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 was the first and main pan-Arab artist who, during the 1970s, developed relations between artists from the Mashreq and those from the Maghreb; he has forged ties more particularly with the great innovative Moroccan artists of his generation and has exhibited many times in the galleries of the kingdom. From Baghdad, Beirut, Rabat and London, he was the driving force behind the festivals and biennials of the reorientation of the North-South axis towards an Arab and international East-West axis." (Claude Lemand)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Donation Claude & France Lemand 2018, Museum, 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.