On Thursday 1st May 2003, George W. Bush—accompanied by musical fanfare— walked across an aircraft carrier recently returned from the Gulf, surrounded by hundreds of active military personnel, to give a now-infamous televised speech. Hung above the podium and in clear view of millions of viewers at home and abroad, a banner stated to the world: “Mission Accomplished”. In the speech, Bush reaffirmed his dedication to confronting “outlaw regimes with ties to terrorist groups”, creating a connection between the nation of Iraq and the attacks on 11th September 2001, the event which he claimed as the justication for the battle of Iraq, describing it as a “victory” which would “leave behind a free Iraq”.
The mission was, in fact, not accomplished at all. The vast majority of casualties (military and especially civilian), were yet to come and the reality was the opposite of those shallow promises of peace, stability and prosperity and would, in fact, cause destruction.
Dia al-Azzawi, like so many Iraqis all over the world, watched this scene, unsure of what the reality would be for the country they lived in, or the land they once called home. Azzawi felt overcome with emotion and frustrated by the lies that were being peddled by the president of the most powerful country in the world, at the expense of an entire nation of people who had already suffered immensely for decades, being brought to their knees under the guise of liberation. He saw the mission for what it truly was: “an attempt to destroy Iraq’s national heritage, dismantle Iraqi society and spread sectarianism”.
In 2004, Azzawi began painting Mission of Destruction, which he later regarded as “the most important work of my history of art”. Over three years, he createdan immense and all-consuming composition (measuring 2.4 by 15 metres), considering it a form of protest against what was being inflicted on his country during the occupation, especially the destruction of museums, libraries and other cultural institutions. In doing so, he was compelled to confront and memorialise the destruction of his homeland and massacre of his compatriots, telling CNN many years later: “I feel I have to do something which documents such an awful incident in my history”.
This was not the first time Azzawi used his art to process his feelings and emotions following harrowing and unjust events in the region. Since early in his career, he saw himself creating work which negotiated the loss of humanity in the Arab World. In 1982–83, he created the monumental work on paper Sabra and Shatila Massacre in the months following the brutal massacre of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese at two refugee camps in Beirut, Lebanon. Azzawi was inspired by reading a horrific eyewitness account by Jean Genet and composed a scene with neither beginning nor end, as if the victims were caught in an infinite bloody nightmare. This powerful work was one of many artistic acts of solidarity by Azzawi in support of the Palestinian cause, in protest against those who allowed it to happen and in sympathy for the refugees who had already been pushed out of their homes by Israeli occupation. For example, in 1978–79, he produced a series of 39 drawings entitled The Body’s Anthem, exploring and commemorating the deadly siege of the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp in Beirut, which resulted in 2,000 deaths. This series became a visual elegy not only for those killed in this event, but for all those affected by Palestinian suffering, much like the later work Sabra and Shatila Massacre.
While in the 1970s and early 1980s, Palestine played a significant role in this part of Azzawi’s oeuvre; he later turned to Iraqi suffering in his work. The Land of Darkness series, which he started in the 1990s, lamented the terror and misery caused by war and sanctions in Iraq from 1991 onwards. Composed in a palette unusual for Azzawi—one almost entirely devoid of colour—he uses figural forms in visible agony to both humanise and mourn an ongoing catastrophe. In the same tradition as Land of Darkness, the subdued palette of Mission of Destruction reflects the tragic truth in a bare and striking monochromatic visual elegy. This is only interrupted by a glimpse of colour in a small splash of red, added to the left side of the canvas. The red, bloody layer overlaid onto the torn limbs and strewn bodies is a reminder that this raw tragedy was taking place in real time, and also that the clean and organised soldiers lined up on the right (and the countries they represented) had blood on their hands.
As seen in his earlier works, the human body is Azzawi’s discernible tool of choice to communicate immense pain in Mission of Destruction. Depicted as contorted and frozen forms, sometimes still and sometimes flying, he creates a scene stuck somewhere between dream and reality. Here, the abstracted lifeless bodies on the left are piled high, with scattered limbs, stuck amongst the wreckage, facing the right side of the painting: an angular, rigid and confrontational group of soldiers, poised to kill. In the middle of the composition, a body floats in the void, wrapped in a shroud, ready for burial and to finally be at peace. The enshrouded body moves in the direction of the bloodthirsty army, now immune to their pointed weapons and seeking only to confront them and make them face their crimes.
Mission of Destruction is twice the length of Sabra and Shatila Massacre: instead of commemorating a single brutal event, Azzawi increased the scale to represent the magnitude of the disaster and ongoing tragedy of the destruction of Iraq. The wide format serves akin to a billboard—much like Jewad Selim’s Freedom Monument in Baghdad, and the Assyrian wall reliefs that inspired him—which is used to tell a story, and in this case, it is a story which otherwise would not be told, providing a voice for the voiceless.
Writer Susan Sontag states in her book entitled ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ that as we as humanity are generally shielded from the horrors and insanity of war, we would only absorb the reality of it if others could make it vivid enough. At a time just on the cusp of the social media revolution which provided every citizen with an outlet for their struggle, Azzawi created this vast artistic testimony to make the situation vivid enough for others across the world to understand. By composing this rolling scene of life, death and the violence of man, he manifests a broad snapshot into the occupation of Iraq through an expression of suffering. This wide, cinematic view may seem like a film or a video game, but it was simply the reality of what was happening in some of the bloodiest years of the nation’s long and eventful history.
Azzawi wanted to be a witness but, in his own words, “not a neutral witness”: it was his responsibility not just as an Iraqi, but as a human, to mark these events and show this inconceivable injustice to the world. In this respect, Mission of Destruction provided an outlet for Azzawi to process the loss of his homeland through his own visual language, and also to provide a very necessary testimony to a crime perpetrated for “the cause of liberty, and for the peace of the world”, as claimed by Bush. In creating these works and so many more with similarly sombre themes, Azzawi condemns the perpetrators by committing these events to visual, painted memory in what he sees as “a manifesto of dismay and anger”. Simultaneously, he remembers the sacrifices made for Bush’s violent perception of liberty, honouring the innocent victims lost amidst the mission of destruction.
Written by Mysa Kafil-Hussain