Being Dia al-Azzawi: The Luminous Face Of Humanity By Claude Lemand

In an exclusive interview, Selections magazine asks gallerist Claude Lemand to reflect on an almost three- decade relationship with Dia al-Azzawi and how he has played a role in ensuring that the artist’s work remains in the public eye.

Your relationship with Dia al-Azzawi was pivotal in bringing his works to a wider audience. How has this collaboration enriched your understanding of his artistic vision and the messages he aimed to convey?

Dia al-Azzawi, Gilgamesh, enkido enters the forest of the body, 1987. Mixed media on paper on canvas, 160 x 120 cm

For nearly three decades, the Claude Lemand Gallery has been proud to regularly showcase the works of Dia al-Azzawi, an artist who embodies positive modernity and envisions art as a contribution to universal happiness and the emergence of a new Arab civilisation that is in harmony with itself as well as other civilisations. Azzawi’s artistic journey is, in his own words, “part of the renaissance movement of Arab art, though it is universal in its dimension and intimately linked to the history and values of contemporary culture.”

He stands as a unique figure, dedicating over half a century of his artistic career to shedding light on the tragedies and struggles faced by the Palestinian people. In 2003, in collaboration with Mahmoud Darwish, the Cité du Livre of Aix-en-Provence celebrated the 20th anniversary of his 1983 works related to Sabra and Shatila. Now, here we are, in 2023, celebrating the 40th anniversary of this emblematic work, right in the heart of the tragic events, and in the city that Azzawi has always loved: Beirut.

In 2018, after learning that I had loaned Azzawi’s We Are Not Seen, But [as] Corpses to the Picasso Museum, the Arab World Institute President, Jack Lang, said to me, “Come and exhibit Azzawi with us! The Arab World Institute is your home!”. I visited the Arab World Institute Museum and all its exhibition spaces and was surprised by the response of its managers: “No space is available for such an exhibition for two years, and besides, it needs to be funded”. I pointed out that the museum’s entrance was empty and plunged into darkness and decided to take charge of the lighting system. I offered two portfolios to the museum and wrote a press release in French and Arabic. Eric Delpont curated a modest exhibition with beautiful signage, and we invited all the friends of my gallery and the Arab World Institute, headed by Leila Shahid. Contrary to the prejudices of those in charge, this powerful and committed contemporary art was greatly appreciated by the media and the numerous visitors.

This first exhibition sparked a tradition of organising guided tours, driven by my passion for sharing art – a passion that has given profound meaning to my life, I who escaped death and found therapy and happiness in a love of art. Shortly after, the agreement was concluded between us and Jack Lang, and we made a first donation of 1,300 works, unanimously accepted by the Arab World Institute Board of Directors on 17th June 2018. Subsequent donations have followed on the occasion of each temporary exhibition, and which will have reached a total of more than 1,700 by the end of 2023.

In my essay [for the 2013 solo exhibition] Painting and Poetry, I delve into the intellectual, aesthetic, and material aspects of creating some of Dia al-Azzawi’s original and impactful works. I also recount the insights I have shared with journalists, speakers, and the visiting public regarding his art. As I’ve previously conveyed, “On the occasion of the Guernica exhibition at the Picasso Museum in Paris, masterful and historical works by the Iraqi artist Dia al-Azzawi are to be discovered at the entrance of the Arab World Institute Museum: all nine plates of We Are Not Seen, But [as] Corpses: The Massacre of Sabra and Shatila Camps (1983) and the 16 silkscreen prints in The Body’s Anthem (1979). In the Picasso Museum’s catalogue, there is a reflection by Dia al-Azzawi: “With Guernica, Picasso created a turning point in my art and in the whole history of art, he managed to invent simple and expressive, historical and universal symbols, a style in accordance with our human and moral values of rejection of any use of violence against civilians, that no ideology or political regime can justify”.

Dia al-Azzawi’s commitment to defending fundamental human values for oppressed Arab peoples spans over 50 years. Could you share some insights into how he expressed this commitment through his monumental artworks? Born in 1939 in Baghdad, Dia al-Azzawi obtained a university degree in archaeology, and later a diploma from the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. During his youth, he was involved with the Iraqi Communist Party, like many left-wing Iraqi intellectuals. Later, he became an ardent Arab nationalist following the Iraqi revolution of 1963. Subsequently, after the Arab defeat of 1967, he engaged in an intense production of graphic works in collaboration with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and its publication, al-Hadaf. This was the heyday of international solidarity among artists and the production of high-quality aesthetic posters in the Arab world.

