Ikon presents the first solo exhibition of Jamal Penjweny, including photography and video works reflecting on life in Iraq today. Born in Sulaimaniya, Iraqi Kurdistan, in 1981, Penjweny started his artistic career as a sculptor and painter, moving into photography whilst supporting himself by working as a shepherd and, latterly, a café proprietor. His work has been the subject of international attention following its inclusion in Welcome to Iraq, the Iraqi pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, curated by Ikon Director Jonathan Watkins.Key to this exhibition is the photographic series Saddam is Here (2009–2010), consisting of twelve 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. It is ludicrous, hilarious and at the same time absolutely ominous, pointing up the insidious influence of a dictator. Of the work, Penjweny has said “Saddam is here. Iraqi society cannot 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.”
Penjweny’s short film Another Life (2010), 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. There is no melodrama, but the last moments are striking when, instead of rolling credits, we see a short text explaining how two of the men just introduced to us were killed by customs police a few days after filming.
Another 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 references 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. By separating body and head, Penjweny ‘invalidates’ the image, disclaiming his role of creator. For Iraq is Flying (2006–2010) Penjweny requested that his subjects jump whilst 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.
“Kurdish artist Jamal Penjweny’s cheeky portraits of Iraqis holding a black-and-white photo of Saddam Hussein over their faces manage to momentarily animate the dark legacy of the country’s former leader.” Artforum
To coincide with his exhibition at Ikon, Penjweny has produced a limited edition photograph Untitled [Sitting Soldier] (2014) from the series Saddam is Here, edition 200, £250.
This is the opening exhibition of Ikon 50, the year-long programme celebrating Ikon’s 50th anniversary.