Being Dia al-Azzawi: Chapter 2: The Arab Cause

The years spanning 1970 to 1989 were marked by tumultuous events in the Middle East, which continued to shape Dia al-Azzawi’s art and highlight his commitment to depicting the struggles, hopes, and resilience of the Palestinian people. As an artist, Azzawi believed in the power of representation, and his presence in individual or group exhibitions reinforced his conviction that the experiences of the Arab world needed to be portrayed not just within the region but also on a global stage. Beirut, for him, held a special priority in this mission.

Witness of Our Times: The Journal of a Fedayee Killed in the Jordan Massacre of [September] 1970, published in 1972; illustrations by Dia al-Azzawi

The decade began with the reverberations of the Black September conflict in 1970, an event that left an indelible mark on Azzawi’s consciousness. The tragic and bloody struggle for Palestinian liberation during this period deeply resonated with him, inspiring a series of poignant drawings that captured the spirit and sacrifice of those involved. This series, titled A Witness of Our Times (1972), not only commemorated the fallen but also marked Azzawi’s transition towards more explicitly political themes.

Al-Hadaf (‘The Target’), number 404, 16th, September 1978; cover, illustration by Dia al-Azzawi

A pivotal encounter occurred in 1969 when Azzawi met Ghassan Kanafani, an influential Palestinian writer and activist. Kanafani’s tragic assassination in 1972 abruptly truncated their collaboration, but the impact of their interaction was profound. Azzawi’s drawings were published in al-Hadaf, the magazine edited by Kanafani, and their shared vision for advocating Palestinian rights would influence Azzawi’s work for years to come.

Lebanon continued to play a role in shaping Azzawi’s artistic trajectory through his friendship with Waddah Faris, an influential figure in Beirut’s art scene. The tumultuous yet enduring bond they shared led to Azzawi’s significant presence in Contact magazine and a solo exhibition at Faris’s gallery in 1974. This engagement with Beirut’s artistic community facilitated the exchange of ideas and perspectives, further fuelling Azzawi’s creative endeavours.

The Bodyʼs Anthem, 1979 Silkscreen on paper, 65 x 65 cm (image 50 x 50 cm), edition of 100 + 10 AP

In 1976, Azzawi transitioned to a new life outside Iraq. The eruption of civil war in Lebanon in 1975 had robbed him of this choice of country as his destination. Settled in his new home in the UK, however, his connectiontoLebanonremainedsteadfast, despite the geographical distance. The harrowing Tel al-Za’atar massacre in 1976 served as a grim reminder of the ongoing struggle faced by Palestinians. Azzawi’s visceral response was manifested in a series of drawings that captured the horror of the event and expressed solidarity with the Palestinian cause. The profound impact of this event culminated in the creation of The Body’s Anthem (1979), a compilation of his drawings accompanied by texts that aimed to raise funds for the survivors of the tragedy.

The Palestinian Solidarity Exhibition in Beirut in 1978 further underscored Azzawi’s commitment to championing the Palestinian narrative through his art. This exhibition not only showcased his artistic prowess but also emphasised the interconnectedness of creative expression and political activism.

The Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982 was a turning point that shook Azzawi to his core. The depth of his anguish and empathy for the victims was reflected in the famous monumental drawing and a set of etchings that documented the atrocity. Inspired by Jean Genet’s poignant account, the latter work titled We are not Seen, but [as] Corpses (1983) was a haunting tribute to the lives lost, published to raise awareness and support survivors.

Handala: Good Morning Beirut, 2011 (cast 2016), Stainless steel, 400 x 300 x 140 cm Nabu Museum, El-Heri, Lebanon

Azzawi’s bond with Naji al-Ali, the renowned Palestinian cartoonist, exemplified his enduring connection to the Arab world despite his distance from it. Their friendship, initiated in 1983, bore fruit in the form of Azzawi’s incorporation of Handala, Ali’s iconic creation, into his art. The presence of Handala in Azzawi’s works pays homage to his friend’s legacy while continuing to amplify the Palestinian narrative.

Despite his residence in London, throughout this period Azzawi remained deeply and psychologically connected to the tumultuous region of the Middle East. This enduring connection, even from afar, played a pivotal role in shaping what would eventually become some of his most iconic and emotionally charged works, infusing his art with a powerful sense of purpose and resonance that transcended geographical boundaries.

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