Being Dia al-Azzawi: An Exclusive Interview with Selections Magazine

From his early artistic influences to his enduring commitment to the power of the arts, through which he shines a light on injustice and creates cultural dialogue beyond borders and gallery walls, Selections magazine asked Dia al-Azzawi to share personal memories and reflections from his decades-long career as a pioneer of Arab art.

Plenty has been written about your life as an artist, but what can you share of your personal life?

After I lost my wife in 2008, my daughter moved outside of London, so I became very occupied with my work. For example, I use my home as if it was a hotel, just as a place to sleep, and even at the weekend I would do the same. Normally, I prefer to leave the house very early. In summer, by six or seven o’clock in the morning, I’m in the studio and I spend most of my time there. I have also been travelling a lot more. During the summer I spend time in Lebanon in the mountains with my friend Badr, or I go to Jordan, where I work in my studio there.

Can you share a moment from childhood when your passion for drawing was first ignited?

Dia al-Azzawi with his daughter, Tala Azzawi-White, Scrubs Lane Studio, 2014

I was very interested in copying work from the Egyptian magazine Rose al-Yusuf, which always had a lot of nice illustrations by various Egyptian artists. In 1956 I began attending al-Markaziyya school, which had a large art studio. I showed the teacher my work and he liked it. And then he said, “Why do you draw these kinds of things? I would prefer it if you could do some drawings from your surroundings, for example, of your family.” So, I started doing that kind of work. I used to go to the studio a lot and I began working with watercolours, mainly, during that period. That year, there was a big demonstration because of the Suez Canal crisis, and I was part of a group of students that was expelled because of our involvement in it. Two months later, the government decided to quieten things down by suggesting that King Faisal II would visit two schools, one of which was al-Markaziyya. That was when the school asked me to come back because it was known that the king loved painting and they wanted me to be present during his visit. The king came with three or four of his people, and he admired my painting of Arabs in everyday attire. He shared some comments on it with the headmaster and left. One month later, the headmaster told me that the Ministry of Culture had decided to give this painting as a gift to the king and that we would go together to present it. On the way to the palace, the headmaster kept nagging me, telling me not to address the king as ‘Ustadh’ (sir) but to use his correct title. We arrived and entered a very small room. The king said to me, “I like your work, and I suggest that after you finish your schooling, you go to Rome [to study art]”. I said, “Thank you, Ustadh!”, and I left with a gift of a watch with his photo. And of course, the next year, the revolution happened, the king was executed, and the dream to go to Rome was over.

What can you share about your university years?

At university, I became part of the studio for Hafidh Druby, one of the very well-known artists of that time. In my first year, I participated in a student union exhibition, which was how I met Mahmoud Sabri. He liked my work, which at that time was very obviously influenced by his own work, and said, “I hope you will continue”. In my second year, I decided since I was studying archaeology only in the morning, that I would register with the Institute of Fine Arts in the afternoon. And that’s what I did. What I really feel is important is that in the morning I learned a lot about the history of Iraq, and all its civilisations, and in the evening I studied something in contrast, which was European. At the institute, I was a student of Faeq Hassan for five years.

What was the background to your Towards the New Vision manifesto?

Dia al-Azzawi with his eldest grandson, Freddie Azzawi-White, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, 2022

It was a time when many young Iraqi artists returned from abroad and when many government-sponsored cultural centres opened. This created opportunities for these artists to have exhibitions. Maybe it was my generation who started the one-man show because society was not really open to art before this. When I saw Rafa Nasiri’s exhibition of prints he had done while he was in China, the fantastic exhibition by Ismail Fattah, who had been in Italy, or Kadhim Haidar who had returned from London, it was completely different to what we knew in Iraq at that time. All of this pushed us in a way to become dreamers more than our teachers had been.

I heard that there would be a cultural conference in Cairo, and I suggested to my artist friends to take part in this conference and to draft a manifesto. Even though the conference didn’t happen, I don’t like to cancel anything, so we thought to publish it in Baghdad and arrange a small group exhibition. I think my idea was to be very clear on our stand towards Palestine – this was very important for us – but also to talk about our civilisation and how to use our heritage in a way that we can build a movement which belongs to us at the same time as being part of the world. I felt that Iraqi art was not the right term; we had to talk about Arab art, because Iraq was very small. Maybe this was partly influenced by the open society of Beirut and the knowledge of other artists, as well as the Ba‘ath party being replaced by a new government that was very tolerant.

What memories do you have of Yusuf Al-Khal, who played a pivotal role in your first exhibitions in Beirut?

