Dia Azzawi (born 1939) is an Iraqi visual artist often regarded as one of the pioneers of modern Arab art. He lives in London and Doha. Dia al-Azzawi, an Iraqi-born painter, is an outstanding and world-class artist, art consultant, and author. Al-Azzawi’s work includes sculptures, prints, and drawings, as well as books through which visual art interacts with prose and poetry.
Poetry and folkloric memory drawn from ancient and contemporary Iraqi and Arab histories resonate in the artwork of internationally renowned Dia Al Azzawi. Azzawi’s acute understanding of antiquity and cultural heritage is evident in paintings, sculptures and prints that capture historical moments, often on a monumental scale. The artist’s awareness and sensitivity to representations of human suffering and turmoil carry through his work, as does his attempt to interlace space and time to demonstrate the eternal solidarity between different cultures and civilisations.
He has written several articles about Iraqi contemporary art and Arab art. He is a prominent artist of the Iraq school who played a role in the promotion of Iraqi and Arab art to wider audiences, notably through numerous publications and exhibitions of his contemporaries’ works. He has exhibited extensively in the Middle East, North Africa, United States, India, Brazil, and Europe, including a retrogressive exhibition, “Dia Azzawi,” at the Institute du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris in 2002.
The artist, who received degrees in archaeology from the University of Baghdad in 1962 and fine arts from Baghdad’s Institute of Fine Arts in 1964, worked at Iraq’s Department of Antiquities until 1976, and has since resided in London. Founder of the pivotal Iraqi art group New Vision in 1969, he was also part of One Dimension founded by Shakir Hassan Al-Said. Among Azzawi’s renowned works is the iconic mural Sabra and Shatila (1982-1985), part of the Tate Modern collection, reflecting on the brutal massacre of Palestinian refugees by the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia during the 1982 Israeli invasion.
Along with Shaker Hassan Al Saïd, Dia Al-Azawwi is regarded as one of Iraq’s most influential Modern artists, creating works that merge contemporary techniques with references to ancient traditions. A former archaeology student, Al-Azawwi grew up captivated by the artefacts of the Iraq Museum, which continued to hold an influence when he studied at Iraq’s Institute of Fine Art in 1964.
In 1969, Al-Azawwi became a founding member of Iraq’s New Vision Group, its members united not by style, but by a desire to change an art scene they felt had grown rigid. Active during a period of political unrest, their works also reflected a need to articulate a response to changes across the Arab world.
Having moved to the UK in 1976, Al-Azzawi found that by viewing Iraq from afar, he could understand more about Iraqi and Arabic culture than if he had remained. Al-Azzawi’s vast drawing Sabra and Shatila Massacre 1982–3, currently on show at Tate Modern, is an example of work that arose from this process of observation.
Dia al-Azzawi belongs to a generation of artists and intellectuals who were galvanized in their youth by the politics of Arab nationalism but crushed by the violence of dictatorship brought about by politics. His practice developed in response to that violence, becoming in the 1970s a witness to the various forms of oppression that broke out across the Arab world.
Made in response to the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut by Christian Lebanese Phalangists, the killings took place over several days in refugee camps kept under guard by the Israeli Defence Force. Al-Azzawi explains how working from imagination, he delineated the scenes of chaos and horror in a semi-abstract style to create a work that is not a propaganda piece, but which documents a tragedy.
Throughout the Middle East and the Western world, the works of al-Azzawi are highly valued for their uniqueness and cultural value. He became globally recognized as an artist and painter with participation in more than sixty-four exhibitions, which promoted Islamic and Arab art. He participated in many international exhibitions, such as the Mobile exhibition of Arab art in the Arab countries, in London, and in Rome. He also participated in the First Triennial of International Art in India in 1974; the Fourth and Fifth International Biennales of Posters in Yugoslavia; the International Caginess Sur Mer exhibition in France and the Venice Biennale in 1976; and the international exhibition of drawing in New York in 1977.
Al-Azzawi influenced the emergence of other Iraqi artists such as Maysaloun Faraj. He has also received several awards for his outstanding works. These include first prizes at the International Summer Academy, Salzburg, Austria (1975), and at the first Arab Contemporary Art Exhibition, Tunis (1981), and the Jury Prize at the International Cairo Biennale (1992)