Dia Al-Azzawi

Dia Al-Azzawi (born 1939, Baghdad), started his artistic career in 1964, after grad­u­ating from the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad and com­pleting a degree in Archaeology from Baghdad University in 1962. His studies of ancient civ­i­liza­tions and Iraqi her­itage had a pro­found impact on his art, and a key objec­tive in the early for­ma­tion of his artistic style was to link the visual cul­ture of the past to the pre­sent. He is inter­na­tion­ally recog­nised as one of the pioneers of modern Arab art. Defined by its pow­erful visual impact and bril­liant colour, Al-Azzawi’s art covers a range of sub­jects exe­cuted in a variety of media, including painting, sculp­ture, drawing, prints and art books. He lives and works in London since 1976, but con­tinues to derive inspi­ra­tion from his home­land, Iraq. With exhi­bi­tions of his work held world­wide, his art fea­tures in numerous pri­vate and public col­lec­tions.

Dia Azzawi. "My work is part of the Renaissance of Arab Art trend, yet it is uni­versal in its dimen­sion and inter­locked within con­tem­po­rary his­tory and cul­ture."

Pascal Amel. Dia Al-Azzawi, painting the rebel­lion of shapes. (2013)

A fore­runner of Arab moder­nity which he con­tributed to define to a great extent, an eru­dite painter, sculptor, draughtsman and etcher, Dia Al-Azzawi has always firmly asserted the cul­tural her­itage of Arab civ­i­liza­tions and the enrol­ment of its use in con­tem­po­rary art.

Born in Baghdad in 1939, he devel­oped a pas­sion, being an archae­ol­o­gist, for Islamic art and for the rich cul­tural her­itage of Mesopotamia. Although based in London for the past thirty-five years, he patiently cre­ated a unique oeuvre, halfway between fig­u­ra­tive and abstract, yet at the same time ref­er­en­tial and dec­o­ra­tive, expres­sive and open, which derives just as much from the optical than from the haptic - the eye and the sense of touch, a uni­fied way of thinking, from sen­sa­tion to vision. He achieved this through his per­ma­nent con­tact with the artists and poets from the main cap­ital cities of the Arab world, his clear and humanist com­mit­ment, his the­o­ret­ical and aes­thetic stand and his acute aware­ness of History’s tragedies which plunge this region of the world into mourning too often (Palestine, the wars in Iraq, etc.).

In full knowl­edge of the cur­rent out­burst of con­tem­po­rary Arab artists, along with an expanding gaze over the planet being the most impor­tant reality of the first decade of the 21st cen­tury, there is no doubt that the place of Dia Al-Azzawi’s oeuvre will become effec­tive in the museums of Modern Art across the globe. What comes out of the pre­sent always com­pels us to look back to the past.

In this exhi­bi­tion, the painter pre­sents draw­ings from his series ded­i­cated to the Epic Tale of Gilgamesh, of 1987. This extraor­di­nary legendary story from Mesopotamia is one of the oldest lit­erary works of Humanity. The first com­plete known ver­sion was written in Akkadian in the Babylonia of the 17th cen­tury BC. The story is inspired by sev­eral oral myth­ical tra­di­tions, namely Sumerian, put together around the end of third mil­len­nium. Engraved with a reed stylus on clay tablets which were often divided into cells, the cuneiform script, humanity’s first ever script along with Egyptian hiero­glyphs, jux­ta­poses `fig­u­ra­tive’ pic­tograms sym­bol­izing objects with sim­pli­fied ‘abstract’ signs, made up of lines in the shape of ‘corners’ or ‘nails’, tran­scribing a sound (more pre­cisely, a syl­lable). Incisions, signs, pic­tograms, sym­bols : these are the core ele­ments of the formal vocab­u­lary in Dia Al-Azzawi’s graphic oeuvre that he nat­u­rally lib­er­ates from their lit­eral meaning to give them a visual poetic equiv­a­lent that cap­tures the sen­si­tive res­o­nance - within him­self : body and soul - of the Sumerian epic’s extracts that he has chosen to reveal to us. The horse, the bull, the eye, the sexed bodies, the sen­sory and emo­tional jour­neys of an out­lined figure to another that mate­ri­al­izes the orna­mental intri­cacy of the marks and dia­grams, the lines and colours, the dynamic emer­gence of the depth towards the sur­face char­ac­ter­ized by the tran­si­tion of the paper’s bi-dimen­sion­ality to a vir­tual tri-dimen­sion­ality, the legacy of the past like a free per­sisting memory and eternal expan­sion, all come together to the benefice of a new expres­sive­ness of the pre­sent.

