He was born in Iraq, but Jamal Penjweny’s first solo exhibition is being staged more than 3,000 miles away in Birmingham – thanks to the Ikon Gallery.
The installation follows director Jonathan Watkins’ own visit to the country prior to curating the Welcome to Iraq at the 2013 Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, The exhibition includes photography and video works reflecting on life in Iraq today.
Born in Sulaimaniya in 1981, Jamal started his artistic career as a sculptor and painter.
He then moved into photography whilst supporting himself by working as a shepherd and more recently as a café proprietor.
Saddam is Here (2009-10) features 12 images of Iraqi people in familiar surroundings, each holding a life-size picture of Saddam Hussein’s face in front of their own.
Saddam’s likeness becomes a mask obscuring any expression of emotion, any gaze, or possibility of sure identification and individuality.
Jamal says: “Saddam is here. Iraqi society can not forget him even after his death because some of us still love him and the rest are still afraid of him.
“His shadow is still following Iraqi society everywhere.”
As if to prove a point, the artist was unable to travel to Birmingham to open the exhibition himself.
Another Life (2010), a short film by the same artist, follows some days in the lives of Iraqis smuggling alcohol from Iraq into Iran.
It has the grainy appeal of covert mobile phone footage and is very matter-of-fact in its editing.
The credits reveal how two of the men just introduced to us 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 mark makes reference 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.
The images of Without Soul are often taken without the awareness of the people they depict.
For Iraq is Flying (2006-10), on the other hand, Jamal requested that his subjects jump while being photographed and so it seems that they are jumping for joy, perhaps in reminiscence of lost childhood games, in the face of the great hardship they experience in everyday life.
Saddam is Here is organised in collaboration with the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq and part of the 50th anniversary of Ikon and runs until April 21.
* The gallery is open from Tuesday to Sunday and on Bank Holiday Mondays from 11am-6pm. Details: www.ikon-gallery.org