Being Dia al-Azzawi: A New Horizon for Culture by Badr El Hage

In an exclusive interview with Selections, Badr El-Hage, co-founder of Lebanon’s Nabu Museum, shares the pioneering vision behind one of Lebanon’s newest cultural landmarks and its enduring partnership with renowned artist Dia al-Azzawi.

Badr El-Hage and Dia al-Azzawi, 1980s

What inspired you to establish Nabu Museum, and what was your vision for the museum?
The idea of establishing a museum was discussed for several years among myself, Jawad Adra, and Fidaa Jdeed. Initially, we considered the possibility of constructing the museum in Beirut or on a hill near Balamand University. However, due to the high cost of land and the saturation of museums in Beirut, we decided to build Nabu Museum in the north, specifically in the al-Hiri area along the coast. The land was available, and the initial architectural design differed significantly from the structure we see today. The entire North of Lebanon lacked a museum and had very few cultural activities. Consequently, we began preparations to obtain official approvals.

Can you share the story of Dia al-Azzawi’s involvement in the museum?
I have been friends with Azzawi since the mid-1970s, when he moved permanently to London. I had discussed with him the idea of a museum. He was very enthusiastic about the idea and suggested Iraqi artist Mahmoud Obaidi to work with him on designing the project, as the principal architects of the structure.

Both Azzawi and Obaidi collaborated closely and explored several design approaches. They mutually decided that the museum’s structure should harmonise with the surrounding landscape. Consequently, they determined that the structure should be constructed using metal, and after a few months of design work, they oversaw the construction process.

The museum’s design and execution involved the collective efforts of several engineers. The structure takes the form of a distinctive rectangular cuboid, easily recognisable for its structural clarity and its intrinsic connection to geometric principles and ideas of perfection. To set the museum apart from its surroundings, Azzawi treated the building as a sculpture, which had the most significant visual impact. His design was influenced by his interest in calligraphy as abstract semiotic elements. As a result, Obaidi’s decision to use weathering steel for the facade added to the building’s sculptural quality. Obaidi’s vision, which combined creativity with a practical understanding of architecture, led to the creation of such a distinctive building.

Initially, the intended material was stone, due to its widespread availability, and concrete as an alternative. However, for the artist-architects, concrete and steel were unusual for the region and served as sculptural mediums, making their use much more intriguing than other materials. Weathering steel also had a connection to the sea, as its colour changed with relative humidity.

The final selection of materials, concrete and weathering steel, held both poetic and practical significance, as they defined the building’s form, shape, and colour simultaneously. The goal was to create a structure that would stand out from the surrounding landscape without disrupting it. Therefore, the main entrance features a glass facade that spans the entire length of the building, offering views through the museum to the sea and horizon.

How do Dia al-Azzawi’s artworks complement the museum’s collection of archaeological artifacts?
We have a collection of both Azzawi’s and Obaidi’s works from various points of their careers. Needless to say, Azzawi’s contribution to modern Arab art is huge. He mentored young Arab artists, particularly the Iraqi artists. Azzawi’s involvement in designing Nabu represents a significant milestone in his career, and his influence is deeply appreciated by young Iraqi artists who endured hardships before the occupation of Iraq. Following the occupation and the emigration of most of the Iraqi artists to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Europe and the Gulf, he continued communicating with every one of them. He helped them in organising exhibitions throughout the Arab world. I want to confirm that Azzawi’s contribution to the design of Nabu is part of his activities throughout many decades in promoting modern Arab art that reflects the suffering and hopes of the Arabs. He dedicated a lot of his works to the cause of the Palestinian people, and in later stages to the sufferings of the Iraqis under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and the crimes of the occupation.

Nabu Museum has always been a collective vision that will continue to evolve and adapt to changing realities in the future. As stated by Azzawi, “It has the potential to create a programme that will promote a new kind of pan-Arab identity in art through regional dialogue and innovative residencies. At the same time, its activities could target a more global audience through joint ventures with international cultural institutions. However, the primary objective is for it to generate original and dynamic ideas independently, which can then be shared with all those engaged in creative pursuits across the region and beyond”.

Collaboration between contemporary artists and museums can be a delicate balancing act. Can you describe how you’ve managed to maintain this balance while showcasing both archaeological treasures and contemporary art within the museum? Nabu is a platform for different mediums of art: modern, archaeological, photographic, ceramics, to name a few. It is our aim to combine all these forms of human expressions and present them to the public. Thus far, our vision has been successfully implemented.

We exhibited modern art, photography, old printed materials, and more. Our exhibits were positively received by the general public. Most of our exhibitions were produced in consultation with Azzawi.

Nabu’s permanent collection offers a glimpse into the rich and extensive history of the Levant and Mesopotamia, while the museum provides a vibrant space for practising artists. It fosters creative dialogue, cultivates a sense of social and political community, and promotes art created by regional artists who are deeply rooted in local histories or traverse various traditions, all with the intent of exploring shared histories and contributing to the development of their artistic expressions.

Which are your personal favourite highlights among the archaeological artifacts and contemporary art that the museum showcases?
From the Bronze Age to the Islamic era, each object tells a story and inspires modern artists; therefore, it is difficult to choose one object as a favourite. My preferred exhibition was Beirut 1840 – 1918, which was a survey of the city of Beirut during that period. We exhibited hundreds of photographs, maps and plans. The exhibition was a unique one, being the first of its kind in the region. It was accompanied by the publishing of two volumes that offer an immense quantity of information about the city and its development during the final period of Ottoman rule.

What has been the reception to the museum so far?

The museum received very positive feedback, and over time, the number of visitors has increased. Thousands of people from all over Lebanon, as well as many Arab and foreign expatriates, called their parents to encourage them to visit Nabu when they visited our country. Despite the very negative economic situation in Lebanon, where many have lost their savings and transportation costs are high, thousands still visited the museum. We implemented a policy of free entry, with the aim of disseminating knowledge and beauty in a country grappling with political and economic crises.

Looking ahead, what plans and strategies do you have in place to ensure Nabu Museum’s sustainability? The future should be bright; we do not harbour feelings of despair. Life continues because our land has endured so much. Despair is not in our vocabulary. We have a moral and national obligation to light a candle in this darkness. We are planning a significant exhibition, the first of its kind, featuring the works of the late Lebanese artist Saliba Douwaihy. Nabu has acquired a large collection of his works, which will be exhibited for the first time. We have also initiated certain tourism projects that we believe will contribute to the museum’s sustainability.

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