Dia al-Azzawi, Land of Darkness, 1993 Charcoal on paper, 65 x 50 cm (each)

The massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila camps, perpetrated in September 1982, during the Lebanese Civil War and under Israeli army occupation, deeply shocked Azzawi. For the first time of many, he was inspired by photos of the massacre published by televisions and newspapers around the world. From his London studio, the artist drew the polyptych Sabra and Shatila Massacre. He exhibited it in Kuwait as early as 1983, then my gallery brought it from Doha in 2003 and exhibited it with three sets of works, alongside those of Rachid Koraïchi, at the request of the great poet Mahmoud Darwish, to whom the Cité du Livre of Aix-en-Provence paid a vibrant tribute, with the participation of the poet himself and his friend and translator, Elias Sanbar. Subsequently, the Arab World Institute Museum declined the offer of this work and this masterpiece has been part of the Tate Modern collection since July 2012.

In January 1983, Azzawi came across Four Hours in Shatila, a story penned on-site by Jean Genet, who had just arrived in Beirut with Leïla Shahid and visited the Palestinian camps the day after the massacres. Genet’s account became the source of inspiration for Azzawi’s nine original prints (eight engravings and a lithograph), with a title page and a page featuring an extract of Jean Genet’s text in a trilingual edition: We Are Not Seen, But [as] Corpses: The Massacre of Sabra and Shatila Camps, 1983.

Throughout his youth and his artistic journey, Azzawi remained committed to standing alongside the Palestinian people in their struggle for survival and the reclamation of their homeland. Since Black September, he had become accustomed to drawing by listening to the recorded testimonies of witnesses, and Mahmoud Darwish poems, often read by the poet himself. In 1976, he completed about 40 drawings on the fall of the Tel al-Za‘atar camp, located on a hill overlooking Beirut. In January 1979, he published a portfolio of 16 silkscreen prints, The Body’s Anthem, which he exhibited in Rabat and in December in Baghdad. He also published a book covering the poems of Mahmoud Darwish, Tawfiq al-Sayegh and Tahar Ben Jelloun, in a trilingual edition, illustrated with the engravings that these poems had inspired and a selection of drawings from 1976.

These two portfolios represent one of the two sides of the great Iraqi artist’s work from London: Picasso’s influence on works inspired by the massacres and violent events that have traumatised the Arab world for decades and Matisse’s influence on cheerful and colourful works that express his call to the joy of living in nature, the cities and gardens of the East. Thus, as a counterpoint to the extinguished eyes and eviscerated bodies of the victims, come the faces, angry eyes and muscular bodies of the resistors. And on the other side of his work, Azzawi paints expressions of free and fulfilled love and sexuality, the faces and sparkling eyes of the lovers Majnun and Layla, the beauty of shapes and colours, of bodies and naked women.

Can you elaborate on the major role that Dia al-Azzawi played during the 1970s in reshaping the relations that existed among artists from the Arab World?
Dia al-Azzawi was the first and leading pan-Arab artist who developed relations between the Mashreq and Maghreb artists in the 1970s. In 1972, he was one of the main organisers and animators of al- Wasiti Festival in Baghdad. He invited many young innovative artists of his generation to Baghdad and forged links with Palestinian, Moroccan, Algerian, Sudanese, Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian artists and writers. He especially forged links with the great innovative Moroccan artists of his generation and exhibited several times in the galleries of Morocco. From Baghdad, Beirut, Rabat and London, he was the driving force behind festivals and biennials, pivoting the focus from North-South colonial relations towards a more inclusive Arab and international East-West axis.

Dia al-Azzawi, Blue Bird, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 150 x 150 cm.

In 1976, he left Iraq and settled in London, where he was appointed the artistic director of the Iraqi Cultural Centre in 1978. He curated exhibitions featuring artists from the Arab world, spanning from the Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean, as well as artists from various Arab diasporas and the rest of the Third World. He actively participated in founding and contributing to Arabic art magazines and exhibited his works in London and across various Arab countries.

Between 1983 and 1991, Azzawi was among the most active artists associated with the Waddah Faris gallery in Paris, in terms of solo exhibitions and group exhibitions with Arab diaspora artists, such as Shafic Abboud, Assadour, Farid Belkahia, and Adam Henein. He also took part in the International Contemporary Art Fair of Paris and Art Basel in 1984, presenting an exceptional collection of paintings that explored the theme of the travelling and wounded bird – a symbol of migrants in search of beauty, freedom, and fraternity.

In 2003, Azzawi was the guest of honour at the Strasbourg fair, where his paintings graced both the Claude Lemand Gallery stand and the expansive entrance hall of the fair. His works continued to be featured in prestigious art events, including the Paris Art Fair at the Grand Palais in 2013 and the Armory Show in New York in 2015.

