Remembering Nadira Azzouz: the famed Iraqi artist whose heart was firmly in the Arab world

Mazen Azzouz shares memories of his mother as part of our Remembering the Artist series

My mother was so glamorous; she could throw on rags and look terribly chic. She looked sophisticated even for a trip to the supermarket, for which I’d often exclaim: “You’re not going to a soiree!” She would totally snub me and continue coiffing her hair, while seated on her dressing table adorned with glistening cases and bottles of Estee Lauder, Clinique and Chanel. I’d never known my mother to be an old lady — this was a woman who did Botox in her eighties — and she was certainly not happy about ageing. My mother didn’t just look young, she acted young and even young people gravitated towards her.

She was highly emotional, liked her own company, was never mistaken, always knew best and was fiercely independent. Utterly charming, she always got her way and was incredibly funny, all the way to her nineties. A wonderfully interesting, multifaceted character, she once discharged herself from hospital because she felt like it. She revelled in compliments, which in addition to getting for her appearance, humour and art, also got for her fine cooking. She was passionate about feeding and excelled in Levantine stuffed vine leaves, kibbeh (bulghur, minced meat, spices and onion) and various cuisines.

My mother didn’t take criticism well, and if you dared utter a negative comment, you were struck off the list. There was a masculinity about her, even though she looked feminine. One thing my mother most definitely was is assertive: she said what she wanted and stood up for it. I’d go so far as to say she was a revolutionary – in her thinking, behaviour and character. She spoke through her paintings; they were where she poured her emotions and where many answers lay. In many respects, she was a dark horse.

Nadira Azzouz at age 18. Photo: Mazen Azzouz

My parents met and married in 1946 in Iraq; my father was serious and down-to-earth, and my mother was vivacious and bubbly. Together, they were like chalk and cheese. For 15 years, they didn’t have children, and in that time, my mother pursued her childhood love for drawing by studying art at the School of Domestic Fine Arts in Baghdad, graduating in 1949, and later enrolled at the Central School of Art and Design in London in 1957, where she completed a bachelor’s degree. Three years later, she staged her first solo show in Baghdad and became an active member of the Society of Iraqi Plastic Arts with whom she exhibited her work. She pursued more art study in Cambridge and staged more shows in Baghdad and London, before moving to Beirut where my sister, Zina, and I were raised.

The Lebanese capital of the 1960s and early 1970s was golden, and my mother met and mingled with the cultural intelligentsia of the time. Looking back, I’d say she was at her happiest then.

Quote
She poured her love for her roots in her canvases and, in London, I saw the searing pain of longing and the sorrow of being away

She staged solo exhibitions at Beirut’s seminal Gallery One in 1965 and the other in 1974. She created large-scale works, which at up to 3 x 2 metres were quite unconventional of the time. In those canvases, she allowed the paint to drip on the figures and forms, which she would then refine. Her artistic expressions were outrageous, explosive and uber abstract, and as the political situation tensed, chaos began to appear at the bottom of her canvases. She illustrated her feelings about the civil war exactly as the conflict unfolded: it crept into society just as it crept into her paintings.

Tensions rose, the political situation worsened, and I was sent to boarding school. My parents stayed on in Beirut, hopelessly in love with the city. Things escalated, and in 1980, they moved to London. Iraq and Lebanon remained engrained in their hearts and minds, and I could see the pain of this exodus in my mother’s work. My God did she love the Arab world. It was only then that I realised that she had always expressed her love for the region and its heritage in her work — her inspiration was rooted in medieval Arab manuscript illumination, the Sumerian and Assyrian civilisations, as well as the motifs in handicrafts and rugs. She poured her love for her roots in her canvases and, in London, I saw the searing pain of longing and the sorrow of being away.

'The Cave' (1971), oil on canvas, by Nadira Azzouz.

When she painted, she shut off from the rest of the world and no one was allowed to be around. I guess that explains her 3am wake-up to paint. It was an urge, and if she didn’t find a canvas, she resorted to cardboard or magazines, grabbing anything, desperate to release her pent-up emotions. She was her own planet orbiting around itself and she mastered the knack of keeping everyone at bay, wholeheartedly believing that she was different and unconventional.

In 1988, she participated in the exhibition Arab Women Artists in the UK at the influential and now-defunct Kufa Gallery in London that was instrumental in showing the works of leading Arab artists.

Never one with a commercial mind, my mother continued to paint and though my father was consistently disinterested, it didn’t deter her. Both Zina and I encouraged her and came along to exhibitions, which she enjoyed tremendously. She had a fundamental conviction in art and in the need to create it. Art was paramount and it was clear that her life depended on it. She could detach from everyone and channelled her emotions internally — and I saw that pique after my sister’s death in 2008.

Nadira Azzouz at Kufa Gallery in 1988.

I can see that my mother was a conflicted person who struggled with the issue of belonging. I started to sense increased solitude in her work, and however vivacious she was, there was an insecurity, an isolation. I saw that she painted grief — her own at having lost herself. You see, in the Arab world, she was something of an artistic delicacy; she stood out as a female artist, had a voice, a strong personality, was glamorous and respected. In London, she was an outsider, an unknown. In the Arab world, she was nadira, which means unique.

Before she died in 2020, I thanked her for the legacy of her painting, which made her happy. She would be over the moon to know that her work is being acquired and appreciated in the Arab world — where her heart always was.

Moments in Time, an online solo exhibition for Nadira Azzouz will run from April 27-May 25, 2022 on www.janetradyfineart.com

Updated: April 08, 2022, 6:02 PM