Through The Lens: Latif Al Ani’s Visions of Ancient Iraq
New York University – ISAW
8 November, 2023 – 25 February, 2024
My practice addresses one subject in particular—Ruins—but from various aspects: my own physical experience having lived amongst ruins in Iraq for most of my life, both archaeological Mesopotamian ruins (FIG. 8-2) and the rubble left by wars. My work reflects both these landscapes—Ruins and Rubble—which make up Iraq. From my experience, Mesopotamia is no longer defined as a land between
two rivers, but as a landscape reduced, by archaeological pillaging and repeated wars, to ruins and rubble. Now that I live outside Iraq, the distance gives me space to examine this different perspective.
In my practice, the tasks of doing research and producing visual work always proceed in tandem. Using different techniques to conduct it, I work both individ- ually and collaboratively. This approach to practice as research becomes a tool toward understanding, communicating my questions around the subject through my artistic responses.
“In the case of the ruin, the fact that life, with its wealth and its changes once dwelled here constitutes an immediately perceived presence.”1
I chose Mesopotamia as a site of my research subject to focus on the concept of ruins: Mesopotamia with its extensive time span, and “among the longest con- tinuously inhabited urban settlements in human history,” 2 gives a scope to exam- ine my hypothesis that ruins are not merely the site “of life from which life has departed”3 but also exist as a kind of development and process, as a function of time. I approach ruination as “Time Travel” and ruins as a physical form of a time machine, often understood as a “portal connecting distant points in time.” 4 The question here: Could Mesopotamian Ruins be seen or used as a hypothetical time machine . . . as a Vehicle? 5 I call it fluidity of time on matter. I approach the concept of ruins as a symptom of time and ecology effects, and sequences of currents, which allow me (us) to understand and experience an incessant dialec- tical process between ruination, rejuvenation, and existence as “a process of life. . . [that] effects transformations within that process.” 6
In December 2018, after two rainy days, I went with my research team to visit the ancient archaeological site of Nippur (FIG. 8-3). We had been advised not to as the surface of the site after rain becomes very fragile, unstable, and hard to walk on; nevertheless, we went. We immediately were faced with the most bewitching, breathtaking, and unforgettable landscape structured into many mounds formed by the rain. The surface was indeed very fragile, exposing many ancient fragments of archaeological significance; all now glistening in the sunrise like plants (FIG. 8-4).
The very landscape of Mesopotamia, littered with its ancient ruins, allows me (us) to encounter contradictory forces of past and present as experienced in equilibrium, where “that struggle between above and below comes to a standstill . . . with its incessant moving up and down, its constant shifting of boundaries, and the playing of the inexhaustible forces in it, one against the other”7 (FIG. 8-5). In this way I am able to tap the innermost energy of Mesopotamian ruins and exploit their rejuvenation power rather than approaching them merely as ancient relics. Ruination now is understood as just a change in material state, not as annihilation.8
As an artist and researcher, I focus on Mesopotamian ruins as shaking off, avoiding the “reductionist thinking”9 of most archaeologists, instead of applying the preconceptions (of archaeologists) that might otherwise give premature shape and thereby “convert every certainty into a question.”10 Obviously our technique to approach the ancient ruins is not a technique typically used by archaeologists to collect data of the past, but to learn how to experience the Ruins & Ruination and get (what I call) “practice Knowledge” or to collect knowledge directly from the ruins at the sites. And we shape that as research papers and visual works. In a nutshell, could archaeological ruins be approached to extrapolate the future, not just to collect past data?!
“The trauma is the present, the therapeutic located in the past, in the last vestiges of Mesopotamian archaeological sites.” 11
But modern Iraq is not only a landscape of ancient ruins; it is also littered with the effects of its more recent wars. Here we encounter ruination as forms of rubble— evidenced in its modern cities as destruction and death; here we find a loss of culture and identities, all is chaos and destruction with little hope for any future. Here is where we understand Baudrillard’s notion of the lethal energy in ruins,12 all is laid waste. On the contrary, turning to Iraq’s ancient sites, these antiquities are not experienced as debris and destruction but as sites that are alive and full of hope; they are evidence of our past which is active in the present. Here we find hope and life.