Tale of a Memory No. 6, 1975 Etching on paper, 69.5 x 50 cm, AP3 (experimental print)

I think Yusuf was open-minded and intellectual. He was a pioneer in supporting Arab artists, not because of their flag and their passport but for their art. I can also say this about the Kuwaiti gallerist Ghazi Sultan. He was a young architect who had a very small space and he managed to have exhibitions featuring many Arab artists, almost like a club. He had a lot of friends, but even if they weren’t there on the opening night, he would reserve the paintings for them, with all their names. Today in Kuwait, there are many families that have an incredible collection of Arab artists from the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s. Nowadays, everyone talks about Arab art, but most of them were not even born when Sultan and Khal suggested this.

My relationship with Yusuf Al-Khal was limited because my visits to Beirut were not long, and I chose instead to spend these days with Waddah Faris, who was an interesting cultural and artistic activist. He was an instigator on more than one level, especially in art. He was the first to contribute to introducing the Lebanese artistic and cultural community to other Arab artists through his writings in Hiwar magazine and his exhibitions at Contact Gallery. He was an amazing graphic designer, who disagreed and quarrelled with many Lebanese and Arab artists, especially the Iraqis. Still, this rivalry did not lead to a rift; he creatively transformed Arab artists into a part of the diverse Lebanese milieu. After many years, my relationship with him returned to what it had been in Beirut, when I was a major contributor to the exhibitions he held for Arab artists in the gallery he opened in Paris. He is the epitome of the creativity and richness of Lebanon in the 1970s.>

How did you become interested in posters as an art form?

At the beginning of the 1970s, I became aware of Polish art through the art magazine Projekt (founded in 1955); their posters movement had a great impact on me and many of my generation. This was helped at the time by the Ministry of Information, through the design department, which was supervised by well-known artists, including Hashim Samarchi, Yahyha al-Sheikh and others, who produced a wonderful collection of posters during al-Wasiti Festival, which was the first group gathering in which artists from different Arab countries met. Credit goes to the minister at the time, Shafiq al-Kamali, who suggested the meeting in 1972 that brought me together as secretary of the Iraqi Artists’ Association and Ismail Fattah as its president. We presented him with a vision for an artistic festival like al-Marbid Poetry Festival, which was held locally in Basra. We sent him the proposal, but the arts department asked for a year to achieve it, so he had no choice but to ask me and a group of artists from my generation to achieve it in a shorter time, which is what happened. This turned out to be the first support for Arab art, followed by other activities later.

In 1976 you moved to London. How did this come about?

The year before I moved to London, I was in Salzburg for one month. At that time, I learned fantastic information about printmaking, and I managed to produce around 20 prints in one month. I was awarded the first prize by the academy, so they sent me to Rome for one month. The following year, I visited London because they had the World of Islam Festival, and my brother was studying in Manchester, so that also encouraged me to go. At that time, I was already thinking of leaving Iraq. However, I went back to Iraq and had to join the army for national service, for which I spent about six months in the north of the country. When I returned to Baghdad, I had an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. At that time, I was also supervising the Ethnographic Museum, formerly the house of Gertrude Bell, but I was in conflict with the head of the Department of Antiquities and Heritage – a close relative of Saddam Hussein – because we couldn’t get the money as quickly as we wanted to finish the job. And because of this, I felt he was not happy with me. I told him I would like to leave Iraq to study abroad and, maybe because he didn’t like me that much, he said, “Okay, get the university acceptance, and then I can assure you that I will arrange this for you”. I managed to get the papers I needed and went to the department responsible for overseas education, the head of which had been an archaeology student in the same year as me. After he signed my documents, I persuaded him to give me the file, and I happily left. This way I managed to avoid paying the 2000 dinars that was the contract for leaving Iraq. At that time, I was part of the group responsible for following up on a government project to build an opera house. We used to have an official meeting with the Ministry of Information every three weeks. I left Iraq on a Friday, and I was supposed to take part in a meeting the next day. The minister at that time, Tariq Aziz, asked after me and was told I had resigned and left Iraq. He couldn’t believe it because in those days the government was not accepting any resignations, and it was not easy to leave.