What can you tell us about Dia al-Azzawi’s role in the renaissance of illustration as an art form in the Arab world?
Azzawi recognised the manuscript and the illustrated book as one of the most brilliant and original manifestations in the historic Arab world’s artistic history. He played a fundamental role in the revival of the Arabic book as a work of art. He published exquisite facsimiles of several Qurans from Western libraries, in particular the calligraphic Maqamat al-Hariri, illustrated with over 100 original full-page paintings by the illustrious Yahya al-Wasiti, and the Kitab al- Diryaq, which featured elegant medical and bucolic miniatures, alongside harmonious and breathtaking scholarly geometric compositions in Kufic script. These facsimiles were accompanied by research from leading specialists, funded and published by Azzawi. He also, and above all, set an example with one hundred handwritten and painted artists’ books, and he financed the production of many Iraqi artists of the next generation, all exiled since the destructive wars unjustly waged by the West against Iraq.

With a profound passion for graphic arts and publishing, he established a print studio workshop in London, producing a multitude of original prints, portfolios, and artist’s books. He played a vital role in the creation and dissemination of modern Arabic graphic arts, both in Europe and the Arab world. Under various names and at different times, he also founded his own publishing houses. His work has constantly built visual worlds, autonomous and parallel to those of poets, with an equal mastery of ancient and recent Western techniques: etching, lithography, silkscreen and digital printing, which fascinate him and of which he has acquired technical mastery.

He is a painter, sculptor, book artist, and advocate for young Iraqi talent, with numerous solo exhibitions to his name in galleries, international fairs, museums, and art centres worldwide. His art can be found in public and private collections around the globe. In 2001, the Arab World Institute organised a retrospective exhibition in his honour and published a catalogue. Additionally, Qatar Museums hosted a double retrospective in 2016- 2017, accompanied by a masterful catalogue.

In 2023, the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford hosted an exhibition and Azzawi published a scholarly and beautiful catalogue of his many notebooks and artist’s books. These represent the fruit of his ongoing dialogue with stories and poets of the pre-Islamic mu’allaqat, who have inspired him throughout his life: The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Martyrdom of Al-Hussein, The Thousand and One Nights, Majnun Layla, the great poets, the masters of classical Arabic literary such as al- Mutanabbi, Ibn Hazm, or Wallada bint al-Mustakfi, the lovestruck princess and free poet from 11th-century Andalusia. As for the modern Arab poets, he skilfully selected the finest from nearly every Arab country.

How do you see Dia al-Azzawi’s legacy continuing to influence both the art world and the broader discourse on human rights and social justice in the Arab world and beyond?

His works related to tragedies are the most famous. They are masterful, with unquestionable draftsmanship, expressionist and poignant. They express revolt in the face of so much injustice, aggression, torture, death, and desire to colonise and destroy peoples, to disrupt entire countries, plunder their wealth and instigate pointless wars that are often fratricidal. However, it is essential not to ignore or neglect another part of his work, which for me is just as important to be shown and appreciated, and which will remain for future generations: that of the love of life, the will to live freely and in fraternity, to enjoy loving, friendly relationships, eyes filled with the beauty of our countries’ landscapes and those of the whole planet, including the secrets of the desert.

Dia al-Azzawi, The Arabian Nights, 1986 Gouache on paper, 63 x 71 cm

In 1976, Azzawi left Iraq and never returned, but the Iraqi land, its cumulative civilisations and its people permanently inhabit his memory and his heart, such as in Sunset over Basrah (1985) or Morning Light (1993). He also loves the desert, its fauna and flora, as seen in Desert Flower (2010), and the popular arts of its tribes. We must reread the admirable tribute that the painter Corneille paid to his dazzling paintings of the 1980s, as a true heir to the textile arts of the Bedouin of Iraq and the Arab world. Azzawi has also always loved Lebanon and its urban tradition of freedom and joie de vivre, and Beirut as a world-city where life is good, rather than any other city in the world, while he also has held a fondness since his youth for Andalusia, Morocco and its oases, as seen in Majorelle Garden (2005).

To give other examples from the works in our collection, the theme of the bird is fundamental to Azzawi’s art, with its diverse symbolism, expressed by the shapes and colours he gives it, as in The Blue Bird (1983). To greet the year 2000, he painted Window No. 1, featuring a multi-hued dove, a symbol of peace and openness to the world and to a new millennium. Black Roots (2001), meanwhile, is a nightmare vision in New York: the Twin Towers are still standing but black and charred, surrounded by enormous dark flames creeping up, whilst the sky and horizon are black. This work stands in contrast to the luminous Blue Landscape from 2016, or the Peace Lover sculpture of 1986. These are all works that are part of our huge donation to the Arab World Institute Museum. This donation gives meaning to my life as an exile in Paris, the city that adopted me and which I adopted. These works of art will be widely shown to millions of visitors who, I hope, will love them as much as we have loved them. Their mission will be to bear witness to the luminous face of humanity.

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