Being Dia al-Azzawi: Chapter 4: The Artist Beyond the Gallery

Black Book of Beirut Port, No. 1, 2020 (recto)
Digital collage on polyester resin, 36 x 43 x 5 cm

Today, Dia al-Azzawi remains deeply engaged with the heart and soul of Lebanon just as he is with the wider region. His recent works bear witness to his steadfast commitment to giving a voice to the voiceless as catastrophic events have continued to play out in cities in the Middle East, from Baghdad to Beirut and beyond. The Black Book of Beirut (2020), for example, is a moving reflection on the devastating 4th August Beirut Port explosion, an event that shook the nation to its core. The limited use of colour – a sombre black palette with a red handprint – echoes the artist’s much earlier work A Witness of Our Times (1972), as if reminding us of tragedy’s power to haunt us through the ages and across borders, and of mankind’s inability to learn from the past.

Desert Rose, 2000–01 Acrylic on wood,
279 x 365 x 100 cm Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha

As an artist that believes in the importance of being present and engaged with the now, Azzawi is naturally a relentless experimenter with an openness to innovation. The artist’s journey into the world of wooden sculpture and furniture design, which began in the early 1990s, is the fruit of this. His first foray into this medium saw him collaborating with an Egyptian carpenter in Doha, resulting in the creation of Azzawi’s earliest wardrobes and a large sculpture called Desert Rose (2000–01), both made from painted wood. This experience marked the beginning of his exploration of the intricate relationship between art and utility. In 2006, the introduction of polyester resin into his artistic toolkit marked a significant milestone. This versatile medium, which he used to create monumental sculptures and a wide range of design objects, including chairs, became a hallmark of his work, encapsulating the intersection of form, function, and aesthetics.

The next chapter in this artistic journey unfolded in Lebanon. A meeting with Michel Kurban, facilitated by mutual friend Badr El-Hage, at the former’s residence in Dhour El Choueir. Kurban, an artisan who thrived away from the limelight, resonated with Azzawi’s vision. Together, they embarked on a creative collaboration that birthed not only painted sculptures, but also limited-edition furniture marked by Azzawi’s trademark palette and abstract shapes. These functional artworks were a visual embodiment of Azzawi’s dedication to experimentation and his belief in bridging the past with the contemporary.

Façade designed by Dia al-Azzawi for Nabu Museum

Azzawi’s move into functional objects was not only about pushing artistic boundaries, but also about reaching people, touching their lives, and even shaping their taste. This belief in art as a medium to connect with people beyond gallery walls is also reflected in the artist’s series of posters related to the October Revolution in Baghdad (2019). In contrast to the poster art in the 1960s and 1970s, today’s digital age automatically carries such images beyond the streets to a ready audience of smartphone and computer users.

A monument designed for the public and a permanent testament to Azzawi’s relationship with Lebanon are combined in Nabu Museum, located near Batroun to the north of Beirut. Amid this inimitable Azzawi-designed structure, echoes of the past harmonise with the present, reflecting the artist’s own journey as he continues to push the boundaries of artistic expression, preserve memory and inspire dialogue beyond borders.

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