May 19, 2020
By Géranne Darbouze
Taking into account their geographic locations and their religious and political histories, artists from the Arab world occupy a unique position. As a result, many have dedicated their lives to highlighting injustice — among them Iraqi artist Dia al-Azzawi. Known for his abstract paintings, sculptures, and tapestries, Azzawi is not only an artist but also a social and political activist. Among hallmarks of his work—which is on view in the Grey Art Gallery’s exhibition Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s—are his incorporation of traditional Arabic calligraphy, his depiction of scenes from Iraq’s history, and his use of Babylonian symbols and hurufiyya—which combines Arabic letterforms with modern aesthetics to produce a Pan-Arab visual language with international appeal.
Left: Dia al-Azzawi, Sumeriayat, 1968. Oil on canvas, 33 1/16 x 25 3/16 in. Collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE; Right: Dia al-Azzawi, Gilgamesh 1–Enkido meets the Great Courtisane, 1987. Mixed media on paper laid down on canvas, 63 x 47 in. Institut du monde arabe, Paris, Gift of Claude and France Lemand (not in Taking Shape)
Born in Baghdad in 1939, Azzawi grew up after World War II. Coming of age during the liberation of Middle Eastern states, he experienced the fallout from social revolutions and anti-Western regimes. After studying archaeology at the College of Arts in Baghdad, he continued his education at Baghdad’s Institute of Fine Arts. His work as an archaeologist and curator has strongly influenced his artistic practice. Drawing inspiration from the ancient tales of Gilgamesh and Imam Hussein, he created works such as Sumeriayat, 1968, and Gilgamesh 1–Enkido meets the Great Courtisane, 1987, and even wrote and illustrated a magazine article on Gilgamesh.
Many of Azzawi’s paintings on these stories date from early in his career, but his fascination with them never ceased, and he continued to paint similar subjects well into the 2010s. These works offer unique insights into the development of a distinct quality found in much of Azzawi’s work, which I will call an artificially fabricated spotlight. Produced by superimposing a light or brightly toned outline of an image against a dark background that is speckled with the same light tone, this visual strategy creates the illusion of depth while simultaneously appearing to pop images forward, off the canvas and into the viewer’s space. Azzawi underscores this effect with very soft, almost smoky or hazy shadows. In other words, instead of sinking his figures with patches of dense gray, he breathes life into them. With this ingenious technique, he is able to persuade viewers that even completely abstract works can also function as highly convincing representations of human life.
Between 1966 and 1973, Azzawi served in the Iraqi military reserves. During that time, like innumerable soldiers before and after him, he witnessed many traumatic events, which may well have helped motivate him to spotlight the disenfranchised. In 1969, he co-founded the New Vision artists’ group (Al-Ru’yah al-Jadida) with Rafa Nasiri, Mohammad Muhriddin, Ismail Fattah, Hachem al-Samarchi and Saleh al-Jumaie. New Vision sought to unite artists around issues of ideology and culture rather than style and technique. He took up the Palestinian cause and strove to increase awareness around social issues affecting the Pan-Arab community. In 1971, he joined the One Dimension group, and as secretary of the Iraqi Plastic Artists’ Society, he established the pioneering Al-Wasiti Festival in 1972. In 1976, he moved to London, where he curated numerous exhibitions as artistic adviser to the Iraqi Cultural Centre.
Today, at the age of 81, Azzawi splits his time between London and Doha. Still a practicing artist, he remains dedicated to giving a voice to the voiceless. His work is found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad, the Tate Modern in London, the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah, and the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, among others, as well as in many private collections.
 “Gilgamesh, with illustrations by Dia Azzawi,” Amiloun 45 (November 1965), accessed in Modern Art Iraq Archive, Item #174, https://artiraq.org/maia/items/show/174 (accessed May 15, 2020).
Géranne Darbouze is an undergraduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery who is majoring in Film and Television Production and minoring in Art History and Religious Studies. She expects to receive her BFA in May 2021.