Iraq - a blank canvas?

EMMA OUTTEN Jananne Al-Ani is an Iraqi-British artist whose earlier work has been bought by the Imperial War Museum. Her latest work, The Visit, is currently showing at the Norwich Gallery.


Born in Iraq to a British mother and an Iraqi father, it would be all too easy to assume that the reason Jananne Al-Ani came to live in the UK was a direct result of the first Gulf War.

“It wasn't a question of a war,” said Jananne, whose video installation work The Visit opened at the Norwich Gallery last night.

In fact, Jananne, her mother and her three sisters, came to the UK just before the Iran-Iraq War started, in 1980. Her father stayed in Iraq and has only recently left, to live in Jordan.

Jananne added: “We didn't leave for political reasons and we didn't leave because we were in danger.”

Whatever the personal reasons behind the move, since the women of the family came to the UK they have witnessed, from afar, the eight-year war with Iran, the first Gulf War and the subsequent imposition of international sanctions, and the second Gulf War.

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As Jananne put it: “We have watched from a distance while the whole thing has collapsed.”

The 37-year-old has a very personal perspective on the situation so very much in the news at the moment. She was a teenager when she left the country where she was born.

But yesterday, as she was preparing for the opening of her exhibition at Norwich Gallery, she naturally wanted the focus to be on her art rather than on her as a person.

Jananne studied at the Byam Shaw School of Art and the Royal College of Art and has exhibited widely in Britain and internationally.

The first Gulf War had an effect on Jananne's work. Watching the war from a European perspective, for example, had been a “revelation”.

An earlier work, A Loving Man, was bought by the Imperial War Museum in the late '90s.

It was a video installation of a memory game, as the artist, her three sisters and her mother voiced their recollections of a loving father and husband who was absent. (Jananne was the recipient of the East International Award in 2000, for A Loving Man).

Her video installation work continues to be concerned with her family, the juxtaposition of the epic and the everyday, and the way in which grand narratives and historical legacies touch upon personal stories.

The new exhibition, The Visit, is Jananne's most ambitious project to date. It is a work in two parts, in which repeated scenes of a mysterious figure pacing in an empty landscape are contrasted with a series of equally fragmentary conversational exchanges between a group of young women.

The first part, Muse, is a large-scale projection work, and the ghostly shimmer of a desert heat-haze prefigures the appearance of a smart-suited man restlessly walking across the same small strip of parched terrain. Over seven separate sequen-ces, the camera returns to observe him – the passage of time marked by changes in the light, and by the play of lengthening, deepening shadows.

In the first Gulf War, Jananne remembers satellite TV portraying Iraq as if it was an empty space, with “no history, no culture, and no population”. To Jananne it looked like a “non space – a stage set for a war to unfold, for TV”.

One way of looking at Muse is that it develops this perception of the desert as an empty space, and the man in the middle of it all you can look at in one of two ways. “You can either read him as being at a loss, or you can read him as waiting”. Either way, though, “there's a kind of melancholy in his actions”.

Meanwhile, in the multiscreen piece Echo, the women discuss a correspondingly absent figure – an unnamed visitor whose recent re-appearance has sharpened their feelings toward him and illuminated the extent to which he passes in and out of their lives. Viewers are, of course, free to draw their own conclusions on whether the recoll-ections and reminiscences are inspired by a real-life visit of their father.

Talking among, and often over, each other, shared histories and affinities are pieced together, although the relationship between the subject of their conversation and the man waiting and pacing in the desert landscape is never resolved.

In Echo, Jananne again utilises memoirs from her family's archives and the four “talking heads” in the installation are made up of Jananne and her three sisters. It is not meant to be a type of reality TV, more a theatre performance, and she emphasises that Muse is not in any way meant to be a diary, an autobiography, or, worse, family therapy.

Part one was filmed in Jordan earlier this year, and, once again, viewers can draw their own conclusions over whether he could be Jananne's father, or not. “He is just a man,” said Jananne. “He could be anyone – he could be your dad.”

As easy as it would be to look at The Visit as autobiographical art, it is far more theatrical than that. In Muse, for example, the camera never moves and the desert landscape effectively becomes a stage.

Jananne has not visited Iraq since she left in 1980. “It's ironic that it's more dangerous now than in 35 years of extremely brutal dictatorship.”

Would she go back in the future? Jananne honestly did not know. “I'm no longer an optimist,” she said.

The Visit is a co-commission by Film & Video Umbrella and Norwich Gallery. It runs at Norwich Gallery, Norwich School of Art and Design, St George's, until December 17. The exhibition then tours to Newlyn Art Gallery (January 15 to February 20), and the Art Now space at Tate Britain (February 4 to April 3).

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