Catalogue designed by Dia al-Azzawi for the Baghdad International Poster Exhibition, 1979

When I arrived in London, I stayed in a student hostel. Tariq Aziz later visited London in an official capacity and managed to get my address and asked me to meet him at his hotel. I went there and he was furious. “Why did you resign? What are you doing here?” he asked me. My excuse was that I wanted to study. He said, “Would you like to work in the new Iraqi Cultural Centre that we are going to open in London as you are good at this kind of thing?” I said, “Fine, but I want to work in my own way without any involvement with the government”. He said, “Do what you want.” This is how I became part of a fantastic four years, during which I managed to use my involvement in the Iraqi Cultural Centre to arrange a lot of exhibitions with Arab artists. I was also keen to promote Arab art internationally, which led to the Baghdad International Poster Exhibition (1979), which included two categories: the Struggle of the Third World for Cultural and Political

Liberation; and Palestine – a Homeland Denied, and the Third World Graphic Biennale (1980). Both exhibitions had an international impact: a trilingual article about the poster exhibition was featured in the Swiss magazine Graphis (203, 1979/80, pp. 242–49) and the Polish magazine Projekt, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York requested to purchase the winning posters; however, their acquisition request did not happen because the exhibition went to Baghdad and the posters never returned.

In those days did you think you would be going back to Iraq?

No. In a way, I was living between the two countries, hoping that I could come and go without any problem. But the last time I visited Iraq with a group of artists that included the Algerian [Rachid] Koraichi to attend the opening of the Third World Graphic Biennale [see above], I arrived on a Friday and by Monday the war with Iran had started. I thought that this was a disaster because it meant I would have to go back into the army. I managed to convince the ministry that I had to return with these artists to escort them to Jordan and that I would be back after that. They accepted, so I left, and since that time I have been living joyfully in London!

How has your work been influenced by moving to London?

I began working in acrylic because of the weather here. I hate it, but what can I do? With oils, you cannot continue working until they’re dry, and this could take one month here. It became too difficult. Whereas in Baghdad, you could take an oil painting onto the roof, and it would dry in a couple of days. When I came to London, I also had the opportunity to do a lot of printmaking. I started working with a studio in Chelsea and produced the first collection of The Seven Golden Odes (1978). This was my first experience of silkscreen; previously, I had known only etching. During that period, I met Hugh Stoneman, who became a very dear friend and who had a big printmaking studio. I produced many works with him, including We Are Not Seen, But [as] Corpses: The Massacre of Sabra and Shatila Camps (1983) and The Thousand and One Nights (1986).

Dia al-Azzawi in his London studio, 1981

Can you recall a particular moment when you had a creative breakthrough?

No, but maybe something very important for me was that, when the Ba‘ath party came to power in June 1963, I went to prison for three months. At that time, most intellectuals and artists were either communist or on the left side politically. For the Ba‘ath party, anyone who was on the left was considered a communist. When I left prison, an unbelievable moment, I changed my birthday to that date (24th April). During those years, life was so harsh, a lot of my generation left: some came to Beirut, some became involved with the PLO, others with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Through contact with friends who were with the PFLP, I produced some drawings for al-Hadaf magazine, and I become more involved with the Palestinian issue. Maybe part of this was a reaction to what had happened to me in Baghdad during those three months, but also people I knew from Beirut, such as Waddah Faris, who was an activist. I met Ghassan Kanafani only two months before he was killed. This is how I become more aware of the Palestinian cause, because of my relationships with a lot of Palestinians. Even when I was in Kuwait for my exhibition, the most active intellectuals were Palestinian at that time. This is why when I had the opportunity to do silkscreen printing, I did the Tel al-Za‘atar collection (The Body’s Anthem, 1978, published in 1979) on the assumption that we would do an edition of 100 and try to raise money for the camps at that time. And I did the same for the Sabra and Shatila etchings in 1983.

Naji al-Ali was another Palestinian who had an impact on your work. What do you recall of him?

I met Naji al-Ali, whose work I knew well, when I held my solo exhibition in Kuwait in 1983, where I displayed Sabra and Shatila Massacre. The Palestinians were the focus of the artistic and cultural climate at that time. I spent many beautiful days with him: he was f riendly and sincere in his feelings and in his criticism of the PLO. Through this harsh criticism, he tried to bring attention to the catastrophe surrounding the Palestinian issue. Later I saw him when he first arrived in London, exiled f rom Kuwait under pressure f rom Palestinian politicians. His assassination was a shocking image of the violence of a leader who had very bad judgement of the events around him. Many years later, I was very happy to transform his hero Handala into a monumental sculpture. In my Doha retrospective (2016–17) I took the opportunity to give him a unique presence with a sculptural work four metres high, displayed next to Sabra and Shatila Massacre.

Comparisons have been drawn between Picasso’s monumental work Guernica and your Sabra and Shatila Massacre. What is your take on this?

