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Shadow Sites: Recent Work by Jananne Al-Ani

[Jananne Al-Ani [Jananne Al-Ani "Aerial I" (2011). Production still from Shadow Sites II. Courtesy of the artist, Abraaj Capital Art Prize and Rose Issa Projects.]

Shadow Sites:

Recent Work by Jananne Al-Ani

August 25, 2012—February 10, 2013

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery,

Smithsonian Institution


Three recent video installations by Iraqi-born artist Jananne Al-Ani are currently on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington DC. The second Smithsonian solo exhibition for the London-based artist (the first was held in 1999), Shadow Sites provides viewers with a glimpse into a new direction of her photo-based practice—one that she has been developing in a research-driven body of work titled “The Aesthetics of Disappearance: A Land Without People.”

In the US, Al-Ani is best known for her early, beautifully executed photographs that dismantle the standard signs of Orientalist art. Visually describing the colonial underpinnings of the nineteenth-century European tradition, her diptych “Untitled (Veils Project)” (1996) is perhaps the most recognized work from this period, as it examines how the female body became (and remains) what Fran Lloyd describes as “one of the sites on which the battle for the conquest of the east was fought” (Contemporary Arab Women’s Art: Dialogues of the Present, 1999). The artist’s interest in this type of historical photography and its charged imagery was crucial to the 2003 group show Veil and its coinciding publication Veiling, Representation and Contemporary Art (MIT Press), two landmark projects that critically examined the modern fixation with hijab related customs in addition to the historical relevance of such garb within various political, cultural, and social contexts. Al-Ani co-organized Veil with French-born, London-based artist Zineb Sedira, who initiated the exhibition, alongside curators David A. Bailey and Gilane Tawadros.  

2003 also marked the beginning of a departure in Al-Ani’s work that was brought about, in part, by a residency at Al-Ma’mal Foundation in Jerusalem; there, under the overbearing political situation of the Israeli occupation, she became artistically frozen. Although unable to complete the creative portion of the residency, this experience in Palestine extended a research thread that was already in place as she considered the representational inconsistencies that shape “the real and the imagined landscapes” of the Middle East.

                  ["Aerial III" (2011). Production still from Shadow Sites II. Courtesy of the artist, Abraaj Capital Prize and Rose Issa Projects.] 

“The Guide and Flock” (2008) and “Shadow Sites II” (2011), the main videos comprising the Sackler Gallery exhibition, are prefaced by a series of early twentieth-century photographs of sites in Iran and Iraq that were taken by German archeologist Ernst Herzfeld, which Al-Ani has selected from the archives of the institution. The Herzfeld examples are of isolated, depopulated landscapes—desert scenes in which remnants of past civilizations are shown in the distance. Al-Ani mirrors aspects of this spatial perspective in her own work as a response to this genre of image-making, which also relates to the explicit technique of a more menacing vantage point:

The prominent role of digital technology in the 1991 Desert Storm campaign was a watershed in the history of warfare and changed the way war was to be seen in the future. Within hours of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Western media machine had mobilized its forces and set its sights firmly on the region. Through the portrayal of the population, the culture and, crucially, the landscape of the Middle East, it revealed that the nineteenth-century Orientalist stereotype of the Arab and the desert remained firmly embedded in Western consciousness. The site of the war was shown to be a desert, a place with no history and no population—an empty space, a blank canvas. (Al-Ani, Veiling, Representation and Contemporary Art)

In a fascinating panoramic print of the Sassanid-era monument Taq-I Kisra, Herzfeld cast his own shadow in the foreground of the composition only to subsequently remove it in a retouched photo. As a two-screen work in which a small square video is inserted into a wall-size projection, “The Guide and Flock” invites the viewer to unknowingly reproduce this reflexive shadow onto a short film of an Arab man who fades away down a long, abandoned road. The relatively tiny video of passing sheep before a noisy, busy highway is difficult to make out otherwise, compelling the viewer to move closer, practically stepping into the work in order to examine its fleeting subjects. This apposite conceptual prompt evokes the displaced or departed, while underscoring transient views and the not-so-subtle exploits that are found in centuries of imaging (and imagining) the Arab world.  

“Shadow Sites II” takes a different approach to establishing such links, one that reflects the artist’s interest in the remote, long-distance aerial footage (and tactics) that are used in present-day warfare. A large, suspended screen shows a sequence of barren aerial shots that were taken from multiple altitudes. As the camera moves in for close-ups of what little evidence of human activity is shown, edifices begin to morph into different compounds, signaling the passage of time (in reverse) or a visual excavation that unfolds before the artist’s lens. A military base vanishes as the outline of a home emerges, which then dissolves when ancient ruins begin to surface. Ambient visuals continue as new sites are introduced, including sprawling livestock facilities and agricultural fields. Positioned from such elevation, the camera captures a landscape that is nearly abstracted, alternating between the gray and white of shadows and light, stark but always yielding to life. An added key component is the loud hum of a plane’s motor, which tends to resemble the sound of a drone overhead. Another small video is utilized in “Excavatators” (2010), which is displayed adjacent to “Shadow Sites II,” this time in the form of a miniature screen that is submerged into a platform that can only be viewed by standing over its narrow structure. Ants run to and from a hole in the ground; their repetitive, orderly task possesses a performative quality that seems to have no end as the video loops.

Routine patterns of omission appear to be of particular interest to the artist—the separation and compartmentalization of narratives, of people, from the viewfinder of a dominant culture as they are expelled out to the peripheries where their societies and interconnectedness to the rest of the world can be neatly tucked away or exorcised. A regional focus aside, much of her artistic output can be understood as part of a broader (international) current that closely scrutinizes the ways in which subject/object relationships are manipulated to subjugate the body, revealing the mechanisms of a mutating visual culture of power. Thus, it is fitting that a core theme of “The Aesthetics of Disappearance: A Land Without People” is how the catastrophic can be represented, or rather how traces of the catastrophic become visible in images that intend to make such events invisible; knowledge of the disappeared reminds us of the utmost act of omission—power run amuck as it basks in abjection, resulting in atrocity.

As if by design, the exhibition is featured in galleries that are situated underground, beneath the National Mall (a commemorative space that is organized around a brazen metaphor of longstanding imperial might—the phallic white-marble centerpiece known as the Washington Monument). Given the Smithsonian’s proximity to US command centers, Shadow Sites is especially subversive. Al-Ani disrupts this romanticized culture by alluding to the catastrophes it has set in motion.

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