Another series of draw­ings, exe­cuted in 1978, is devoted to the Mu’allaqat, or pre-Islamic odes. Dating from the 6th and 7th cen­turies, these odes were sup­pos­edly ‘sus­pended’ at the Ka’ba in Mecca, during argu­ments between rivalling impor­tant poets from var­ious tribes of the Arab Peninsula. The ten famous pieces - qasida - pre­served by the Arab tra­di­tion, praise the pro­tector, glo­rify courage, denounce the enemy, wist­fully men­tion the beauty of the loved one, cel­e­brate euphoria, the stretch of the desert, the inac­ces­sible here­after, … A man of words him­self, Dia Al-Azzawi is infat­u­ated with poetry and the abso­lute, inspired by the black and more rarely red cal­lig­raphy of the Arab verses, that he dis­plays on a white page, used in a sim­ilar way to a music score or a banner. At the same time, he cre­ates ver­tical blocks of abstract sym­bols and lively sug­ges­tive fig­ures that are also black. Although they don’t illus­trate it, these cor­re­spond to the ode’s sound and visual den­sity. What counts here are the har­monic, or some­times on the con­trary dis­cor­dant, rela­tions that carry all the weight and the empti­ness which are nec­es­sary for the spa­tial com­po­si­tion gen­er­ated by the con­fronta­tion or inter­locking of the text and the image. The artist wrote in one of his crit­ical anal­ysis, that ‘what is pre­sent here is nei­ther the words nor the ancient times that con­tain these poems, but rather the accu­mu­la­tion of let­ters and the series of sym­bols through a single path. Poetry is not only a symbol or a lan­guage. It is the capacity to imagine and to remember depending on the power of this ability and on the extent of meaning that it can adapt itself.’

The accre­tion, or even the com­paction, of Arab writing and of fig­u­ra­tive and abstract ele­ments brings back the sen­sa­tions and emo­tions declared through the poem, as if the hand was not only the exten­sion of the eye but also the sen­si­tive seis­mo­graph of the entire body, being in the grip of its own drive, its own memory. The archi­tec­tonic - the line of thought embracing the acci­dents of the mental ground - is even steeper in that it sug­gests the unlim­ited cre­ated by the imag­i­nary world of shapes and the dream world caused by the reading or lis­tening of the text : through its chal­lenging prac­tice, the black and white drawing draws from the orig­inal source of the inscrip­tion and mark, saying or rather dic­tating the essence of the being.

In another later series, which Al-Azzawi under­took in 1996 and where he pays tribute to the famous poet Al-Mutanabbi, ver­ti­cality gives way to hor­i­zon­tality. The block breathes, dilates, as the lines obtained with India ink on the white piece of paper create an organic body. At the same time, the latter appears eter­nally alive with its gaps and grad­u­a­tions, its rup­tures and resump­tions, its con­nec­tions and pas­sages over­looked by the two caesuras of the Arab verse cal­ligraphed in black or red, just as in the Arab-Islamic manuscripts. The sen­tences drawn from the exhil­a­rating and exhil­a­rated auto­bi­o­graph­ical story of Al-Mutanabbi, written in the 10th cen­tury between Baghdad, Aleppo and Cairo, are catch­phrases that are sur­pris­ingly con­tem­po­rary in their way of advo­cating the rebel­lious spirit and self-asser­tion, for example : ‘I pre­ferred exile because no one is supe­rior to me and because my only judge is my Creator’, ‘Time is man’s only assassin’, ‘I don’t seek to settle on a specific land nor to leave it for good ; always wor­ried, I sit on the winds that I ori­en­tate towards the South or the West’. There is no doubt that the gest of this renowned poet, roaming between a harsh lyri­cism and a lan­guage that is some­times glo­ri­fying or cas­ti­gating, has con­tin­u­ously echoed in Dia Al-Azzawi’s imag­i­na­tion, a man of con­vic­tions and strin­gen­cies.