ere is Ha possible dialogue between the status of Mesopotamian ruins and that evidenced as the ruins have been perpetuated by the violence of recent wars in Iraq. My endeavor is to discuss these differences where the archaeological ruins become sites of positivity (forces of existing/life power/transformation), giving hope in the present and shaping more positive futures counteracting the lethal energy of rubble (as disintegration) that is experienced as modern Iraq. Underneath and alongside the debris that is modern Iraq lie the remnants of past powerful and rich cultures which are still vibrating with possibilities for more positive futures. Here I find a “relation of the ruin to a future or futures: its capacity to invent or imagine a time to come, even as it seems to fall back into time past.”13 My project is to attend to this past in order to imagine a future that is yet to come, where “the past is littered with debris of these futures, while our present incorporates the unstable collective memory of hopes that have long since been abandoned.”14 Now, I consider this ongoing state of ruination in its greater global context, the ruination which we all occupy in a postcolonial context. I am concerned to address the possibilities for addressing ruins as a new aesthetic which attends to this history (the latent power of ruins للخرائب الكامنة القوة) in the present, as that which might provide the foundations for a new relation between past and present, one which dislocates the traditional spatial-temporal continuity—of history—of time— of sequences. We attend to the past-present-future trajectory as a possible dis- solve, as now in flux, as open to new becoming (according to Deleuzian theory). This past is not our present but our future; we inhabit this ongoing state of ruin- ation; we explore this state as offering other kinds of futures, other modes of temporality; as artist/researcher, I inhabit an ongoing state of ruination as pow- erful, as potential for rejuvenation, as enabling dialogue between our experiences of antiquities, colonial occupation, and the ruins of war. I mine the past in our performances of the present, producing artworks which delineate new relations to the past and to possible futures. Could the archaeological ruins give us the opportunity to extrapolate our future?
This practice-based research project approaches the ruins and rubble of Babylon as a site which “evokes an image of power, wealth, and splendour—and decadence . . . [a] city whose image of oppression and wantonness persisted and flourished long after the city itself had crumbled into piles of dust.”15 We explore Babylon, with its magnitude, drama, and complexities, as simultaneously Past, Present, and Future. We work directly from our firsthand experience of this ancient site to produce our artistic responses.
I came accross an extract in an 1806 British book discussing current municipal problems of London, particularly the status of the Thames, in which the author states: “If the river were rendered unnavigable, London would be soon become a heap of ruins, like Nineveh or Babylon.”16 In Eugene Roche’s poem “London in a Thousand Years” (1830), Revelation’s destroying angel brings the end upon London. Somehow the narrator survives, to awaken a thousand years later to find “Babylon” covered in a green mantle, and starts recollecting about the sin- ful place that was once London. My immediate response to this comparison of London and Babylon was to produce a series of drawings titled Babylon Curse and a homonymous video, trying to illustrate the idea (FIGS. 8-6 through 8-10). While exhibiting some of these drawings in London in April 2022,17 a strange incident occurred: I had just visited Tate Modern in London with a friend, Walid Siti, when we came upon protestors by the river Thames holding banners that read “When Babylon Falls” (FIG. 8-11).
While I was searching social media to find out how Iraqis use images of Mesopotamia in order to protest the misery of their present life, I discovered an archival video showing British troops entering the Babylon site in 1917. I tracked down the original to the video archives of the Imperial War Museum, London.
Then, in May and November 2022, I made two visits to the Babylon archaeological site and experienced it quite differently than on my previous, frequent visits. The research team and I had been shuttling between the ancient Babylon site and the neighboring city of Hillah and felt the power of encountering those contradictory forces of past history and present reality: Hillah as evidence of our current impoverished lives situated in close contrast to those antiquities which were once the glorious empire of Babylon. We know that the current archae- ological site is but the tip of the iceberg, with much of its treasures still to be unearthed—a site for our hypothetical futures. That feeling could be matched or contradicted by Gertrude Bell’s remark that through our experience of the East, “[We] have learnt to reckon with the unbroken continuity of its history. Conqueror follows upon the heels of conqueror, nations are overthrown and cities topple down into the dust, but the conditions of existence are unaltered and irresistibly they fashion the new age in the likeness of the old Past and present are wovenso closely together, the habitual appreciation of the division of time slips insen- sibly away.”18
We (I) use a drone and other technologies to produce our artworks, and that helps us to extrapolate and then develop a new textual and visual work for the project. For instance, during our visit to the Babylon site, a drone was used to film from above to give us a bird’s-eye view of the site. When the drone was circumnavigating over the Babylon Borsippa towers and came closer to them, suddenly tens of doves which dwell inside the towers were disturbed and started to hover under the drone, giving me the title: Dove - Drone Hovering above Babylon Borsippa Two Towers. The image of the drone as a signifier of the present digital age with its multitasking use of surveillance, both military and civic, clashes in sharp contrast to that of the dove and its ancient symbol as a token of peace. I later hear of a new device called the Dove Drone, recently used for spying. In a similar way we might now understand the archival video from the Imperial War Museum as the colonialist’s tool to claim ownership of ancient sites such as Babylon. For the video Dove - Drone Hovering above Babylon Borsippa Two Towers, we used a normal drone to conduct it, but we animated the Dove Drone in the video to deliver the concept of the clash between two symbols: Dove Drone as machinery of intelligence and natural doves seeking peace at the site (FIGS. 8-12 and 8-13).
