Artist Jamal Penjweny Shares With Fawn Review His Hopes for Art in his native Iraq

In the ten years since the invasion of  Iraq, the country has undergone some vast changes; not least of all cultural. One of the artists at the forefront of contemporary art in Iraq, photographer Jamal Penjweny, kindly took the time to speak to Fawn Review about the creative climate of his homeland and his hopes and fears for Iraqi art.

Of all occupations, it is perhaps fair to say that the route to becoming an artist isn’t exactly one that is clear or conventional. There are no admissions tests or grade requirements for the artistic life.

Iraq is no exception when it comes to unconventional artistic origins. Baghdad artist Jamal Penjweny is a case in point. He explains of his childhood growing up in the Iraqi countryside, “I didn’t have much choice at that time: I could be a shepherd, a smuggler or a farmer. I was a shepherd. I was convinced that the world finished there, in the furthest mountain I could see from my house.”

Image credit: Jamal Penjweny

Image credit: Jamal Penjweny


Image credit: Jamal Penjweny

But, thankfully for the art world, his talent was not to be spent forever herding goats, “I made sculptures from the stones of the river and painted them so I could sell them. I started taking pictures with a small camera of children and old people around me. I tried to capture their everyday life, their most simple feelings, their joy and sadness. This is how I developed into an artist. It was almost a complete accident.”

Penjweny has since made up for lost time, experimenting in paint, sculpture, photography and film. He is fast emerging as one of the forerunners in Iraqi art. His work is taking pride of place in the Venice Biennale art showcase alongside his fellow countrymen and artists, in their ‘Welcome to Iraq’ pavillion.

From the series 'Saddam is Here'  Image credit: Jamal Penjweny

Image credit: Jamal Penjweny

 He explains that despite the progress of his career, his home roots are never far from his mind or his inspiration, “In my village growing up we didn’t have electricty so when I was a child I brought all the old people to my house to tell stories about life and the beautiful things in life. That is where I got all the beautiful images in my mind and all of my art comes from that.”

The scene he describes is almost pastoral, something we might be less surprised to find within a Wordsworth lyrical ballad, a shepherd boy creating community through his imaginative talent. It is a far cry from the stock images of Iraq which upon which many people in the West base their understanding. When I ask Penjweny about the understanding of Iraq beyond the country, he explains that Iraq to the outside world is not a place of culture and community but rather, one of “war, death, destruction, refugees and homelessness”.

Image credit: Jamal Penjweny

Image credit: Jamal Penjweny

He explains that his motivation is “to bring the art in my region to international standards”. Alongside this acknowledgement of skill and craft, he is also working to present the real face of the country he knows.

Whilst headlines and shocking images from war photographers in newspapers at least capture the viewer’s gaze, Penjweny hopes to hold this gaze- to engage and educate it.

His photographs are part war photography, part family album. They do not ignore Iraq’s troubled past and complex present, but nor are they consumed by it. Large political themes are, instead, more often a back drop to scenes of fascinating personal psychology.

‘Welcome to Iraq’ pavillion is at Venice Biennale ‘s 55th International Art Exhibition from 1st July until 24th November 2013. To see more of Jamal Penjweny’s work, click here to visit his website and portfolio.

What are your thoughts on how Iraqi art is perceived internationally? Add your comments below, or click here to join the conversation on the Fawn Review facebook page.