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Jananne Al-Ani

Working in both photography and moving image, Jananne Al-Ani is concerned, broadly, with questions of visibility and their intersection in the contemporary geopolitics of the Middle East. Through the photographic lens, Al-Ani’s work explores the ways in which vision is structured through geographic, historical, and governmental frameworks, and the ways in which power and visibility are closely linked. Through her forensic and historical exploration of a complex political landscape, Al-Ani excavates the possibilities for photographic and filmic representation to rewrite and reconfigure conceptions of home, territory, and political identity. Her work links the history of warfare and occupation with the history of technologies of vision, in essence mapping the ways in which technological advancement syncs with the consolidation of power.

Born in Iraq in 1966, Al-Ani moved to London in 1980, when the Iraq-Iran war was just beginning. She graduated from the Byam Shaw School of Art in 1989 and went on to complete an MA in photography at the Royal College of Art in 1997. She holds a post of Senior Research Fellow at the Photography and the Archive Research Centre within University of the Arts, London.

 

Untitled I and II (1996), gelatin silver prints 126.5 x 186.7 cm (49.8 x 73.5 in) // Image via  https://alchetron.com/Jananne-Al-Ani-136787-W#demo

Untitled I and II (1996) depict photographs of five women – Al-Ani, her three sisters, and her mother – subjects gazing directly at the viewer while dressed in various forms of the veil. The women appear in age order, starting with Al-Ani’s youngest sister. Al-Ani states in an audio guide for MoMA,

What I wanted to make very clear was that this was a theatrical performance…People think that the work is about something that is kind of personal, and about our relationships. It’s pretending to be about that. A lot of my work is about trying to undermine the idea of truth and reality.”[1]

In emphasizing the staged nature of this photograph through the varying ages of the subject, Al-Ani also emphasizes how the role of the veil has changed over time. Referencing the history of the veiled female figure as a focal point of both Orientalist painting and photography, Al-Ani emphasizes the shifting perception of the veil, as contemporary conflict has seen it sometimes insidiously associated with. In the bottom half of the photograph, the subject’s legs are uncovered, while she still wears a hijab. Al-Ani subverts preconceived notions of the veil and those who wear it. Combined with the direct, transfixing gaze of the female figures, the image suggests that the complexity of gender relations within this region cannot be reduced to simplistic notions of oppression and liberation. The typical artistic dichotomy, according to Berger, that women appear and men act,[2] is renounced – Al-Ani succeeds in making the women active participants in the visual exchange, questioning the viewer’s preconceptions of the expected passivity at the intersection of Islam and womanhood.

Aerial III, from Shadow Sites II (2011) // image via the artist, Abraaj Capital Prize, and Rose Issa Projects

Much of Al-Ani’s more recent work including the Shadow Sites and Groundworks series is typified by her use of the bird’s eye view, depicting sites in southern Jordan. Al-Ani drew from research conducted at the Smithsonian Institution on aerial photography, specifically images taken during World War I by Edward Steichen while he was serving in the US Aerial Expeditionary Force,[3] contextualizing contemporary practices of digital cartography as rooted in reconnaissance photographs taken during this time. She indicates that the Western conception of the Middle East was contingent on its representation. By visualizing the unfamiliar landscape of the Middle East, painters such as Richard and Sydney Carline could effectively give viewers back in England a ground onto which they could project and negotiate their conceptions of Middle Eastern people.[4] The nation’s modern politics, combined with its historical significance to trade routes during the Roman, Islamic, and Ottoman Empires, as well as its role during the British mandate period, identify it as a prime location of study.[5]

Shadow Sites I (2010) was shot on 16mm film and consists of a series of vertical aerial shots that successively blend into one another. These mirror the vantage point of a UAV, or drone, and cover, through their telescopic lens, the traces of farming, battles, and industrial developments in the region across time. Appearing in chronological order from the Bronze Age to the Ottoman occupation, the images mark the landscape as a palimpsest, recording markers of the trench systems dug during the Ottoman period to defend the Hejaz Railway from British and Arab forces, boundary lines, and other geographical markers that bear the traces of the foundation of modern Jordan. Similarly, Shadow Sites II (2011) is a large-scale projection made from aerial photographs of southern Jordan. However, rather than film, these images were digitally shot using high-resolution footage, and appear in a more abstracted, continuous zoom.[6] This formal technique is intended to convey the vantage point of a Predator drone that is anticipating a deadly strike; by honing in on a target, this moving image projection emulates the perspective of the non-human combatant.

Groundworks III (2013), 5-Channel Video Installation // image via http://www.ibraaz.org/interviews/137

Groundworks I-V (2013), consists of five tightly cropped, smaller scale videos that take as their subject the southwestern United States rather than the landscape of Jordan. Four of the films are subtly animated aerial photographs that Al-Ani took while flying over the Sonoran Desert in 2008; the fifth is a 16mm film of an ant colony. Unlike the Shadow Sites films, these videos are framed alternately in circles and triangles and differ in scale and zoom. Juxtaposing the tiny activity of the ant colony with the long-distance views of the desert, Al-Ani proposes the ways in which real-life humans appear in the field of vision of drone operators. Additionally, the similarities between the Sonoran landscape and those of Jordan – both contain copper mines, agricultural locations, and military sites – associate the histories of the United States and the Middle East, suggesting their connection through the legacy of occupation, settlement, and warfare.

By Tausif Noor

ed. by James Elsey

 

[1] Jananne Al-Ani, Audio Guide for “Untitled I & II” (1996), Museum of Modern Art.

< http://www.moma.org/explore/multimedia/audios/27/656> Accessed 31 July 2017.

[2] Berger, J. (1972), Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin

[3] Rachel Withers, “The Aesthetics of Disappearance: Conversation with Jannane Al-Ani,” RES Art World/World Art, No. 7, June 2011 pp. 36-44. < http://www.rachelwithers.com/the-aesthetics-of-disappearance-conversation-with-jananne-al-ani/ > Accessed 31 July, 2017

[4] Cécile-Bourne Farrell, “Interview with Janane Al-Ani,” 30 July 2015. < http://www.cecile-bourne-farrell.com/interview-with-jananne-al-ani/?lang=en > . Multitudes, Vol. 2, No. 59. Accessed 30 July 2017.

[5] Cécile-Bourne Farrell, “Interview with Janane Al-Ani,” 30 July 2015. < http://www.cecile-bourne-farrell.com/interview-with-jananne-al-ani/?lang=en > . Multitudes, Vol. 2, No. 59. Accessed 30 July 2017.

[6] Ibid

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