“The art we want is the art that arises from and culminates in humanity. It is the art that takes the human being as its source and goal. If art has meaning, in my opinion this would be its meaning.”
In an ancient land and from within the depths of its desert landscape, a creativity that has produced a remarkable diversity of natural forms as well as man-made works of profound visual wonder, has been unfolding for thousands of years. The rich forms of Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian art are some of the unfathomable creations that have been bred from Mesopotamia, also known as the “cradle of civilisation.” The power and complexity of these ancient artefacts serve as Iraqi painter, sculptor, etcher and draughtsman Dia Azzawi’s primal influences. In the artist’s modernist abstract canvases references to these ancient civilisations can be found merged with splashes of expressionist brushstrokes and blocks of vibrant colouring revealing mesmerising juxtapositions of figures and forms. “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,” says Azzawi.
A Wolf's Cry (Diaries of a Poet). 1968. Oil on canvas. n84 x 108 cm. Private Collection, London
A pioneer of modern Iraqi art, the genius of Azzawi’s prolific oeuvre is its ability to constantly merge the past with the present in a momentous
whirl of colour and form. In Azzawi’s work these ancient civilisations come alive again and speak to the viewer through a new visual language—one that aptly marries the artist’s relationship with the politics of Iraq, its ongoing destruction and the subtler, more refined domestic intricacies of everyday life.
Majnun Layla no. 2 (Temptation). 1955. Acrylic on canvas. 161 x 200.7 cm. Courtesy of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha
The momentous exhibition, entitled I Am the Cry, Who Will Give Voice to Me? after a poem by Fadhil al-Azzawi (no relation with the artist), the many artistic strands of Azzawi’s startling art come out to play in what has been deemed the largest ever solo show by an Arab artist. Displayed jointly at the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and the Qatar Museums Gallery Al Riwaq, more than 500 of the 77-year-old’s works make for an impressive showing of art from over the last 50 years of the artist’s career. The role of organising this enormous amount of material and historic references into a compelling thematic was endowed to exhibition curator Catherine David, deputy director of the Museum of Modern Art at the Centre Pompidou. David has thus divided the exhibition into two separate thematics: the relationship between text and image throughout Azzawi’s work at the Mathaf, and the artist’s engagement with politics in Iraq and the greater Arab world at Al Riwaq. The two sites offer different experiences. Displayed within the Mathaf are works from the 1960s and 1970s and from just after Azzawi left Iraq. Works such as Folkloric History (1966), Mansour and His Beloved (1967), depicting a charming scene of a man dressed in white seated on a pedestal surrounded by four women with their large owl-like eyes looking around in wonder, Ancient Symbols (1964), showcasing a composition based on a pictorial concept inspired by a type of rug made in Samawah, Iraq, draw in a range of mythological and folkloric influences. The Mathaf showing also comprises a section showcasing the artist’s relationship to text, one which has been emerging in his practice since his introduction to printmaking, first at a summer academy in Salzburg, Austria in 1975, and then in London where he moved the following year. A range of books, posters, and texts are set out displaying the intricacy of Azzawi’s oeuvre in these more delicate mediums. Also here is the artist’s work regarding the desert rose, a new body of forms Azzawi began working on during his sojourn in Doha.
At the Mathaf they can be found on furniture, on small wooden sculptures and also in bronze. A more intimate showing of works revealing the inherent archaeological influences in Azzawi’s oeuvre—the artist had been working since the mid-1960s at the Iraq Museum where he was responsible for the exhibition of objects. “I went for two years around Iraq entirely to collect some artefacts and this gave me lots of rich and simple ideas I could use,” says Azzawi.
