Jamal Penjweny: Saddam is Here, Ikon Gallery

Artist Jamal Penjweny reflects upon life in Iraq today through photography and video. Ikon opens the first solo exhibition of Penjweny under the title Saddam is Here on 19 February until 21 April. Born in Sulaimaniya, Iraqi Kurdistan, in 1981, the artist began his career as a sculptor and painter, moving into photography whilst supporting himself by working as a shepherd and a café proprietor. He has attracted international attention, particularly with his inclusion in Welcome to Iraq, the Iraqi pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale.

The exhibition is made up of 12 images captured between 2009 and 2010 and feature Iraqi people in familiar surroundings, each holding a life-size picture of Saddam Hussein’s face in front of their own. The emotion and identity of the subject is disrupted by the image of Hussein’s face, preventing the gaze of the viewer from reaching the sitter’s eyes. Both comic and politically sensitive, the photographs outline the influence of the ominous dictator on the everyday life of his citizens.

Also featured within the exhibition is Another Life (2010), a short film by Penjweny that follows a few days in the lives of Iraqis smuggling alcohol from Iraq into Iran. The slightly blurry footage has the grainy appeal of covert mobile phone filming. The artist does not dramatise any of the scenes but the last moments are incredibly powerful as, instead of rolling credits, the audience is confronted with several paragraphs explaining how two of the starring men were killed by customs police a few days after filming.

The photographic series Without Soul (2011) shows everyday scenes – Iraqis at work and prayer, Western soldiers in ranks and on patrol – each with a single red line drawn across the neck. The distinctive mark refers to the Islamic custom dictating that images of living creatures should be avoided, their creation considered the rightful domain of God rather than that of humanity. In separating the body from the head, Penjweny removes himself from the role of creator and “invalidates” the image. In contrast, For Iraq is Flying (2006-10) depicts subjects jumping while being photographed so it looks as though they are celebrating regardless of the hardships of life.

Jamal Penjweny: Saddam is Here, 19 February – 21 April, Ikon Gallery, 1 Oozells Square, Brindleyplace, Birmingham, B1 2HS.

Both images: Jamal Penjweny, Photograph from the series Saddam is Here (2009-10), Courtesy the artist.