DIA AL-AZZAWI: THE LEBANON WORKS

23 March - 1 September 2021
  • Meem Gallery presents three new large paintings by Dia al-Azzawi.

     

    Painted in Dia al-Azzawi’s recently established studio in Lebanon, set back from the water in a shady grove just next to Nabu Museum, which was opened in October 2018, these three recent paintings exude a fresh vibrancy that may have sprung from the change of scenery— especially the change between London and the tranquil and picturesque northern Lebanese coastal town of Chekka, close to the city of Batroun. 

     
  • New body of work

    All painted in 2019 using acrylic on canvas, these large works had the benefit of being composed in a bright studio that encouraged Azzawi to paint on a larger scale, something which his traditional London studio can often restrict.

     

     

    Azzawi’s work is a significant example of this considered and diligent integration of antiquity into contemporary art, which ultimately leads to original artworks with no temporal boundaries, executing this masterfully since the beginning of his career in Baghdad in the early 1960s. Sometimes glaringly obvious to the viewer, and sometimes subtly inserted into his delicate rendering of faces, bodies and shapes, Azzawi incorporates elements influenced from worlds gone by into these three artworks, whilst also exploring the inner depths and idyllic fantasies of not only an inherent dreamer, but a dreamer stuck in distant exile.

    The benefit of also producing art right next to an innovative new artistic museum undoubtedly also contributed to his creative expression within these three works, especially as so many aspects of that museum—the exterior cladding, the acquisition strategy and the visionary structure of exhibits—were designed by the artist himself. Nabu Museum, although suffering from the severe impact of national economic hardship and the unfortunate global implications of COVID-19, in addition to the dramatic effect of the Beirut Explosion in August 2020, much like all of Lebanon’s arts and cultural institutions, has managed to coherently and successfully marry the old and the new. It is a modern institution, with modern architecture and modern Arab artworks, also housing a great number of artefacts from the region’s rich and ancient past. Displayed side-by-side, it becomes clear that, in order to better understand the cultural production of the modern Arab artists exhibited, we cannot separate the artist from their creative heritage and historical roots—an idea that many artists across the region have explored in the past.

  • Dia al-Azzawi, Hidden Gift [هدية مخفية], , 2019

    Dia al-Azzawi

    Hidden Gift [هدية مخفية], , 2019 Acrylic on canvas
    180 x 230 cm
  • In Hidden Gift, Azzawi creates a two-dimensional structure, which alternately resembles a figure, a vessel or an architectural form. His deliberate strong outlining, contrasting the heavy black shape with vivid green lines running through it, together construct a maze-like puzzle hiding a brightly-coloured object: the ‘gift’.

     

     

    Moving beyond the suggestion of a hidden physical entity, Azzawi considers that, for others working with him on those sites, the gift may indeed have represented something far greater for their futures: an achievement, or perhaps success in one’s studies, work, or elsewhere in their life. Azzawi’s strong use of bold colours, compartmentalised into opposing sections of the canvas, are intended to create a contrast with the surrounding black contours and with the vibrant gift itself, shining brightly in the centre. The contrast is so striking that this central motif is visible even from afar. The intuitive use of colour throughout his oeuvre is, as described by art historian Nada Shabout, “an intense and essential element of his art, meant to evoke memories and experiences”,[1] leading one to observe his use of colour and tone in this artwork as a tool to set a familiar and somewhat technical scene from a distant past. In doing so, not only does Azzawi juxtapose and shift land and sky, distorting our sense of place, but he is also stirring emotions and a sense of remembrance for former colleagues in a former life through the act of joyous, vivid discovery.



    [1] Nada Shabout, In Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics (University Press of Florida, 2015), 122.

    Influenced by his work as a trained archaeologist, having spent many years working for the Iraqi Antiquities department early in his working life, Azzawi’s experience in this field, especially in the studying, curating and handling of artefacts, had a direct impact on the direction of his future artistic output. The outlines, akin to the outlines marking an archaeological site, create a structured form surrounding the concealed, buried discovery—a prize amidst the darkness—which holds an air of mystery. In the words of Azzawi himself: “no one knows what the gift will be”.[1]



    [1] Interview with artist, 3rd March 2021

  • Dia al-Azzawi, Face of a Stranger [وجه الغريب], , 2019

    Dia al-Azzawi

    Face of a Stranger [وجه الغريب], , 2019 Acrylic on Canvas
    180 x 230 cm
  • Whilst Face of a Stranger embraces a somewhat richer and more cheerful colour palette, the subject itself is significantly more melancholic.