Emigration. 1976. Oil on canvas. 99 x 91 cm. Private Collection, London
The Mathaf show serves as a quieter and more contemplative overture to Azzawi’s blast of politically charged works at Al Riwaq. In 1976 during the dictatorial shadow of Saddam Hussein’s oppressive rule, Azzawi left his homeland. He had one last exhibition in Iraq after doing one year of military duty. “It was during this time that I was pushed most to leave,” says the artist. “I was based in Northern Iraq listening to broadcasts by the Kurdish. On the other side, the Kurdish side, was one of my friends. So I am sitting here and he is sitting there and both of us are fighting each other for no reason. I decided I had had enough.” Azzawi left to London and soon after arriving, served as an advisor to the Iraqi Cultural Centre. There at the Cultural Centre he focused on promoting Arab, rather than solely Iraqi art. “My generation was obsessed with identity,” says Azzawi. “Our idea was to be part of a struggle that was taking place in Palestine and in the whole region.
Dia Azzawi in London. Photography by Sueraya Shaheen
At the same time we needed to work towards an Arab art, rather than just an Iraqi Art.” At Al Riwaq Azzawi’s passionate idealism greets the viewer with a zealous onslaught of vibrant colour in large scale. The first work to be confronted is Wolf’s Cry, Memoirs of a Poet (1968), offering an explosion of delirious magenta, blues, yellows and touches of green demonstrating the artist’s ability to merge semi-abstract forms in a poetic whirl of expressionist figuration. The subsequent rooms are filled with larger-scale works and sculptures that are monumental in size and also vision. It’s almost as if Azzawi protests through the colours and forms that so densely inhabit his canvases—they seem to profess a revolution of sorts through art—something which the group of Iraqi artists Azzawi belong to aimed to do: rethink art practice and its relation to politics. In the context of the persecution following the Ba’ath Party coup in 1963, these artists looked at the term “revolution” as a way to speak the truth through art and as such it redefined their artistic practice. Still, as Azzawi will have it, the artist is not the politician. “We as artists are outsiders,” says Azzawi. “We cannot interfere. We are the group of artists that was able to document a bit of our history Maybe we can hint that there is something wrong, but what can we do? The one who has the power to do something is the politician.”
The artist’s monumental Sabra and Shatila Massacre (1983-3) on loan from the Tate is displayed on one of Al Riwaq enormous white walls so that the power of the piece completely envelops the room. A work spurred by the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, it also signifies Azzawi’s continual championing of the Palestinian cause. “Now I feel even closer to Palestine because I feel the Iraqis are the new Palestinians. When you don’t have a country you behave differently,” he says. Other large-scale works include Mission of Destruction (2004-7) portraying a ghastly scene of war and bloodshed mirroring the current state of destruction that continues to ravage the artist’s homeland. “I ask myself why when I am now just two hours from Baghdad can I not go there?” says the artist. “No one will stop me. But my insides won’t let me. I cannot live under such sectarian mentalities.” Is there hope? The bright yearning colours that seemingly signify life and rebirth in Azzawi’s art state visually that there is. But Azzawi hesitates. “There is a bit a hope but not a big hope,” he sighs. “I am very sure I will not see something fantastic when I am alive. I hope someone will send me a text message in the next life to say ‘we are fine.’”
(Detail) Sabra and Shatila Massacre. 1982-3. Ink and wax crayon on paper mounted on canvas. 300 x 750 cm. Courtesy of the Tate Modern
Azzawi’s showing at Al Riwaq leaves the viewer with such a slam of arresting visual expression and meaning that one is easily rendered speechless. There’s much life and movement in these works of extreme calamity. “I was so happy yesterday,” says Azzawi the day after the opening. “There were Iraqis that came from everywhere and from all different ethnic backgrounds and this is what gives me hope. We don’t need to fight!” And just as Azzawi’s endearing creatures—birds and semi-abstract forms that take on the shape of living beings—seem to profess through their imaginary existence yet another way of life, in this exhibition the viewer too is transported to the realm where art unites all. As the artist says, “If people understood that these ancient civilisations belonged to all we wouldn’t have anymore wars.”
I am the cry, who will give voice to me? Dia Al-Azzawi: a Retrospective (from 1963 until tomorrow) runs at the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and QM Gallery Al Riwaq, Doha, Qatar until 16 April 2017. qm.org.qa