The Gulf War of 1990 and 1991 struck the artist as a full shot. He hadn’t seen Iraq since his exile to London yet he saw, like many others, through the images of the media, the fire and blood blindly pouring over the living and the dead, friends that were still very dear to his heart, Mesopotamia’s cul­tural her­itage, civil vic­tims and over one of the his­tor­ical lands of Arab civ­i­liza­tion, that of its pioneering city, Baghdad. First of all, Dia Al-Azzawi pro­duced dif­ferent sketches imbued with a suf­fo­cating atmo­sphere in drawing books - these con­sti­tute the gen­esis of his series titled Bilad Al-Sawad. Translated as ‘the land of burnt land’, it refers to the land cursed by oil, when the latter loses con­trol over the greed­iest appetites. In 1993, the painter with a wounded con­science exe­cutes char­coal draw­ings depicting a series of close-up broadly out­lined faces, where the white of com­pas­sion fights back against the tene­brous black of suf­fering. Emotions are omnipresent : the faces cry, the opened mouths scream, the two hands cover the eyes that are dis­pro­por­tion­ately dark… He is per­haps thinking about that other mass mas­sacre fallen from the sky known as Guernica. He maybe recalls that the only weapon, which is at the same time ridicu­lous in front of the bar­baric army yet simul­ta­ne­ously pre­cious for the soul, is Picasso’s mas­ter­piece, as it is the human asser­tion within inhu­manity. During that last decade, Al-Azzawi painted sev­eral black and white can­vases, in which a man’s figure, the ‘unsolv­able human’, emerges from a both phys­ical and mental land­scape of a blazing fire, where death’s dark forces are inter­twined with life’s dynamics. Then, very recently, two years ago, the artist painted a mag­nif­i­cent polyp­tych of 330 by 760 cm. These dimen­sions recall the bas-relief fres­coes in the Sargon Kings’ Palace, located in Khorsabad where the ancient monarchs of Assyria used to live. These fres­coes are not only impres­sive visu­ally but even more so through their per­cep­tion of the body. Despite the funeral theme that Dia Al-Azzawi chose to men­tion, the body parts - the out­lines of the heads, legs, feet, hands - the struc­tured sil­hou­ettes and the broadly out­lined faces coming from the nether world, built with equally geo­met­rical facets, overlap and piled on top of each other in a freely expres­sive and almost ethe­real way. Everything is a hymn to freedom and a song of life. Everything is rebel­lion and dona­tion.

Text by Pascal Amel, writer and editor in chief of (art absol­u­ment).
Translated from French by Valérie Hess.

Alain Jouffroy. Dia Azzawi. A pos­i­tive moder­nity. (2001)

It is a strange story. I only speak a few words of Arabic and have never learned the lan­guage, although I have trav­elled widely in Arab coun­tries and have vis­ited Yemen, Lebanon, Egypt and Morocco, for example, sev­eral times. But – and I cannot empha­sise this too strongly – I often feel more com­fort­able and more in har­mony with Arab painters or writers than I do in the studio or work­room of a European painter or writer, even in Paris. Why? Is it because of a spe­cial sym­pathy for Arabs in gen­eral, their cul­ture and his­tory pre- and post-Islam and for the dis­crim­i­na­tion they suffer so often and so per­va­sively?

I do not think it is, or if so only up to a point. There are Arab painters, sculp­tors, writers and poets with whom I have no common ground, of course through my fault as well as theirs. But this is not the case with the Iraqi painter Dia Azzawi whom I met recently. When I stepped into his big studio in outer London, the place of exile where he has made his own imag­i­nary Baghdad, and saw his paint­ings, gouaches, draw­ings and sculp­tures, some­thing imme­di­ately hap­pened: some­thing very like the birth of true under­standing, part of the plea­sure of a friend­ship being born.

But although I number other Iraqi exiles among my friends - for example the poet Chawki Abdelamir - I have never been to Iraq and have no plans to go there. So Iraq as a country, or even as an ances­tral tra­di­tion, could not have pro­vided the imme­diate link between us as we talked and lis­tened to each other in mutual under­standing. What took place was agree­ment between two very dif­ferent but equally open-minded indi­vid­uals.

But as I write this intro­duc­tion to his ret­ro­spec­tive exhi­bi­tion at the Institut du Monde Arabe de Paris in 2001, I suffer nev­er­the­less from a major dis­ad­van­tage: I have never seen the palm groves, the cities or the unique mon­u­ments of the country between the Tigris and the Euphrates, the place where writing, the real source of the whole of western civil­i­sa­tion, was born. So I write without knowl­edge of Dia Azzawi’s phys­ical ter­ri­to­rial back­ground. But para­dox­i­cally, rather than inducing paral­ysis, this absence of con­crete knowl­edge has forced me to invent another way of seeing and assessing things, starting of course with his painting.

Dia Azzawi was born in Baghdad in 1939. He attended the Faculty of Arts, studied archae­ology, and from 1962 took a course at the School of Fine Art in modern western painting tech­niques. From the start, a fas­ci­na­tion with the arts of Mesopotamian civil­i­sa­tion, com­bined with his knowl­edge of moder­nity, guided and dis­ori­ented the utterly inde­pen­dent intel­lec­tual and artistic line he has fol­lowed until the pre­sent day.

Azzawi worked for seven years at the Iraqi Museum of Archaeological Excavation, where he was in charge of organ­ising new museums. In line with his training as a colourist by his teacher Fayek Hassan and his long-standing fas­ci­na­tion with the Iraqi painter and sculptor Jawad Salim, whom Iraqis regard as the pioneer of the artistic renais­sance of the 1930s, he fol­lowed a double track - which he saw as a single one. And Jawad Salim, the mod­ernist painter and sculptor, encour­aged him from a very early stage to com­bine the influ­ence of western tech­niques with his Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian her­itage and with Arabic cal­lig­raphy. This was excel­lent advice from a true master to an excel­lent dis­ciple.

