Jananne Al-Ani’s early work explores the construction of beauty and the representation of the body in Western art. Much of the artist’s work continues to be influenced by her interest in the fetishised female form in Orientalist painting and photography. Trained as a painter, she initially started using photography simply as a ‘tool’ for the production of imagery. However, the advent of the Gulf war in 1991 had a profound effect on the artist’s approach to her work as her interest in the history of representation became increasingly focused on the history of photography itself.

For Al-Ani, too little effort was made in the Western media to place the conflict in an informed historic context. She felt that the ‘site’ of the war was represented as a place with no history, no population and no future. This prompted her to make Untitled (Gulf War work) 1991, consisting of 20 small black and white photographs. By appropriating images from a number of recognisable genres: the archive, the family snapshot, the portrait, reportage, she presents what she describes as an ‘alternative’ history.

In his book The Colonial Harem, Malek Alloula examines postcards of Algerian women produced during the French occupation and compares the gaze of the veiled woman with that of the photographer’s: ‘Thrust in the presence of a veiled woman, the photographer feels photographed; having himself become an object-to-be-seen, he loses initiative: he is dispossessed of his own gaze.’[1] It is this relationship between the viewer/photographer and the veiled woman which informs an ongoing body of work by Al-Ani exploring the Western fascination with the image of the veil. The work explores the myth of the subjugated and sexualised ‘Oriental’ woman as object and successfully unnerves the viewer as they face the unyielding glare of Al-Ani’s subjects. Al-Ani challenges the viewer’s perceptions by offering alternative narratives.

In much of her recent video work Al-Ani explores the construction of narrative, often using the voice as a tool, and her interest in staging and performance, hierarchy and power is apparent. Memory and word games act as a starting point for her. In the installation A Loving Man, 1996-9, five women follow a pattern of speech appropriated from the children’s memory game ‘Mrs Brown went to town, and bought...’, whereby a list is repeated and added to by each participant in turn. In this instance the components of the ‘game’ are phrases based upon each woman’s relationship with the ‘loving man’ of the title. The work is not scripted or directed by the artist, allowing for greater elements of risk and spontaneity to emerge. Similarly, in the installation She Said, 2000 we see a group of women whispering to each other, using the convention of the game ‘Chinese Whispers’. By borrowing existing structures of games and play in her work, Al-Ani investigates the unfolding relationships between the participants, and the way in which communities pass oral histories from generation to generation.

1] Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem, Manchester University Press, 1987

TATE BRITAIN, 4 February - 10 April 2005
‘The Visit’ is a two-part video installation in which repeated scenes of a mysterious figure pacing in an empty landscape are contrasted with a series of conversational exchanges between a group of young women.

In the large-scale projection work, ‘Muse’, the ghostly shimmer of a desert heat-haze prefigures the appearance of a smart-suited man restlessly walking across the same small strip of parched terrain. Over seven separate sequences, the camera returns to observe him - the passage of time marked by changes in the light, and by the play of lengthening, deepening shadows.

Meanwhile, in the multi-screen piece, ‘Echo’, the women discuss their feelings towards an absent, unnamed visitor. Talking amongst, and often over, each other, shared histories and affinities are pieced together. The relationship between the subject of their conversation and the man in the desert landscape is never resolved.

‘The Visit’ is Jananne Al-Ani’s most ambitious project to date and adds to an impressive body of video and photographic work, distinguished by its finely-honed, evocative portraits and complex, often intimate narratives. ‘The Visit’ was commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella and Norwich Gallery.