Baghdad, "A modern place" (1958-1978)
29.04.2022 – 10.07.2022
Curator: Pedro Azara
Opening 29 April, 7 pm
In Iraq, Latif Al-Ani was not held back by the tension between a faith opposed to sacred naturalistic images and the permissiveness towards icons of Anglicanism—similar to Catholicism—at a time when the presence of photographs in the press was increasing in the country, which had gained independence from the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War and then the British Empire after the Second World War. Latif Al-Ani was not the first Iraqi photographer—the Ottoman sultans who ruled Iraq were great aficionados of photography—but he was undoubtedly the most important.
His photographs portray a country, its capital, Baghdad, and its society that did not survive Iraq’s civil wars and invasions, the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958, the waning of Soviet influence in the late 1980s, and the drift towards fundamentalism after the Second Gulf War, the civil war that followed and the terrorism of today. They were images of a city, a culture and a society that perhaps only existed in the eye of the photographer. Latif Al-Ani worked for the Iraqi Ministry of Information and news agency and for an illustrated publication issued by the Iraqi Petroleum Company, documenting the country’s industrialisation in views, some of them aerial, at a far remove from the reality—and poverty closer to the city—at street level, in search of an image that would match the dreams and aspirations of a society attaining independence after centuries of Ottoman and British control.
Latif Al-Ani portrayed a society that was becoming urban, without ignoring the traditional nature of ways of being and doing, which were in retreat in response to the rapid changes taking place. He turned to irony in his depictions of the first wealthy foreign visitors to arrive, who had no understanding of Iraq, showing them posing in front of the ruins of the past, now converted into a mere backdrop or hunting trophy.
When Saddam Hussein came to power following a series of coups d’état and assassinations and after the devastating war between Iraq and Iran in 1980, Latif Al-Ani was forbidden from taking photographs in the public space. His name and his work disappeared along with his archives—and public archives that held illustrated publications containing his photographs—as they were disappeared in the bombardment of Baghdad in 2003. Some, however, survived following the donation by the Moroccan photographer Yto Barrada, an admirer of Al-Ani’s work, to the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut. Prior to Al-Ani’s death in November 2021, he returned to prominence in a retrospective exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2015, which revealed a picture of Baghdad and Iraq often forgotten or unknown that shattered the prevailing image of the country and of the city today.