courtesy of Arab Image Foundation

 

Art and oil has had a long relationship, ever since Calouste Gulbenkian, the early oil baron and the biggest art collector of his day (the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon is named after him). The Arab world and oil are inextricably linked. How has the discovery of oil in Arabia changed the Arab world?

For us, oil has been a curse, although the people of the gulf (Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia) have profited from it. But to the extent that our cities have been built with oil money, it’s simply true that contemporary art is an urban phenomenon. In 1952, I flew to the gulf; the only airport was in Basra (southern Iraq). Today, oil has made cities like Dubai into globalized and rich metropolis. In a lifetime, the region has been totally transformed.

 

 

Thank you.

 

 

About the Artist

Born in 1932 in Karbala, Al Ani learnt photography early in life and trained at the studio of a local photographer. As a young adult, he joined the Arabic-language magazine Ahl Al Naft [People of Oil], (Iraq Petroleum in English), a publication of the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), where he worked between 1954 and 1960. Most of Al Ani’s work at IPC focused on subjects related to oil production, pipelines, petroleum terminals and other elements of the industry. After leaving IPC in 1960, he started working for the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, where his subject matter shifted to labourers, factory workers and farmers. His portrait of a woman holding a sheaf of wheat became one of Al Ani’s most widely reproduced images, and it was later engraved on the Iraqi 25,000-dinar note. Al Ani’s photographs during his time at the Iraqi Ministry of Culture and the Iraqi News Agency re ect the rising nationalism of the 1960s, through depictions of displays of public life, including rallies, military parades and political events.

Growing authoritarianism and violence in Iraq led Al Ani to stop making work in the late 1970s prior to the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War. He dedicated his time to conserving and classifying his archive of negatives, which he stored for a long time before a large portion of the archive was acquired by the Arab Image Foundation, Beirut.

During his career, Al Ani was a member of the Society of Iraqi Photographers and the Syndicate of Iraqi Journalists. His work has been shown as part of the exhibition Invisible Beauty at both the National Pavilion of Iraq, 56th Venice Biennial (2015) and Museum for Contemporary Art, Ghent, Belgium (2016). Other exhibitions of his work include Contemporary Arab Representations. The Iraqi Equation, Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona (2006); Collections from Iraq, a project by Yto Barrada, Arab Image Foundation, Beirut (2000); Iraq Today (1965) and Faces and Facets of Iraq (1963). Latif Al Ani: Through the Lens 1953–1979 is the rst presentation of his work in the UAE.

 

Latif Al Ani -Through the Lens 1953-1979
16 March – 16 June 2018
Gallery 4
, Al Mureijah Square, Sharjah Art Foundation

 

 


 

Jacob Dreyer is a Shanghai-based writer and editor. Recently, he has edited a special issue of LEAP magazine, and contributed to The Atlantic City Lab, the Architectural Review, and Domus. His book The Nocturnal Wandererhas recently been published by Eros Press; he is researching a second book about urban space and the creative economy in China.

 

 

 
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