1 Simmel 1958.
2 Bryce 1995, 1.
3 George Simmel, The Ruin (1911), quoted in Dillon 2011, 23.
4 For more on space-time theories see Harvey and Tillman 2022.
5 See Wells 1895, 2.
6 Ingold 2013, 3.
7 See note 2.
8 Ingold 2013, 2.
9 See Bridle 2022, 56.
10 Ingold 2013, 2.
11 Hanaa Malallah quoted in Nysten 2020.
12 Jean Baudrillard, The Anorexic Ruins (1989), quoted in Dillon 2011, 67.
13 Dillon 2011, 11.
14 Nina Power, “Waiting for the Future,” quoted in Dillon 2011, 218.
15 See note 1.
16 Feltham 1806, 301.
17 Co-existent Ruins: Exploring Iraq’s Mesopotamian Past through Contemporary Art, SOAS, University of London, January 18–March 19, 2022; https://www.soas.ac.uk/about/event/
18 Bell’s Amurath to Amurath, quoted in Bernhardsson 2005, 26.
Artifacts Also Die
ISAC Museum, The University of Chicago
5th April – 27th August, 2023
This exhibition is part of the ongoing research project Ruins, Rubble, and Renewal: Co-existent Ruins—Exploring Iraq’s Mesopotamian Past through Contemporary Art. This long term, interdisciplinary, expanded-media, and collaborative project seeks to address how it might be possible to have renewed engagements with four ancient Mesopotamian heritage sites (Babylon, Nimrud, Nuffar, and Ur), as well as the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, by local Iraqi artists in postconflict Iraq. These sites, while still providing security guards and space for international archaeological research, have become derelict during the recent traumatic wars and conflicts. The project has the specific aim of exploring the critical question of how contemporary collaborative art projects conducted at these key archaeological sites can enable a renewed engagement with this ancient heritage and history. This project explores the capacity for a form of artistic research that attends to political and social context, and a new aesthetic where the heritage of ancient Mesopotamia—a region known as ‘‘the cradle of civilization”—is reclaimed for Iraq’s current traumatic identity, and for its people’s future.
The project is led by Iraqi-British artist and academic Hanaa Malallah, who has lived in London since 2007 and works in collaboration with the following Iraqi artists at specific ancient sites inside Iraq:
• The Ziggurat at Ancient Nippur/Nuffar/Al-Qadisiyah. With Fatimah Jawdet.
• The Ziggurat at Ancient Ur/Tell al-Muqayyar/Dhi Qar. With Reyah Abd Al-Redah.
• The Ruins of Ancient Babylon/Hillah/Babil. With Mohammed Abd Alwasi.
• Kahlu/Nimrud/Nineveh. With Rozghar Mustafa.
• Iraq Museum, Baghdad. With Betoul Mahdey.
Project Founder/Research Director: Dr. Hanaa Malallah
Project Partner: Dr. Mo Throp
Archaeological Adviser: Prof. Zainab Bahrani
Assistant Researcher: Annie Webster
Iraqi Artists: Fatimah Jawdet, Reya Abd Al-Redah, Rozghar Mustafa, Betoul Mahdey, Mohammed Abd Alwasi
Exhibition Curator: Dr. Kiersten Neumann
Exhibition Webpage: isac.uchicago.edu/artifacts
Ruins Rubble and Renewal
Salah Al Hithni Museum, Iraq
18th – 28th November, 2022
This exhibition is part of the ongoing research project Ruins, Rubble and Renewal, led by the Iraqi-British artist and academic Hanaa Malallah, working in collaboration with local Iraqi artists at specific ancient sites inside Iraq.
This long term, interdisciplinary collaborative project seeks to address how it might be possible to have renewed engagement with ancient heritage sites, identified as Mesopotamian, for this exhibition, specifically at Ur, Babylon, Nippur, Nimrud, and the Archaeological Museum in Baghdad. The project has the specific decolonising agenda of exploring the critical question of how such artistic interventions, by local artists at these sites, can enable a renewed engagement with this ancient heritage and history. The project explores the capacity for a form of artistic research that attends to its political and social context, and to a new aesthetic where this ancient Mesopotamian heritage, known in the West as “the cradle of civilization” is reclaimed for Iraq’s current traumatic identity, and for its people’s future.
Iraqi artists: Fatimah Jawdet, Reyah Abd Al-Redah, Rozghar Mustafa, Betoul Mahdey and Mohammed Abd Al-Wasi