Throughout the mid- and late 1960s, Dia al-Azzawi’s artistic journey intersected profoundly with Lebanon, specifically Beirut, a period that not only influenced his craft but also broadened his artistic horizons in unprecedented ways.
Born in Baghdad in 1939, Azzawi’s early passion for archaeology and fine art led him to combine these two paths, pursuing his bachelor’s degree in the former subject at the University of Baghdad in the mornings followed by studies for a diploma in the latter at the Institute of Fine Arts in the afternoons. He graduated in 1964, precisely during a time of transformation in Iraq’s art landscape. As his creative prowess blossomed, so did his prominence in Baghdad’s burgeoning art exhibitions. In 1965, a year after his graduation, he achieved a significant milestone with his inaugural solo exhibition at al-Wasiti Gallery in his home city.
During the mid-1960s, Azzawi’s links to the vibrant Lebanese art and literary circles began to grow, courtesy of Yusuf Al-Khal, a prominent Lebanese poet renowned for his establishment of the literary journal Shi‘r and Gallery One. When Khal and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, a pivotal critic of contemporary Arab art, organised two seminal group exhibitions of Iraqi art, held at Gallery One in Beirut in March 1965 and the Nicolas Sursock Museum in November 1965, Azzawi’s work was included in both, a sign of his increasing recognition as an artist.
The connection between Azzawi and Khal grew, resulting in a solo exhibition for Azzawi in Beirut’s Gallery One in 1966. This event not only marked Azzawi as one of the earliest Iraqi artists to exhibit beyond the borders of Iraq but also underscored his integral bond with Lebanon. When Khal launched his Precious Books series, published by An-Nahar in Beirut, Azzawi’s work featured in the inaugural title, Drawings for Epics and Legends in Sumerian Literature (1967).
A pivotal turning point manifested itself in 1968 when Azzawi embarked on a series of drawings centred around the Martyrdom of al-Husayn, deeply influenced by cassette recordings of Sheikh Ahmad al-Waeli. This period found Azzawi entrenched in the ethnographic realm, delving into the rich tapestry of Iraqi folklore. Inspired by the Precious Books series, Azzawi envisioned these drawings within the context of a publication, a transformative moment that would significantly impact his future artistic approach.
The aftermath of the crushing defeat of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War had a profound impact not only on the region but on Azzawi’s creative vision, eventually leading to his penning of the Towards the New Vision manifesto in 1969, advocating for Arab unity across cultural spheres, under the belief that art held the power to transcend failed political efforts. Signed by six Iraqi artists, this manifesto birthed the New Vision group. This period saw Azzawi’s immersion in the Iraqi Artists’ Society, where he took on the role of secretary, igniting a dynamic era of collaboration and exchange among artists across the Arab world.
In 1968, Azzawi first met Iraqi poet Muzaffar al-Nawab, the latter having only recently escaped from prison. In an unusual move for the time, Nawab sought Azzawi’s creative touch for the cover and illustrations of his poetry collection For the Railway and Hamad, published in Beirut, a city in which Nawab would soon find refuge. There, Azzawi was reunited with fellow Iraqi political dissidents, including his friend Buland al-Haidari, editor of the magazine al-’Ulum, who published an interview between Nawab and Azzawi on the occasion of his second solo exhibition in Beirut in 1969.
Through exhibitions, collaborations, and friendships, Azzawi’s artistic odyssey intertwined with Lebanon’s vibrant cultural scene throughout the late 1960s [and early 1970s], leaving an indelible mark on both his career and the larger Arab artistic landscape.