Pioneering artist Dia Al-Azzawi's UK retrospective showcases contrasting facets of Iraq

The overdue exhibition of one of the Arab world's great 20th century artists pairs tragedy of modern warfare with artwork of ancient Mesopotamia

Two dafatir by Dia Al-Azzawi, based on poems by Muzaffar al-Nawab: a long, concertinaed booklet and a miniature, almost doll-size version of a book © Ashmolean Museum. Photo: Hannah Pye
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After decades at the forefront of Arab art, Dia Al-Azzawi, the acclaimed Iraqi artist, has opened his first-ever retrospective in the UK. Running until June 11 at the Ashmolean, Oxford University’s art and archaeology museum, the exhibition highlights the continuity between Al-Azzawi and the Arab cultural tradition.

Titled Painting Poetry, the exhibition focuses on his dafatir, or the manuscript-like depictions of poetry that became an important part of the artist’s work in the 1980s. Somewhere between painting, sculpture, poetry and prose, the dafatir or “notebooks” in Arabic defy conventional categorisation.

“There is nothing in these that you can say, 'this is a painting or this is illustration, or this is a sculpture’,” explains Al Azzawi. “This is an object that reflects my culture is an Arab.”

The works come in many guises. Folded and richly painted, they transcribe and depict poems by modern Arab writers — such as Adonis, Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi and Saadi Youssef— alongside those from the classical tradition.

Others play with sculptural form, incorporating objects into the notebook itself or with books becoming, effectively, sculptures themselves. The 2003 work Book of Shame: Destruction of the Iraq Museum opens like a precious case, enclosing a plaster facsimile of a museum object on the one side, and on the other, a copy of a manuscript of the Maqamat Al-Hariri, painted to appear torn and burnt. As with all of Al-Azzawi’s work, politics and the pain borne by his home country are never far off.

Dia Al-Azzawi and curator Francesca Leoni inspect his 10-metre tapestry, Mosul: Panorama of Destruction (2017/2022) © Ashmolean Museum. Photo: Hannah Pye

Arranged chronologically, the Ashmolean show sketches out the dafatirs' development. The works start with Al-Azzawi’s first responses to poetry, in ink on paper, and move through the variety of ways he has approached this multifaceted form of the illustrated notebook.

Unlike art historians focusing on 20th-century Arab art, exploring modernism's rupture with the past, the show's curator Francesca Leoni, who comes from an Islamic manuscripts background, sees continuity.

“Dia is attracted to very specific poets, first for their ability to use their own craft — of poetry or literature — but also their ability to take a stance and be extremely subtle about the way they do it,” Leoni says. “It is the sense of injustice and the tragedy of war and loss that he's talking about.”

Leoni complemented Al-Azzawi’s works with elements drawn from the Ashmolean collection, such as a small carved figure from 2,500 BCE and a bust of the goddess Ishtar.

“You look at the figures with the deep eyes, and you can see his points of reference,” she says. “He’s not necessarily citing Ishtar, but he's picking up elements of this visual legacy and then reusing it as part of his own language. He draws also on the symbolism of certain forms, such as the same struggles with mortality that Gilgamesh might have embodied."

One pairing juxtaposes a 19th-century Iranian illustration of the story of Leila and Majnun with Al-Azzawi’s rendition of it, Of Layla: Qasim Haddad (1998). Where the older version depicts the impossibility of their love — Leila physically distanced from Majnun, who lies naked on the side of the page — Al-Azzawi gives voice to their passion for one another, in a folded dafatir in which the two figures merge with shades of red.

“Dia is saying, let us reject the word of rigidity and imitation,” explains Leoni. “He’s not saying, this is my legacy, I'm just drawing on it. He tries to identify those themes or those motifs that hold timeless meaning or transcend their moment in time … He looks at his Mesopotamian past because he is a trained archaeologist. We tend to separate them scholarly, but it's a continuum. This is the history of Iraq.”

Al-Azzawi's Of Layla: Qasim Haddad (1998) underlines the passion of the love story. Photo: Ashmolean Museum

The modern history of Iraq is incomplete without a discussion of conflict. Far from the scale and intimacy of a dafatir, Al-Azzawi’s 10-metre-long tapestry commemorating the destruction of Mosul also makes its debut at Painting Poetry. Drawn in 2017 and now woven by the art conservation company Factum Arte, the work reveals a cacophony of violence and pain.

