A friend of mine says you must always write what you feel and you must always be honest. Speaking honestly, I was a little deflated walking into Jamal Penjweny’s exhibition. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and my spirits were high. From the title ‘Saddam is Here’ I was predicting an oppressive reminder of human misery and nastiness that, frankly, I’d rather not face.
After cursing myself for the spontaneity that was undoubtedly about to lead to extreme depression, I quickly realised my mistake. In contrast to my assumption, there was no outrage or drama; Penjweny’s photographs sat quietly on the walls, visitors drifted past slowly.
Quite remarkably, even in our desensitised and ignorant society we acknowledge war and it’s aftermath, due to the curiosity and intrigue created by Penjweny’s use of photography.
In this post, I will take ‘Iraq is flying’ as an example.
About this series of images that capture Iraqi people with feet from the ground, Penjweny says: “Jumping was my dream when I was a child… I used to jump with my friends for joy and happiness. But now… we have all forgotten the beauty of the games we had in childhood. It seems that war has become part of our lives. Our children do not know peace… Through my photos I try to erase the idea of war.”
The figures are caught on camera mid-jump, amongst a vast expanse of background. A moment of escape is highlighted to such an extent that we almost forget about the impending landing.
Studying the figures’ faces reveals genuine joy among some, concentration among others. As viewers, we imagine their minds focused on filling their lungs with air and launching their bodies from the ground. We imagine their bodies as weightless objects, existing in a split second of nothingness that leaves behind an unwanted reality. We imagine too what it would be like to fly, to launch ourselves into the air and out of our worlds.
So caught up in this imagination, that is encouraged by the absurdity of the scene – a man clutching a cuddly toy, several feet off the ground amongst a vast and unfamiliar backdrop – we only notice the reminders of war upon closer inspection. That is, the guns, the military uniform, the barren landscapes. Though obvious on reflection, in the moment of viewing or experiencing the images, these things (objects) are secondary to the emotion and relatable experience that the figures allude to.
Further to this is what happened to me upon that closer inspection. As I peered into the images, looking past their glassy exterior frames to study the clues, I noticed a reflection of myself. The closer I got to the image, the more the figure was masked by my own face. Though perhaps unintended, this neatly ties into the series ‘Saddam is here’ that captures ordinary Iraqi people masked by a life-size image of Saddam Hussein’s face. There is so much to unpick within that series of work that it will be explored in a separate post, but thinking in regards to Penjweny’s ability to demonstrate the reality that, for Iraqi people, ‘war has become a part of [their] lives’, this is a key point.
Distracting us by provoking and then capturing genuine emotion, Penjweny draws us into the experience of the image and we connect with the figures on a human level. The act of physically getting closer to the image, draws us closer emotionally as we are forced to acknowledge ourselves in the image. As such, we picture ourselves in the environment of the figure and imagine ourselves in their war, whilst also considering the stark contrasts between our lives and theirs.
All of this happened to me in around 20 minutes, and the effects have lasted much longer. Penjweny’s clever trickery and technique actually highlight honesty. His work is not a dramatic plea or woeful statement, but an invitation into the reality of Iraq, that is told through a desire to escape it.
Saddam is Here [post 2] will follow, exploring the photographic series ‘Saddam is Here’ in more depth.
Also published on Native Monster here.