Azzawi was polit­i­cally com­mitted, but also attended a Koranic school. He says that he has used the Koran to ‘improve his under­standing of society’ in many ways. This has not made him a reli­gious fanatic, how­ever. Under the influ­ence of a group of artists who defined them­selves as ‘Impressionists’ (Jama’at al Intibâ’’íyyîn), who regarded the sub­ject of a painting – in this case, land­scape – as more impor­tant than the aes­thetic adopted, he was inspired first by ancient statues and cylin­drical seals. But Azzawi, who now con­cen­trated on Arabic lit­erary and his­tor­ical sub­jects, soon became pas­sion­ately inter­ested in eso­teric sym­bols, folk­lore, manuscripts and, above all, cal­lig­raphy. Thus his first themes included the Thousand and One Nights, the legend of Gilgamesh and the martyr Hussayn.

His first one-man exhi­bi­tion was in Baghdad in 1965, and was fol­lowed by exhi­bi­tions in Beirut, Tripoli, Kuwait, Cairo, Bahrein and India. He became asso­ci­ated with the Iraqi group ‘Towards a new vision’ (Nahwa al-ru’ya al-jadîda) whose man­i­festo he signed in 1969 with Hashim al-Samarji and Muhreddine. Now polit­i­cally rad­i­calised, Azzawi began to pour emo­tion into depic­tions of the Palestinian and Kurdish ques­tions, using posters as his medium so as to be able to com­mu­ni­cate his mes­sage to the max­imum number of people, as well as using painting, drawing, silkscreen printing and engraving.

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From what I learned about his pic­tures in London, where he came to live during the 1970s, I under­stood that his oeuvre, which was already immense, drew on his early artistic and polit­ical expe­ri­ences and that any attempt to sep­a­rate one from the other would result in serious misun­der­standing of his work. I was delighted to per­ceive a new way of seeing in the rela­tion­ship – still little under­stood in Europe – between Arabic tra­di­tion and moder­nity: one which should help eastern as well as western vis­i­tors to the exhi­bi­tion to find their way towards a new, truly global (and not ‘glob­alist’) con­cep­tion of rela­tions between the very dif­ferent indi­vid­uals in the world who think (or like to think) of them­selves as increas­ingly iso­lated but who, what­ever their per­cep­tions and what­ever their mis­for­tunes, never can be so. Interconnected as they all are – and were long before the Internet – if they really wanted to, they could invent a new def­i­ni­tion of what we call humanity.

As I have said before, and explained using the exam­ples of Japan and Korea, I long ago ceased to believe in the tra­di­tional, old-fash­ioned (if not com­pletely obso­lete) oppo­si­tion between ‘East’ and ‘West’, as envis­aged, expe­ri­enced and handed down for cen­turies. True artists - poets and painters from both sides of the rising sun - over­came this oppo­si­tion during the 1930s and com­pletely mas­tered it, though in an unex­pected way, after the Second World War. The oppo­si­tion is sure to change its nature at the end of the third world war which is now taking place in Europe as else­where without our being aware of it and which pits reli­gions, nation­al­i­ties and ‘tribes’ against one another in a suc­ces­sion of increas­ingly tragic and crim­inal con­flicts.

Dia Azzawi has long been aware of this new world tragedy. I cannot remember who called him the ‘Picasso of the Arab world’ but he has, in his own way, done the same thing as Picasso, who intro­duced African art and Iberian art into modern western art to give it more weight and more uni­versal force. Azzawi has done what Matisse did in Morocco, but the other way round. With no con­ces­sion what­so­ever to com­mer­cial taste or fashion and no col­lu­sion with the spec­tac­ular folk­lore of the East, Dia Azzawi achieved an extremely orig­inal and per­sua­sive sym­biosis of Sumerian archi­tec­tonics – tem­ples and zig­gu­rats – with the dynamic of moder­nity as it has appeared and diver­si­fied in the devel­oped world. To my knowl­edge he is the only Arab painter to have accom­plished this feat with such ease and mas­tery - and of his own free will, for no one, no gallery or offi­cial insti­tu­tion ever asked him to do it – as to astound the viewer.

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Looking at the paint­ings, what­ever their size, and at the draw­ings, engrav­ings, silkscreen prints and sculp­tures - he uses all these forms - the viewer is struck by the energy cre­ated by all the intu­itions and deci­phered expe­ri­ences, both internal and external, that make up this dis­play. This energy is clearly pre­sent in the rein­ven­tion of archaic forms almost 5,000 years old, in the use of colours, both clashing and matching, to create the effect of a huge fire, in the music of their war and peace, all their chro­matic orches­tra­tions and, finally, their deep-toned song, their cante hondo, as the Andalusians call it.

