Jamal Penjweny: Saddam is Here, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

I just wanted to kill my sister… but I ended up killing my brother my other sister and my mother… I tried to kill myself but it didn’t work; the gun wouldn’t shoot, solemnly recounts a partially visible character on a screen set diagonally across the corner of the back of Ikon gallery’s first floor exhibition space. The video, There, The Gun (2010), is from critically acclaimed Iraqi artist Jamal Penjweny’s Saddam is Here show, which is currently on display at Birmingham’s Ikon gallery until the 21 April.

Penjweny’s connection with Ikon gallery goes further than this particular exhibition as director Jonathan Watkins’ displayed his Saddam is Here series (2010) at the Iraqi Pavilion; Welcome to Iraq at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. Now back on display, twelve images of Iraqi people each hold a life-size picture of Saddam Hussein’s face in front of their own. Because of this – despite Saddam’s public execution – a uniform of totalitarianism still renders any freedom of emotion or individuality non-existent. The viewer becomes purged upon an abstract sense of lest we forget which, as one move through the exhibition, mutates into a desperate plea of will we ever escape the memories.

Sorrow and curiosity reflect back bleakly from the glass frames as one consumes each photograph on display in Without Souls (2011). Here black and white images of daily life in Iraq, contorted by current military occupation, tainted by the shadows of brutal past genocide and dictatorship, images seem to flicker between normality and absurdity. For example, a row of headless mannequins stand side-by-side in front of shop, their clothes a throwback to Western trends. Next to the far right mannequin is a figure who appears to be the owner of the mannequins.

A bold red line dissects his torso from his head… a quick survey of all of the works in this series reveals that every person is damned by the same haunting red line across their necks. But one stands out as more chilling and sobering then all the others: from a high viewpoint, a photograph of a platoon of American troops is captured. All the troops look down towards the bottom right of the image. The red lines carves across each row of soldiers like a creeping death… one cannot help but wonder just how close to reality this is. How many did die, or are missing in action, presumed dead?

But the portrayal of death in waiting which unites all of Penjweny’s photography is given an all too real context when coupled with video projection There, The Gun (2010). One is no longer a spectator in a contemporary gallery. One’s own mortality is felt intensely. On the screen, Kalashnikov assault rifles hang from a makeshift market stall like meat in a butcher’s window. The video evocatively exposes the impact of the sale of arms to civilians in Iraq. Sequences of the arms dealers proclaiming a love of their job stuns the viewer as the arms dealers continue to file down the weapon’s serial numbers, so that the gunmen become untraceable ghosts, doomed to inflict fear and death.

A woman recites an incident where she was shot in the head twice – the second bullet “exploded in her head”. The intensity is pushed to the limit as, just before the film ends, an off screen voice ambiguously calls out for the shooting to stop. But for who is this really aimed at – the camera men or the civilians being sold the guns? Walking back through the gallery to leave, passing by the series Without Souls, the initial curiosity as to the character’s whereabouts is sunk to the pit of one’s stomach, replaced by overwhelming sorrow and guilt at the realisation of just what the ramifications of Saddam Is Here are.

William Davie

For more information visit www.ikon-gallery.org.

1. Jamal Penjweny, photograph from the series Without Souls (2011). Courtesy the artist.