The Haunting Presence of Saddam Hussein in Iraqi Art

From the series 'Saddam is Here' by Jamal Penjweny

From the series ‘Saddam is Here’ by Jamal Penjweny

This image of Saddam Hussein’s face peering out from the carcasses in an Iraqi butcher’s shop is an immensely jarring and disturbing image. It is merely one of a series of photographs, eleven shots in total, by Jamal Penjweny documenting post Saddam life in his native Iraq.

The pictures by Penjweny, who started as a sculptor and painter in Iraqi Kurdistan before turning to photography, show the former dictator’s presence permeating the public consciousness and every day life in Iraq, years after his demise.

The images mask the expressions and gaze of all the actual people in the pictures, making their reasons for holding the portrait up ambiguous. The only clues to unlock this mystery come from the body language and other visual props in the photos whether they are perhaps hiding behind the picture of Saddam, maybe identifying with him, or simply feeling that their entire identity is being sucked in by his legacy, against their will.

From the series 'Saddam is Here' by Jamal Penjweny

From the series ‘Saddam is Here’ by Jamal Penjweny

Going through the eleven images in Penjweny’s series, the image of Saddam pops up again relentlessly. As the series reaches its climax with the eleventh picture, the process has taken on the air of a depraved game of Where’s Wally, in which the character who should be hiding, instead stands unashamed and unrelenting.

From the series 'Saddam is Here' by Jamal Penjweny

From the series ‘Saddam is Here’ by Jamal Penjweny

Penjweny has labelled this project ‘Saddam is Here’ expressing his consciousness of the figure’s ongoing presence in modern day Iraq. He says of the images, “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”.

From the series 'Saddam is Here' by Jamal Penjweny

From the series ‘Saddam is Here’ by Jamal Penjweny

Penjweny is one of a number of emerging and exciting artists to come out of post war Iraq. This celebration and appreciation is long overdue.  The political circumstances and recent history of Iraq are a deeply complex issue in the West. We have been used to viewing the issue very much through a Western lens; our guilt, our intervention, our responsibility. All of which brings us no closer to understanding the people of Iraq themselves.

However, given Penjweny’s brave confrontation of the reality of his country’s state, it is only right that now that we afford him and his colleagues the same respect too and confront these images with the same sincere engagement which he himself affords them.

Jamal Penjweny is one of the artists who has been chosen by the Venice Biennale showcase ‘Welcome to Iraq’ this year. For more information about the show, please click here.

To find out more about Penjweny and to view more of his work, click here to view his website.

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