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  • Nov 22, 2021

Obituary: Latif Al Ani (1932–2021)

Portrait of LATIF AL ANI. Courtesy the Ruya Foundation.

A photographer celebrated for his bold compositions and contrast-rich images documenting Iraq’s postwar modernization and development, Latif Al Ani died of cancer on November 18 in Baghdad. He was 89.

For almost three decades, starting in the early 1950s when he first picked up a camera, Al Ani captured scenes in Baghdad and across the country of new infrastructure projects, including Baghdad’s new urban design, mass housing, bridges, date-processing factories, and pipelines, as well as education and public-health initiatives. Throughout the mid-1950s he worked on assignments that took him across the country for the magazine Ahl Al Naft (People of Oil), which was produced by the Iraq Petroleum Company. In 1960, after the government of Abd al-Karim Qasim decreed that it would nationalize the oil industry, he was recruited to establish the photography department at Iraq’s ministry of education (later the ministry of culture), which published a magazine called New Iraq, and later became director of photography at the Iraqi News Agency. He told Tamara Chalabi in an interview published in a monograph of his work, “My concern was the beauty of the image, not the politics. This was my creed.”

Nonetheless the roiling political conditions in the country eventually caught up with the photographer. Al Ani stopped taking photographs in 1979 before the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) as, under the increasingly authoritarian climate of Saddam Hussein’s regime, photography in public places became increasingly difficult. Then, in 2003, much of Al Ani’s vast archive of images was lost during the United States invasion of Iraq.

Al Ani’s photographs were featured in several high-profile exhibitions in the last decade. “Invisible Beauty,” the Iraq Pavilion organized by the Ruya Foundation and curated by Philippe Van Cauteren for the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, showcased his images alongside four other Iraqi artists whose works reflect on the country’s cultural heritage. The Sharjah Art Foundation subsequently mounted a survey of Al Ani’s oeuvre in 2018, titled “Latif Al Ani: Through the Lens 1953–1979.” The show, curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, also featured his travel photography outside of Iraq. Many of his iconic images were also displayed in “Crude,” curated by Murtaza Vali as the opening exhibition of the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai in 2018. The Arab Image Foundation in Beirut serves as the custodian of his works.

HG Masters is ArtAsiaPacific’s deputy editor and deputy publisher.

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