The vast scope of this cre­ation some­times seems like a two- and three-dimen­sional sym­phony in painting and sculp­ture. The over­whelming impres­sion is of power, pre­sented head on. Before a large painting like The Years of the Slaughter of Palestinians (1976), for example, you feel you are seeing a ruined fortress or a great wall that has col­lapsed. The effect is cre­ated partly by the mag­nif­i­cent dis­tri­bu­tion of colours, but it is the con­struc­tion of his pic­tures that evokes this archi­tec­tural metaphor, often making them look like doors, or their lin­tels, or like win­dows. This is expressed in the titles them­selves – Window ( 1986), A Window in Tangiers, nos 1 and 2 (1996) and the splendid Book of Door (1994).

But these paint­ings also con­tain a great many standing ‘fig­ures’ which look like mon­u­ments, for example Abdullah Leaving his City no. 2 (1983), What Al-Naffari Said to Abdullah no. 4 (1983), Dream of an Egyptian Princess (1995) and Majnun Layla III (1995). Individualised fig­u­ra­tive mon­u­ments that move and some­times dance, their arms out­sretched, in the middle of chaos, like The Silent Man (1992-3). They are, so to speak, images of Zarathustra, rep­re­sented for the first time, dra­matic and spirited.

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It has been for­gotten that Nietzsche reawak­ened aware­ness of the East in the West. Rimbaud did so too, but without real­ising it. And Rimbaud, who fore­told so many things, surely evokes the forms and colours of Azzawi in ‘Being Beauteous’, with his words ‘des blessures écarlates et noires’ (‘scarlet and black wounds’), which ‘éclatent dans les chairs superbes’ (‘burst in the proud flesh’), ‘couleurs pro­pres de la vie’ (‘the true colours of life’), which ‘fon­cent, dansent, se déga­gent autour de la Vision, sur le chantier’ (‘lunge, dance and sep­a­rate in the building site round the Vision’). For surely all Azzawi’s work is a won­derful chantier – building site – an archae­o­log­ical dig, but also a new con­struc­tion. And of course his main colours are indeed scarlet and black.

These con­cor­dances and cor­re­spon­dences, in the Baudelairean sense of the word, are not just arbi­trary or random. They are facts which have to be under­stood by those dis­cov­ering Azzawi’s work in France at the begin­ning of the third mil­len­nium, for he has only had four or five exhi­bi­tions in Paris, at the Institut du Monde Arabe, the Salon de Mai, the FIAC and the Espace Cardin. Some will make futile attempts to sep­a­rate the ‘Arabic’ from the ‘non-Arabic’ ele­ments in his work, although the two are inex­tri­cably linked. But how­ever hard they look, they will find nothing ‘exotic’, even in Azzawi’s work on Morocco and Marrakesh which con­tains his most subtle arrange­ments of colour and shape and, for me, holds dis­tant echoes of what Paul Klee cre­ated after his daz­zling first encounter with the light and colours of Tunisia.

Dia Azzawi has instinc­tively trans­gressed all the impe­ri­alist and colo­nialist cat­e­gories that still dis­rupt western thinking, dom­i­nating the pol­i­tics of western coun­tries openly (and their cul­ture covertly). He has not become a ‘region­alist’, any more than he is a ‘glob­alist’, since he ignores the con­formist rules of fash­ion­able ‘inter­na­tional’ painting. His orig­i­nality of form and style is invari­ably striking. Nor does he give way to the eco­nomic logic of the appro­pria­tive glob­al­i­sa­tion of art. He cre­ates his own painting in full knowl­edge of the facts, and reacts as a fully autonomous indi­vidual to the invis­ible dic­ta­tor­ship of ‘inter­na­tional art’ which aims to sub­ject every­thing to a facile mimetic anonymity, devoid of meaning.

Azzawi pre­sents his viewers with a new kind of painting founded on a pre-Islamic base but by no means nos­talgic or back­ward-looking, still less nation­alist. For him Lower Mesopotamia (Sumeria), Upper Mesopotamia (Assyria) and Pharaonic Egypt are still pre­sent, offering unique but uni­versal ways of seeing and showing, unique but uni­versal ways of thinking and pro­voking thought, which can com­bine together every­where, every day, and can con­tinue to do so every­where, now, tomorrow and the day after for anyone with the cul­ture to under­stand this enor­mous demys­ti­fi­ca­tion of the begin­nings of western civil­i­sa­tion.