    Themes of exile, distance and the loss of a homeland have featured heavily in Azzawi’s previous work and this painting continues these subjects by exploring the experience of a protagonist returning home after many years away. Many who left Iraq— or indeed countless other countries across the region—whether willingly or by force, often maintain a frozen image of their homeland and a notion of their own place within it from afar. The crashing reality of the new experience when they return rarely mirrors their rose-tinted memories. “They felt like they were strangers,”[1] explains Azzawi, recalling the journeys that many of his friends have made to Iraq, hoping and imagining that they could piece together a past they lost many years ago, but instead finding that they often do not fit comfortably into a place that once was their home.



    [1] Interview with artist, 3rd March 2021

    The feeling of standing out as a foreigner, an outsider, or as someone who has not had the same lived experiences as his countrymen, is evident in the lost, confused face depicted in the centre of Azzawi’s painting. Disoriented amidst the surrounding colour, commotion and bustling excitement, the lone head, staring into the distance, is typical of Azzawi’s depiction of faces, inspired by and clearly referencing the Sumerian visual arts which he would have often encountered during his time working at the Iraq Museum and throughout his archaeological practice. The Sumerians adopted a traditional aesthetic of large eyes maintaining a static gaze and used it extensively on their sculptural works, standing tall and proud whilst staring powerfully, perhaps towards the sacred or divine. Azzawi’s use of this reference is not surprising, symbolising that this person may be a stranger in many respects, but he is simultaneously deeply rooted in the heritage and the very earth of his country. That he painted this artwork in Lebanon is also of significance, rather than in either of his homes: London, his home since 1976, or Iraq, his homeland. Arab artists, whether in permanent or temporary exile, have created a base in Lebanon for many decades, embracing not just the artistic vitality of the country, but the proximity to, and cultural commonality with, wherever they once regarded as ‘home’. Azzawi’s vision has always been Arab rather than solely Iraqi, and his empathy for others’ own experiences of loss and of being a stranger, including that of many of his friends and contemporaries, extends across the Arab world and feeds into much of his work.

  • Transcending all notions of rootedness, both existentially and physically, Azzawi’s lack of borders is unimpeded and persistent and, despite his enduring connection with his homeland, Iraq, he is truly an international artist free of inhibitions in his media, his style, his colours, his narratives and his imagination. Painting these three artworks next to Nabu Museum—a space in an Arab country, unrestricted in its selection of both artform and age of object—corresponds fittingly with Azzawi’s approach as an Arab artist, floating between figurative, abstract, sculptural, painted, decorative, minimalist, and consistently unconstrained encounters between the ancient and the contemporary. That he made these artworks during the year in which both Iraq and Lebanon began inspirational and historic revolutionary movements is also of great significance and cannot be overlooked: this notion of the borderless dreamer in exile, remembering a long-lost past and imagining an alternative reality, correlating with Azzawi’s own personal history as a politically conscious and active artist, whilst not always in an overt manner. Each artwork is thus an amalgamation of extensive technical experimentations, a constant dialogue between the physical and the metaphysical, and the connections created between experiences, memories, cultures and societies, all longing to be firmly rooted and visibly represented.

  • Dia al-Azzawi, Imaginary Portrait [صورة متخيلة], , 2019

    Dia al-Azzawi

    Imaginary Portrait [صورة متخيلة], , 2019 Acrylic on Canvas
    270 x 400 cm
  • Azzawi as an artist has never been restricted in his exploration of time, space or creative imagination. While he may often use a distinct range of colours and some typical cultural motifs and artistic techniques, the worlds he creates within his canvases truly know no bounds.

    Imaginary Portrait allows us a view into an individual’s psyche—a daydream, or perhaps a necessary mental escape. The figure depicted is again painted with Azzawi’s unique, abstracted take on Sumerian figural forms, heavily inspired by sculptures of deities with simple facial features and distinct lineaments, but most importantly with the strong, rounded gaze which he incorporates in so many of his paintings. Delicately holding a hand up to his face, it seems as though this individual is thinking, pondering and imagining the possibility of a world beyond his own, living in his dreams and detached from the reality around him.

    In this visionary personal portrait, confined within linear demarcations created by the figure’s own mind, he has created a bright, animated and glowing alternative reality, surrounding himself with a burst of theatrical colour. However, beyond the frames of his fantasy, the real world exists, painted by Azzawi in varying dark tones of brown shapes set against a black backdrop, contrasting starkly with the vibrant atmosphere in the centre. Azzawi’s paintings can often reflect the realities of lived experience, political moments, and historical homages, and even within these contextual compositions he successfully creates a conceptual world devoid of limitations: Imaginary Portrait takes this one step further. Removed from any particularly unique or precise context, the person depicted represents many people living in a collective, unrestricted dreamlike state or condition—a concept Azzawi has explored often in the past in his painterly examinations of the human condition, or ‘halat insaniyya’. Furthermore, this also extends to his unique personal approach to abstraction within his work as, for Azzawi, abstraction is not just merely an artistic style, but also a tool to shift and unsettle temporal, spatial and mortal perceptions.