I started working on the original work straight away when I heard the unbelievable news. I did not think about the size or about the material. I used paper I had bought from Paris backed with linen, which meant it had strength. I used felt-tip colour, which was not really practical, but I didn’t think about this. I just kept working and it ended up around the scale of Guernica, even though I didn’t have Guernica as an image or as a size in my mind. I was just very active because I knew the area [of the massacre], and somebody had sent me a recording of a nurse talking about the aftermath of the killings.

How has solidarity with the Palestinian cause impacted your career – and does the cause need art now more than ever?

Dia al-Azzawi making Ruins of Two Cities: Mosul and Aleppo at Enki Ceramics Atelier, Amman, 2020

The issues related to Palestine, first, are a moral attitude that rejects injustice, not only in its political dimension, but also in terms of cultural distortion and the aggressive work to transform components of society into divided colonies fighting among themselves, which is what we see every day in Palestine. The impact of this stance often makes me reluctant to compromise and take neutral positions towards what is going on around me. Iraq, post- 2003, is another example of this: there is an urgent need for art to be present in the face of programmed destruction, distortion of national identity, theft or falsification of heritage, and the sectarian rewriting of history.

What inspired your unconventional approach to illustrating poetry?

When I was studying archaeology, my teacher, Taha Baqir, a prominent archaeologist who translated The Epic of Gilgamesh from Akkadian into Arabic, gave me some old texts to read and I thought they were fantastic. I did some drawings about Gilgamesh and that opened the way for me to do something else, to look to the Sufi poets and do illustrations rather than creating something in parallel. As I have said before, I prefer to listen to poetry rather than read it, and particular poetry actually creates a kind of fantastic music. For example, when I did the work of Tel al-Za‘atar, the text of Mahmoud Darwish was amazing, and this gave me the opportunity to go further visually, to create something related to sound rather than to text.

However, our institutions are not very creative. About 15 years ago, I met with The Sultan Bin Ali Al Owais Cultural Foundation and suggested, “Since you have a yearly poetry prize, why don’t you ask artists each year to work with the poem and publish it in a limited edition?” They started laughing and said, “We are Bedouin and not sophisticated enough”. I thought, “For God’s sake, start being sophisticated!” This is the main problem: without creativity, there is a kind of border between poetry, literature and the visual arts.

For example, my experience with Hashim Samarchi and Rafa Nasiri, when we produced three poetry posters on the occasion of the Mirbad Poetry Festival (1971), should have been transformed into an event that accompanies any poetry event. In our day, poetry was not read in closed halls for a specific group of society but was rather a manifestation of rich imagination linked to the most important cultural history in Arab civilisation and to daily events. I regarded the poster as the greatest tool that Arab art needed for two reasons: the first is to be close to its community through an inexpensive means by which it can change and develop society; secondly, it is a daily challenge to create topics capable of influencing society in general. However, this experience did not find artistic and cultural institutions capable of accepting it due to the creative limitations of their supervisors.

Emigration, 1981 Oil on canvas, 180 x 200 cm (tetraptych, upper panels 90 x 100 cm; lower panels 90 x 90 cm)

How does your move into furniture design fit into your artistic vision?

I feel very lucky when I compare myself with others in my generation, particularly from Iraq. I had a lot of opportunities to challenge myself and do something different. It is important to put more emphasis on these kinds of things because we need to have a society in which more than one person creates something beautiful. An architect cannot create a very joyful city [alone]; he needs to have other designers be involved and different kinds of work. Otherwise, it would be like a prison. When I came to London, I started seeing a lot of exhibitions of design. I thought, “Why not create something which can be used?” When you look back at Arab art history, we don’t have that many artists who managed to create something that can be used. Also, this can be part of changing society’s taste, in a sense.

Can we draw a parallel between the furniture and posters as the artist connecting with his audience beyond the gallery walls?

For me, the poster was the most important tool to create a dialogue with society while trying to influence their taste and include them in something joyful. In Iraq, at the beginning of the 1970s, encouraged by the government’s willingness to spend money and to print, we managed to produce an incredible amount of posters by different artists. In Beirut, however, when you go back to the older posters about Palestine, these were more political tools and less creative. Waddah Faris, on the other hand, had five beautiful posters using an image by other artists, including one of mine and one of Mohammed Ghani Hikmet. This work would be worth a fortune today if somebody can manage to find one of them, as posters are normally produced in a quantity of 50, 80 or 100, but then they disappear because nobody kept these posters and in Arab countries nobody cares about archives.

We cannot change the world. That’s a fact. But at least we were very satisfied with what we had as a tool. We were proud to meet other artists, to be Arab artists, not simply Iraqi. And the nice thing nowadays is that when everyone talks about being a collector, they have become a collector of Arab art. This is a move in the right direction.

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