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For Azzawi, time and his­tory are not made up of a sequence of thresh­olds, each fol­lowing the one before, each opening onto a dif­ferent abyss or ‘rad­ical epis­te­mo­log­ical break’; rather they com­prise a con­tinuum in per­petual expan­sion, a revealing inter­lacing of space and time. Thus in the first place his painting affirms eternal sol­i­darity between dif­ferent but con­verging cul­tures and civil­i­sa­tions. It is a clear response to the artist’s aware­ness of this new world sit­u­a­tion of which no one speaks. Adonis has long been one of the few poets in the world to high­light it in both his essays and his poems. This explains the very deep col­lab­o­ra­tive under­standing which has devel­oped between the great poet and the great painter, and which finds its first and most com­plete visual demon­stra­tion in Azzawi’s painting.

How could he do this? First, through his wide cul­ture, which goes far beyond the Arab frame­work while granting it com­plete respect; second, through his spe­cial ability to dom­i­nate space, his painterly con­trol of what Rimbaud called ‘la vue’, ‘les vues’. Mentally and phys­i­cally he man­ages to look down on space-time as it passes, all the time that passes through all coun­tries and all ter­ri­to­ries in our own lives. He does so all the better, with all the more freedom, for having got to know the poets and care­fully illus­trated their works. A notable example is the pub­li­ca­tion, soon after the siege of Tell al-Zaatar, the Palestinian camp in Beirut, of the album Hymn to the Body (1978 and 1979) which com­prises his silkscreen prints and poems by Mahmoud Darwish, Tahar Ben Jelloun and Yusuf Sayegh, ele­ments of whose work he com­bined with his own images. He wrote: ‘These are the draw­ings I did to express the siege. They are not a con­so­la­tion nor are they a doc­u­ment on the dark nights of car­nage. It is a work which tries to create a free and lasting com­mem­o­ra­tion against oppres­sion until it rises up with a radiant flame.’

In this case as in others, his painting could be called a chal­lenge to imper­ma­nence and death, and also to for­get­ful­ness. From pic­ture to pic­ture his work develops in, so to speak, a strong, lively future in the past. If I say that in my view it con­sti­tutes a new kind of urban land­scape, both real and imag­i­nary, it is because it makes me feel that I am both in the tan­gled space of the streets of London, Cairo, Beirut and Manhattan and in that of the ter­races – real or imag­i­nary – of Babylon, just as in the poems on cities in Illuminations Rimbaud inter­cuts and super­im­poses London and its Crystal Palace, Brooklyn, Venice, Baghdad and Babylon, the West with the ‘ancient East’.

6
Here is every­where, just as today is always: nothing will ever change the law of this pos­i­tive moder­nity which in no way implies any obli­ga­tion to accept pas­sively every­thing that hap­pens and does not happen in the ‘modern bar­barity’ of a sav­agely urbanised world. For him, the very idea of a ‘neg­a­tive moder­nity’ such as is now dis­cussed in France can have no meaning. His rev­o­lu­tionary desire for a com­plete renewal of Arabism saves him from this kind of trap - neg­a­tive and pro­foundly reac­tionary in the lit­eral, not the ide­o­log­ical sense of this last term. For Azzawi, the ‘abso­lutely modern’ is still ‘the loca­tion and for­mula’ of life and sur­vival.

If Dia Azzawi, an Iraqi in exile for nearly thirty years, is also a Londoner – some­thing Rimbaud once tried to be, even putting English words into his poems – it is not to forget, still less renounce, Baghdad but to give it nova vita, new life, a future, as Dante did in the Divine Comedy, after being exiled from Florence. But in the twen­tieth and early twenty-first cen­turies, only an Arab painter could achieve such an anam­nesia, such an advance. In any case, no western painter could have done what he has done. Indeed a west­erner would be unable to form even the most fleeting con­cep­tion of it and, if he did, would lack the intel­lec­tual means to realise it. He would remain speech­less, in open-mouthed wonder, at the idea.

Azzawi’s themes can most cer­tainly not be reduced to the evo­ca­tion of cities or dwellings. His pic­tures could be called non-reli­gious man­dalas, depic­tions of things that cannot be rep­re­sented, con­trivances of space, in the very specif­i­cally pic­to­rial sense of this word. They appear to be what used to be called, in the long-out­dated art critic’s term, ‘abstract’. Plays on shape, cer­tainly, plays on colour, which can also be per­ceived, if lin­gered on, as a pure adven­ture in aes­thetics and dec­o­ra­tion whose meaning is not apparent. And such indeed exist in his work, as is proved by his Decorative Motif of 1984. This inter­pre­ta­tion is bound to be made by some of the vis­i­tors to this exhi­bi­tion, for whom Azzawi will in the first instance be no more than an unknown, or vir­tu­ally unknown, Arab painter. When they first look at these pic­tures they will be right in their terms only to see their con­nec­tions with modern western art. But they will be wrong to find what is ‘right’ so quickly.

7
At the first glance vis­i­tors will not be able to make out all the Arabic let­ters which are so fully inte­grated into the paint­ings that they can easily go unno­ticed. For the Arabic cal­lig­raphy in the con­struc­tion of Azzawi’s pic­tures changes their deep sym­bolic meaning and can in no way be regarded as a ‘dec­o­ra­tive motif’.