Blindfolded figures await execution; limbs are jumbled below military helmets; a bicycle sits without a rider. It is a stunning, museum-worthy response to the demise of a city and its immense cultural history, which Al-Azzawi, who once served as curator at the Mosul Museum, knew well.

Born in 1939, Al-Azzawi was part of the second generation of modern Iraqi artists, following the Golden Age of Jewad Selim, Shakir Hassan Al Said and others. He was first educated as an archaeologist and worked as curator of the Iraq Museum and the new museums of Nasiriyah, in the south, in addition to his time in Mosul.

Like many artists of his time, he navigated between a desire for modernity in art, which often came in the form of western-style painting, and a loyalty to his country’s own cultural tradition. Hurufiyya, or the abstraction of Arabic letters, is often considered one answer to this productive conundrum, as Al-Azzawi and others experimented with moving calligraphy out of its strict geometric confines and on to the freer space of the canvas.

But his later discovery of working in dafatir, he says, was equally significant. The artist realised he had found a way to make his culture modern while still reflecting its histories of performed poetry and illustrated manuscripts.

Working in his studio in North London, the shared medium of dafatir enabled Al-Azzawi to help support his friends back home. “It was so difficult for them to survive,” he says. “Most of the artists had just either finished their service as soldiers, or they didn’t have jobs. They relied on painting and the market there was not that big. During that time, I managed to contact some of them. I asked them how I could react to what’s going on because I'm sitting somewhere too far from them.”

Al-Azzawi's dafatir takes the idea of a book into new, sculptural directions © Ashmolean Museum. Photo: Hannah Pye

“When it comes to painting, like any artist, I have to face a lot of difficulties,” he recalls. “How much I can implement, or get my culture as an Arab to be part of the images there? This is when hurufiyya began, as part of the search for identity, of how much I can relate to my culture and how I can benefit from the work of other artists… [But] if I had known about the manuscripts, definitely I would have made a lot of changes before.”

Ironically, it was only by leaving the Arab world that Al-Azzawi came across the idea for the dafatir. When he arrived in London in 1976, the artist found that the great Islamic manuscripts were in the collections of the British Library and other world museums. He began thinking of creating facsimiles of ancient Islamic poetry that he could then return to the Arab region.

Dates vary for Al-Azzawi’s first official daftar vary — which may seem like an academic point, but one that is coming into focus as his studio, led by Louisa Macmillan, prepares his catalogue raisonne, or the prestigious compendium of all the works of an artists’ practice, ahead of its launch later this year.

But it is clear that the form rose to prominence during the 1980s and 1990s, both for Al-Azzawi and for artists in Iraq. At the time, artists there were suffering from the effects of the First Gulf War and US-led sanctions. Paint, canvases, brushes and other fine-art material were limited — as were the resources to buy them.

A detail from Mosul: Panorama of Destruction, 2017/2022, made in cotton, acrylic, and wool, and depicting the fall of Mosul © Ashmolean Museum. Photo: Hannah Pye

Al-Azzawi began buying up the dafatir, sending artists money and receiving the thin, concertinaed books in the post in return. His collection today now numbers about 250, arranged in alphabetical order on metal stacks in a room in his studio. The Ashmolean is temporarily exhibiting some of these works, by Ghassan Ghaib, Mahmoud Obaidi and Moaid Nama, in its Islamic Middle East collection.

Al-Azzawi’s studio is itself a museum of its own, with rooms and shelves heaving with the artists’ varied creations. Despite having lived in the UK for more than 40 years and despite his awesome stature in the Arab world, Al-Azzawi has never had a major retrospective in Europe — and indeed, has only shown his work a handful of times.

The Ashmolean show is shockingly overdue and, it has to be said, regrettably small. The flip side of Europe's neglect, however, is Al-Azzawi's continued commitment to the Arab world. Although made in North London, in a studio perfumed by the chemical smell of a biscuit factory next door, his work has remained almost exclusively concerned with matters of significance to the Arab world: its poetry and stories, as well as its political troubles and tragedies.

But as the British art world slowly opens its doors to non-western artists, Al-Azzawi also shows that political troubles and tragedy are not confined by geography. Like Gilgamesh, like the Sumerians, his commemorations of struggle — and love — are general to all.

Updated: January 10, 2023, 1:13 PM