Dia al-Azzawi was twelve or thirteen years old when Jewad Selim launched the Baghdad Modern Art Group. The group’s artistic works, alongside the emergence of the “free verse” movement (as it was called), were the first cultural and artistic representations that captivated his interest in the world of art and culture. His connection with the group is certain, but this relation eventually led to separation, to another beginning: as soon as Azzawi’s artistic influence grew, along with his peers from the same generation he launched the New Vision Group, stressing that art in Iraq needs a different vision.
While the vision of the Baghdad Group was “cultural” (“civilised” and “modern” according to their initial statement), Azzawi was closer to its essence: presence and effectiveness in the present. His presence as an artist was closer to the one found in artists worldwide from the first half of the twentieth century, such as Picasso, Giacometti, Dubuffet, and others.
The artists of the Baghdad Group drew inspiration from the remnants of Mesopotamian arts (which have now come together in the first Iraqi Museum of Archaeology), while Azzawi studied archaeology at university and experienced archaeology just like a potter would with clay. Nevertheless, he was closer to the “leaps” of Iraqi aspirations towards liberation and closer to the fervent politics, with his approaches resembling Assyrian sculpture in form.
He would express, react, and engage with the pulse of the times, forming close friendships with those who seek the hidden voices of contemporary Iraq, like Muzaffar al-Nawab and Youssef al-Sayigh, among others.
To this dynamic Iraq, Azzawi’s attraction remained strong. He approached the poetry of friends to blend the angry anthem with the tormented scream: in the Land of Darkness, or the dispersion of Palestinian blood, or in The Martyr, which he elevated to the ranks of a legendary hero… he brought forth contemporary features from Ur, Sumer, and the side profile contours of Assyrian art…
His pen, or his brush, never hesitate to shape what he believes is the duty of presence, the duty of representation, in the tragedies, crimes, and wars that obliterate the faces of the oppressed under the tanks of oppression and occupation, especially those whose features vanish in silenced crimes.
Azzawi has resided in London for over 45 years, without being in exile, as he carries his homeland (both in a narrow and expansive way) with him wherever he goes, wherever he paints. In this homeland he has crafted for himself, he leaves no friend in their prison, no convict in front of an execution platform, no girl waiting for her distant lover’s arrival in Baghdad every day…
This is the power that art bestows upon humans, history, and the present. For art, regardless of its subject, is a celebration of life; it is undeniably an elevated life.
It is the power nourished by experiences and hopes. It feeds off its ability to generate form and the emergence of colour that captivates the eye, making the human scene in the painting a beautiful sight.
Even pain, in art, can be beautiful!
Even the scream, in art, can be aesthetic!
So how can life not have its celebrations, joys, and banquets, in the expanses of bright colours and in the melodies of musical forms!
With Azzawi, in his art, there is an invitation to life from beneath the bloody rubble, and a scream for freedom in the clarity of sculptural construction.
It is a world of eternal passions. It is the world of Dia al-Azzawi.
We Remain Kids for a While and other poems: Charbel Dagher:
We remain kids for a while
We enjoy perusing the pages of yesterday: We remember, and recount what happened to us in them…
…When we are kids
We enjoy growing up,
Playing our roles,
And that is what the poet does in the childhoods of language.
Translated into English by Frank Darwish (2022)