Internationally recognised as one of the pioneers of Iraqi Modern Arab art, Dia Azzawi's oeuvre comprises of a wide range of subjects, executed in a variety of media that derives inspiration from his native homeland. Starting his artistic career in 1964 having studied in the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad, his studies of archaeology continue to have a profound impact on his art - earlier examples of his paintings sought to link the visual culture of both the past with the present.
Most importantly, in 1969 Azzawi formed the New Vision Group (al-Ru'yya al-Jadidah), which united artists through their ideology and cultural thinking as opposed to the stylistic link that was characteristic of the Baghdad Modern Art Group established by Jewad Selim and Shaker Hassan Al Said many years before. Broadening their inspiration to encompass Arab culture in its entirety, Azzawi's works began to tackle themes of pain, death and conflict. However, upon his immigration to London in the 1970s and his reintroduction to collections of Islamic manuscripts and poetry that were found in museum collections there, his paintings adapted a new brighter palette, particularly in the 1980s and onwards, that continues in the work of the artist today.
The present lot, Homage to Al-Shabbi, painted in 1990, is a provocative example from Azzawi's works that showcases a rich and varied palette, fusing coloured shapes with bold and strong brush strokes. The reference to the renowned Tunisian poet Al Shabbi reflects the artist's deep admiration for Arabic literature and its profound effect on his painting. In the present work, one sees a geometrical breakdown, in a Cubist manner reminiscent of Picasso's works, of what appears to be a figure; a hand leaning against a long despairing face, while
the other rests serenely on a mass of black lines, almost appearing as a mass of hair. The link to Al Shabbi is particularly poignant in this work, as one of the most famous poems that Al Shabbi wrote is To the Tyrants of the World which roughly translated, speaks of despair, pain and bloodshed in anger to those who have killed many innocent people, but in doing so have instigated a sense of wrath and revolution which is slowly brewing. The year 1990, in which the present painting is executed, is consequently particularly noteworthy in this context as it marked the start of the first Gulf War that ravaged Iraq and left many innocents dead. In this sense, Azzawi's use of a despairing figure, transforms the large and rough lines of red paint that dominate the lower left into streams of blood. By titling the work Homage to Al-Shabbi, Azzawi therefore instils a sense of deep hatred for the Tyrant (whoever that may be), but implies that the hurt will rise from the ashes and fight for their justice. Equally, the crescent in the lower right corner could be interpreted as the rise of a new moon/new era while equally a symbol of the deep despair and darkness of the night.
It is testament to Azzawi's deep admiration and passion for literature and for his own country that Homage to Al-Shabbi can so poignantly emanate a sense of tragedy, yet with the use of bright colours impart a sense of hope.