A pillar of Arab Modern art and one of the continued influences in the development of art in the Arab world, Dia Al-Azzawi is one the most renowned and admired Iraqi contemporary artists. Al-Azzawi is unmatched in his ability to weave Iraqi folklore and ancient traditions into modern works and express the reality of his national tradition. Each work in his varied and accomplished oeuvre is an intricate synthesis of traditional motifs and modern cross-cultural techniques, which has captivated the attention of art collectors, enthusiasts and institutions alike.
Prior to completing his art education in 1964 at the Institute of Fine Arts, Baghdad, Al-Azzawi had studied archaeology at Baghdad University and sought ancient artefacts from the extensive collection of monumental works of Mesopotamian and Islamic literature and art at the National Museum of Iraq that have influenced his art and stylistic practice since his early beginnings. Al-Azzawi began to combine techniques of contemporary painting with motifs drawn from the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian heritage of Iraq and with geometric patterning and arabesques from the contemporary tribal culture of the desert. He was also the director of the Iraqi Antiquities Department in Baghdad from 1968 to 1976.
This eventually lead him to establish the New Vision Group (al-Ru'yya al-Jadidah) in 1969 and to play a foundational role in the One Dimension Group, spearheaded by Shaker Hassan Al Said, from 1971 debating themes such as identity and modernity that serve as the backbone of his work today.
The New Vision group was a product of a need to articulate the effects of the tumultuous Arab world following the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Ba’athist take-over of Iraq. Until today, the Arab region continues to be strife with conflict, tensions and internal discords that serve as sources of inspiration to numerous artists, particularly Al-Azzawi who continues to implement an underlying and sometime blatant element of socio-political commentary to his works, affording them a sense of timelessness.
Christie’s is delighted to be offering the captivating work entitled Ijlal li Iraq (Homage to Iraq) from 1981. It is of particular relevance that 1981 marked the beginning of the tragic Iran-Iraq War that was to ravage the country and set the impending scene for the following Gulf Wars, engulfing Iraq in decades of turmoil. As a homage to his beloved nation, Al-Azzawi, in graceful lines of Arabic calligraphy, spells the word Iraq as a considerable focus of this beautiful composition.
Having moved to London in 1976, Al-Azzawi developed a fascination with Islamic manuscripts and poetry amongst other literature references that he discovered at the British Library. As a result in the 1980s he markedly moved away from his previous references to archaeological, namely Mesopotamian, heritage and his sombre palette to begin using vibrant colours and jagged planes. The present work thus speaks for his longing to experience his beloved country and its amalgamation of charm and history in a poetic manner.
For Al-Azzawi, poetry and painting were intertwined; prolific in writing and calligraphy he thus began to inserted Arabic letters into his compositions as he grew a new fondness for the elegance of the curves and angles of the Arabic letters, in their harmony and balance. As such, the painting speaks to the viewer as if in poem; each of the letters that spell out Iraq seem to drown in the vivid colours and the regular and irregular forms and planes creating a striking visual and graphical rhythm akin to the rhythm present in the works of famous Arab poets.
There is a heavy influence of Fauvism which becomes apparent as closer inspection allows the colours to emerge through vibrant tones of blue, red, green and yellow. Yet, black is also predominant in the work, which not only references calligraphy by its default association with ink, but most significantly, Al-Azzawi views black as one of the basic colours prevalent in Iraqi culture as did his teacher, the celebrated Jewad Selim. The juxtaposition of the vibrant yellows and orange against the black results in an intense, yet pleasant contrast. In this abstract composition, a silhouette can be identified in the background of the canvas whilst a pile of stacked books and potentially a musical instrument reference the artist’s fear and mourning of a loss of Iraq’s cultural heritage at a time of repression.
Intellectually rich with his ample knowledge of archaeology, history and literature, the aim of the present work is as much patriotic as it is humanistic through the artist’s longing for his homeland.
Iraqi history and culture have been at the core of Al-Azzawi's oeuvre, which spans over fifty 50 years since the early 1960s. His works embody a sense of spirituality, historicity as well as an amalgamation of traditional iconography and modern technique, which reflect Al-Azzawi's intention to create a unique interpretation of modern and contemporary art. Today, the artist's works are held in prestigious private and public collections around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad; Mathaf, Doha; Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah; Arab Monetary Fund, Abu Dhabi; Development Fund, Kuwait; Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris; Bibliothèque Nationale de France; Library of Congress and the World Bank, Washington, DC; the British Museum, London; the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Tate Modern, London; the latter houses a monumental and seminal painting by the acclaimed Iraqi artist.
The major exhibit Dia Al-Azzawi: A Retrospective is ongoing at the Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha and is an evidence of the continuous global reverence and appreciation of the artist.