Artist and photographer
B orn in 1966 in Kirkuk, Iraq. Education: Byam Shaw School of Art, London, fine art diploma, 1986; University of Westminster, London, B.A., 1991; Royal College of Art, London, M.A., 1997.
Addresses: Gallery—South London Gallery, 65 Peckham Rd., London SE5 8UH, England.
M ultimedia artist and filmmaker; works first showed in the group exhibition Women in View, Brixton Art Gallery, London, England, 1987.
Awards: John Kobel Portrait Award, 1996; Arts Council Award, 1998; Artsadmin Artist Bursary, 1999; East International Award, 2000; London Arts Board Award, 2000-01.
J ananne al-Ani is one of a few well-known artists from an Islamic background within the international contemporary art scene. A multimedia practitioner whose works combine photography, video, and spoken word, al-Ani has spent much of her life in Britain, but lived in Iraq until she was 13. Her works often examine the status of women in Muslim societies, but they also force the viewer to address prejudices against women and Muslims everywhere in the world. Writing about a 2006 group show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that included her work, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter asserted that “most of these artists are tagged Islamic because of their backgrounds. Yet much of their work is far less about Islam itself, as a religion or culture, than about their relationship to Islam—in some cases it is close and positive; in other cases, distant and critical. But in most instances, it is ambivalent—the opposite of how Islam is treated these days in the larger world.”
Born in Kirkuk, Iraq, in 1966, al-Ani is the third of of four daughters of an Irish mother and Iraqi father. The family lived in northern Iraq, which was the center of several successive Mesopotamian empires after 2500 b.c.e. Along with her mother and three sisters, al-Ani moved to England in 1980, a year after Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party seized power in Iraq and the same year that the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War began.
Al-Ani studied art and earned several degrees. Her first was from the Byam Shaw School of Art, now part of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, and was a fine art diploma bestowed in 1986. Five years later, she earned another undergraduate degree, this one in Arabic languages and literature, from the University of Westminster, and in 1997 she completed work for her master’s degree in photography from the Royal College of Art.
In the world of contemporary art, visual artists from Islamic backgrounds are still a relative rarity, even in multicultural Britain. This is tied to the longstanding tradition in Islam that forbids graven imagery, or the representation of a person, place, or animal. As a result, over the centuries Islamic art has been confined to intricate patterns, with a marked absence of traditional religious art as most in the West perceive the category. Another tenet of Islam is its urging for both men and women to be modest: In many Muslim societies, existing religious laws interpret this to mean that women must cover their hair or veil their face when in public; in some extreme cases they must cover their entire bodies in a head-to-toe garment known as a burqa. Al-Ani is one of the leading artists to examine the issues of the public and private selves for Muslim women, though she often points out that in previous centuries, women from many different cultures wore veils, not just Muslim societies.
Al-Ani took part in several group shows while still at the Royal College of Art, and her first solo exhibition was at the Harriet Green Gallery in London in 1997. Since then she has participated in several art events on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and London’s Imperial War Museum. The Smithsonian show was titled “Constructing Identities: Recent Work by Jananne al-Ani” and featured images and videos of al-Ani, her three sisters, and their mother. In one piece, titled Veil, they wear traditional Iraqi veils in what Joanna Shaw-Eagle in the Washington Times called “the most mysterious and provocative image” of the show. The 1997 work used a slide projector and a large screen onto which images of the five women “appear, dissolve and reappear in hypnotic sequences that move from light to dark and back to light again,” noted Shaw-Eagle.
Al-Ani’s 2003 book Veil: Veiling, Representation and Contemporary Art was published by MIT Press as a compendium of essays and images as well as a companion piece to the group exhibition of the same name at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, England. That same year, al-Ani participated in a group show held at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, Germany, but the group show DisORIENTa-tion opened on the same day the U.S.Iraq War started. Al-Ani’s piece was titled, somewhat pre-sciently, “Sounds of War.” Malu Halasa, writing in the London Guardian explained that al-Ani’s installation “intercuts war noises—missiles, sirens, swooping planes—with BBC special-effects, from cheering and booing to football-crowd noises.” In the same article, al-Ani told Halasa that, because she left Iraq in 1980 at the start of the Iran-Iraq War, that conflict was relatively untroubling. “That was somewhere else, someone else’s problem. Then the Gulf war comes in 1991 and suddenly everyone’s involved.”
In London in 2005, the Tate Britain invited al-Ani to show in their “Art Now” series, and she submitted a two-part video piece titled The Visit. One screen features her sisters and mother recounting and repeating narrative fragments about an unnamed man, while the second screen shows footage of a man in a suit wandering in what appears to be a vast and arid desert. A year later, she participated in a group show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art headlined “Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking.” Cotter, the New York Times art critic, paid particular attention to Veil, which had been seen at the Smithsonian show seven years earlier. “The veiling decreases from full to none if you read the pictures in the left-to-right direction of written English, and increases from none to complete if you read in the right-to-left direction of written Arabic,” wrote Cotter. “It is possible to read the work as critical of orthodox Islamic custom. But Ms. al-Ani’s historical reference is to European colonial photographs of ‘exotic’ Muslim women, which she turns into a visual essay on the artificiality of Western and Islamic identities.”
Harriet Green Gallery (London), 1997.
Margaret Harvey Gallery (St. Albans, England), 1998.
Imperial War Museum (London), 1999.
Constructing Identities: Recent Work by Jananne al-Ani, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D. C.), 1999.
Islamische Welten: Love Affairs, ifa-Galerie Berlin, In-stitut für Auslandsbeziehungen (Berlin, Germany), 2004.
Jananne al-Ani, Norwich Gallery (Norwich, England), 2004.
The Visit, Tate Britain (London), 2005.
Casino Luxembourg/Forum d’art contemporain, (Luxembourg), 2007.
Women in View, Brixton Art Gallery (London), 1987.
Contact South Bank Photo Show, Royal Festival Hall (London), 1991.
No More Heroes Anymore, The Royal Scottish Academy (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1993.
After Eden, Ikon Gallery (Yoxall, England), 1996.
Modern Narrative: The Domestic and the Social, Artsway (Sway, England), 1997.
On Site, Lauderdale House (London), 1998.
Attitude: A History of Posing, Victoria and Albert Museum (London), 2000-01.
(Co-curator with Frances Kearney) Fair Play, Angel Row Gallery (Nottingham, England), 2002.
DisORIENTation, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Berlin, Germany), 2003.
(Co-curator with David A. Bailey, Zineb Sedira, and Gilane Tawadros) Veil: Veiling, Representation and Contemporary Art, Museum of Modern Art (Oxford, England), 2003-04.
Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking, Museum of Modern Art (New York), 2006.
Christian Century, October 4, 2003, p. 43.
Guardian (London, England), March 29, 2003, p. 17.
New York Times, February 26, 2006.
Washington Times, November 27, 1999, p. 3.
“Jananne Al-Ani: Veiling and Unveiling,” LuxOn-line, http://www.luxonline.org.uk/artists/jananne_al-ani/essay(2).html (May 15, 2008).
“Jananne Al-Ani: The Visit,” LuxOnline, http://www.luxonline.org.uk/articles/the_visit(1).html (May 15, 2008).