For Azzawi, writing, archi­tec­ture and Arabic gar­dens form a whole: his works are pic­tures written in Arabic which some­times look like huge illu­mi­nated manuscripts, for example Calligraphical Garden (1988-9), one of his mas­ter­pieces. It is no acci­dent – nor the simple result of an adja­cent dis­ci­pline – that he has cre­ated books and port­fo­lios with poets like Adonis and Abu al-Qassem al-Chabbi. Works such as Irâdat al-hayât for Abu al-Qassem al-Chabbi and Mukhtarât for Adonis are not mere ‘illus­tra­tions’ but sculp­tural and pic­to­rial con­struc­tions, mon­u­ments of love for the Book, for all books – not a reli­gious love in the orthodox sense of the word ‘reli­gion’, but real love, phys­ical, sen­sual, spir­i­tual and glo­ri­ously volup­tuous. Contrary to what might be expected, the female is pre­sent in the work, for example the woman’s enlarged face in Mâjnun Layla 1 (1995).

For Azzawi, painting cannot ever be sep­a­rated from poetry, from free thought, lib­er­ated and lib­er­ating like all real poetry. Without poetry, painting becomes inef­fec­tual and inad­e­quate for the real world, like a sick person, par­a­lytic or deaf. All the books that Azzawi con­ceived and cre­ated for poets must be viewed and inter­preted on the same level as the paint­ings. This point must be empha­sised: the books must be looked at and respected for what they are, and not as inessen­tial sup­ple­ments to the painted oeuvre. Those cre­ated for Mahmoud Darwish, Salah Stétié, Youssef al-Khal, Nabil Yassin and the great Sufi poet Al-Mutanabbi, among many others, ancient and modern, are achi­tec­tures of image and cal­lig­raphy that can be com­pared with, and are even equiv­a­lent to, his cal­li­graphic paint­ings. The same tex­ture, the same energy, the same graphic imag­i­na­tion came into play, in the same desire for eman­ci­pa­tion and lib­erty as regards all sacred writ­ings, a bas­tard Bible and no less bas­tard Koran. And his work is not so much against such writ­ings as without them, the better to fly above them like the dove which appears so often in his pic­tures or like the birds in some of Braque’s.

8
Azzawi first became aware of the cen­tral impor­tance of the Book in Arabic civil­i­sa­tion when he vis­ited the British Library after set­tling in London and got to know and admire the col­lec­tions of Islamic manuscripts. But all his paint­ings so far had already pre­dis­posed him to achieve this per­fect syn­thesis of words, drawing and light which is his out­standing orig­i­nality and which can be seen at its best in the port­fo­lios he cre­ated for Adonis between 1996 and 1999: The Stone Hand Draws the Place (Yad al-hajara tarsum almakân, 1996), Song (Ughniya, 1997), The Body (Al-Jasad, 1998), Qabla an Yantahî al-ghinâ (1998-9), Wardat al-as’ila (1999) and Oughniya ilâ hurûf al-hija’ (1999). The Stone Hand Draws the Place was pre­sented to the Institut du Monde Arabe at the time of the exhi­bi­tion of Adonis’s work. Book-houses, book-win­dows, book-doors, book-frescos, book-panoramas, book-mon­u­ments which, all together, might form, as it were, an imag­i­nary city of the Book, glo­ri­fying its eman­ci­pa­tory func­tion.

Through a body of work which he has gen­er­ously offered to the world, work which is trans­gres­sive and cross-cul­tural, holding a mul­ti­plicity of exis­ten­tial and polit­ical mean­ings, at once tragic and joyful, making life tri­umph over death and over obses­sion with death, Azzawi is helping to create the new Arab civil­i­sa­tion which will emerge one day from the pre­sent internal dis­cords, mis­for­tunes and sui­cidal fol­lies. Through his metic­u­lous and loving work, Azzawi is knot­ting a fine-meshed net for the sal­va­tion of those in danger of drowning in a new flood. He has refused to become the ‘orphan betrothed’ of his own country. What he cre­ates on canvas or paper with a hand hard­ened and strength­ened by exile is never an old or familiar image, never a cliche of the ancient or modern world.
His aim is to increase the well-being of all through cre­ation alone.
(Alain Jouffroy, Dia Azzawi. A pos­i­tive moder­nity. Catalogue IMA, Paris, 2001).

