Being Dia al-Azzawi: Azzawi and Muzaffar al-Nawab

In 1968, a year before the Towards the New Vision manifesto, Azzawi met the Iraqi poet Muzaffar al-Nawab after he had escaped from prison. A few months later, Nawab invited Azzawi to illustrate and design the cover for his famous collection of poetry For the Railway and Hamad, which was published in Beirut. This changed the way Azzawi thought about literature and his work, and he would go on to make artworks inspired by and based upon specific works of Arabic literature for the rest of his career, with a keen focus on modern poetry from across the region and beyond. Nawab soon fled to Beirut to join fellow Iraqi political dissidents, including his friend Buland al-Haidari, editor of the magazine al-’Ulum, who published an interview between Nawab and Azzawi (reproduced below) on the occasion of his second solo exhibition in Beirut in 1969. Azzawi continued to develop the idea of including writing in his artworks, often using texts written by authors he met and befriended.


Cover of For the Railway and Hamad by Muzaffar al-Nawab, published in 1968; cover and illustrations by Dia al-Azzawi

Muzaffar al-Nawab: Your art has emerged on the basis of an attempt to integrate the deep historical time of Iraq with its modern existence in the present world, and with a personal empathy you feel for the ongoing tragedy around you. Through this dialectic, “which unfolds in the space of the artwork”, is there something that you are trying to say, despite the prevalent fashion of not saying anything in particular about the human in the Arab world today?

Dia al-Azzawi: It is not so much that there is something I want to say in my work as there is a fundamental precept that I want to establish, and that is that the human continues to be an answer to the worlds he inhabits, and the one who reveals those worlds, by taking up a position that is his own but without isolating himself from the intellectual movements of his time. It is by adopting [this] concept of transcendence that an artist’s interests are justified. Otherwise, he would be unable to offer anything that could be accepted in the future. The moment of creativity would just as soon pass.

MN: The figure of the woman in your paintings is active even when waiting for the groom. In this regard, she always appears as an entity that has been revealed, or we might say that you work with her in a way that reveals her in the form of a very particular kind of nakedness, tattooed, but still soft and virginal, and full of the mystery of discovery itself – if you agree with me that in discovery there is a discovery of mysteries to come. She does not represent cheap sex, even if her thigh is bitten or stained with the colour of blood. Even then we empathise with her and respect her nakedness. In her wedding bed, in her dream of a lion, in her control over man, in the bite marks on her thigh, she retains a certain innocence that marks the threshold of sexual maturity. In the end, what is it that you are trying to tell us, through her eyes, wide with the awe of a Sumerian devotee, through her flesh and through her tattoos? Or do you hate that anything be said at all?

DA: It is only when the figure of the woman is revealed that she becomes a symbol, and that uncovering happens by making her an object of artistic practice, or by working with her in the context of her interaction with the world. I would refuse any definitive statements because they would not allow full scope for that interaction. The continuous nature of that interaction means that something new is constantly being revealed, and so the figure of the woman will never be fully revealed, because revealing her in her totality, or rendering her completely present would mean her end.

MN: There is the sense of a victim in the colours you use, even when there are no [figurative] forms. In some paintings, the victim has a real, material presence, as in ʿAbbās, The Second Husband, or Coffin. In others, the victim takes on a decorative form, like a wedding chest, or the shape of an ancient animal. Often, this victim is in a state of approach, you feel that it will come; it is not in the past. This is where your work with cultural history appears as very contemporary. Perhaps it is that you are anticipating tragedy or have revealed its coming; or perhaps it means that you are trying to kill tragedy by constantly invoking its presence, cultivating such sorrow in people that it is forestalled.

DA: The figure of the victim is not unfamiliar to the historical traditions of Iraq nor to its modern experience. It is easy for the wedding chest to turn into a coffin, for the words of an amulet to become a lamentation, and for decorative forms to become a tattoo on the arm of the victim. There is a persistent tragic element in ancient Iraqi heritage, both socially and religiously, and it asserts itself directly in my works, such that the artwork can turn into a gravestone or into the flowers placed at the feet of the martyr who rejects his own death. For the transformation of the human into a victim means its transformation into its opposite, and the acceptance of the human to become a new al-H ̇ usayn is the issue of our time. The victim is no longer kneeling unshackled under the executioner’s sword, but has become the tearing apart of falseness even in death.

The Falling Dot, 1972, Oil on canvas, 120 x 120 cm The Dubai Collection (private collection of HH Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum)

MN: In your previous work – the exhibition of 1965 – we could sense traces of the museum, and of Sumerian and Assyrian history, and even of Islamic history, such that we were led towards a certain aesthetic, one that undeniably draws our attention, but to the past, like a dream that we do not want to have. That is to say, you took us to the past. In your current work, however, you offer us a dream that we want, and do not want at the same time, because like lust, it is mixed with the smell of death, and the smell of a tree, alive and wet with rain and the blood of al-Husayn. Could you tell us what you do to achieve that combination of different elements?

DA: From the beginning I have tried to work with the figure of the Iraqi in civilisational terms, because the human in my country cannot be separated from his history. By history, I do not mean the factual side, but the mythological side—the symbols, tales, and traditions inherited by Iraqis from their earliest ancestors. By using that heritage in a contemporary form, in ways that are neither mechanical nor imitative, we can gain a world of our own, and that would make itself available to be revealed through local forms of subjectivity. We cannot deny the importance of living in our time, but that does not have to come at the price of truth in regard to what it is to be a human being.

It would be a mistake to think that we can keep pace with the world by adopting a fake position towards ourselves, as individuals and as a nation; and it is a mistake to try to do work that looks to the West and derivative rather than work that is original and true [to who we are]. Being international does not mean rejecting the specific forms of our existence, but rather it is the very discovery of this existence and its reconstruction as a new creation, so that it can reflect the concerns and aspirations of this historical moment. That is our significance to this world.



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