Nadine Descendre. "In the midst of a struggle, deep­ened by his­tory, the majority of young Arab artists try to find a unique form of expres­sion in a world that does not appear in har­mony. Rejecting his­tory is mean­ing­less in a cul­ture that lacks aca­demics. To this strict rejec­tion coming from his­tory, artists have responded actively, by working around this rejec­tion, and with a strong con­vic­tion and deter­mi­na­tion to rework reality and “to do some­thing else”… meaning to treat art as goal within itself and a sub­ject of its own rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Today, the taboo has been broken almost all over the Arab world, the problem of char­ac­ter­i­za­tion has dis­ap­peared, yet the resis­tance remains. It is the resis­tance of one force against another, in the hope of avoiding its reper­cus­sions. As such, resis­tance becomes the heart of cre­ativity. The works of Dia Azzawi are wit­ness to this force. His works are in a con­stant and end­less delib­er­a­tion… inno­vating… between the past and the future and between life and his­tory, and going beyond bor­ders that sep­a­rate nations, and he con­tinues to do so inspired by his own per­sonal expe­ri­ence.

Art is not the recre­ation of reality, but rather the inter­pre­ta­tion of reality through the strength and depth of the artist’s vision. At the same time, the artist world must be com­mu­ni­cable to others. The world in his works por­trays “com­plete­ness uncom­pleted”, as was put by Sartre. Each expe­ri­ence is unique. Art cre­ates com­mu­ni­ca­tion and gives the world meaning. However, this meaning remains impris­oned in what is tan­gible. It is not pos­sible for sep­a­ra­tion from the his­toric society to be a com­plete sep­a­ra­tion, because move­ment is achieved within this society.

The legend of a normal person is what leads to the imag­i­na­tion of his­tory as linear, starting from point zero and reaching to the epitome of civ­i­liza­tion. In realty, mul­ti­cul­tur­alism is the equiv­a­lent of many his­to­ries (the his­tory of tech­nolo­gies, the his­tory of ide­olo­gies, the his­tory of art, etc) espe­cially when dif­ferent cul­tures have pre­vented any his­tor­ical con­tact between them. From this source, Dia Azzawi cre­ated, with great resolve, one of his direc­tions. For artists have a medium: their imag­i­na­tion, through which they can ask ques­tions bor­dering on the obsta­cles and areas that bring together or break apart nations and cul­tures. On the edge of reck­less his­tory, he mea­sures the extent and degree of sen­si­tivity of the con­fronta­tions he entices. He brings together, one by one, the pieces of a puzzle, rep­re­senting our world, gives them life and colours, and puts them in a more modern form, more accept­able to our senses.

And it appears that this pen­dulum sway between the East and the West, men­tioned above, is not enough for Azzawi because once again he intro­duces another ele­ment of con­fu­sion, one that is very dif­ferent from the Islamic effect, and more authentic and pow­erful than the images and pic­tures inherited from the pre-Islamic arts inspired from Mesopotamian civ­i­liza­tions, specif­i­cally the Sumeri and Assuri arts. There is no doubt that the rich­ness of Sumeri imagery pre­sents the Arab artist with a chal­lenge that cannot be resisted. Containing it is resis­tance within itself. In a com­plex play of mir­rors, the strict reality of Assuri art has given way to an unusual and inspi­ra­tional world of legendary bulls, a haunted art, moved aside by Assur Banibal and replaced with a truly real­istic world wit­nessed by these hunting images that Azzawi can calmly ponder at the British Museum.

The matching of Islamic and western art is within itself a bold move. But when Azzawi accom­pa­nies these con­fronta­tions with sources that date back to the 3rd mil­len­nium and whose modern beauty requires no con­fir­ma­tion, and when he rejects the “heroic authen­ticity” that we have always demanded, he does not take us back to infinity but rather to bound­aries. It rocks our known foun­da­tions and causes us to ques­tion where the resis­tance lies and if Arab artists do not provide us with an oppor­tu­nity to bring back the status of our inherited tra­di­tions in an ide­ology that takes hold of her­itages other than ours and frees us from the grip of our tra­di­tions. While beliefs that Western art holds the secrets of van­guard dis­ap­pear, also along with it dis­ap­pears the deadly belief that this art has a mis­sion to lead the world into placing art under con­stant delib­er­a­tion." (Nadine Descendre, Dia Azzawi, in Quatre Peintres Arabes, Paris, IMA, 1988).

Works in Public Collections
Arab Monetary Fund, Abu Dhabi.
Museum of Modern Art, Amman.
Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad.
Gulbenkian Collection, Barcelona.
ONA Foundation, Casablanca.
Museum of Modern Art, Damascus.
Mathaf, Doha.
Development Fund, Kuwait.
British Museum, London.
V & A Museum, London.
Tate Modern, London.
The Saudi Bank, London.
The United Bank of Kuwait, London.
Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.
Colas Foundation, Paris.
Kinda Foundation, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Jeddah International Airport, Saudi Arabia.
Museum of Modem Art, Tunisia.
Library of Congress, Washington DC.
The World Bank, Washington, DC.

Copyright © Galerie Claude Lemand 2012.

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