Iraq’s rich cultural heritage, much overshadowed in recent decades by wars, has been at the core of Baghdad-born painter and sculptor Dia Azzawi’s 50-year career, a milestone which is being commemorated with a mini-retrospective by Dubai’s Meem Gallery at Frieze Masters this month.
The 10 paintings on display, selected with Azzawi’s involvement and shown here together for the first time, span the artist’s supercharged evolution within a single decade, between 1964 and 1973. During this time Azzawi graduated from the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad—after previously gaining a degree in archaeology in 1962—and became associated with a group of new-wave young Modernists, Baghdad Lil Fan al-Hadith (the Baghdad Group of Modern Art). His works from that period were rich in symbolism and iconography, demonstrating his intent to define an Iraqi formalism that was fuelled by the country’s folklore and mythology dating back to the Mesopotamian period. Toward the end of the decade, however, frustrated by the rigid parameters adhered to by his peers and feeling an urgent need to articulate the turbulence of the contemporary Arab world, he formed the Al-Ru’yya al-Jadidah (the New Vision group) in 1969. A politically charged group that surveyed the wider Arab region, they disbanded in 1973 and Azzawi left for London in 1976, seeking fresh perspectives on his country’s past.
Surveyed in this setting, Azzawi’s deep sense of self and awareness of his country’s narrative commingle in a universe of disparate elements, bringing the past and present into play with dynamic visual tensions, colors, and pointed symbolism. Witness the spare allegorical lyricism of early works such as Folkloric Mythology (1966) or Visit of al-Kassim (1968), and Azzawi’s trademark idiosyncrasies and jagged compositions. Indeed, curious and compelling juxtapositions abound throughout his oeuvre—the expressionistic animal forms, which pop up so frequently, recall mythical creatures of old, ripe with symbolic meaning. His recurring fondness for horses, for instance, frequently surfaces in his works, variously denoting the state of Iraq or the arduous journey the martyr must undertake to find safety and succour.
Azzawi’s early tendency toward dry, dusty, muted shades, underscores his exploration of Iraqi tradition and heritage. While these earlier works always carried with them a latent awareness of contemporary events—such as the revolution of 1958 and the coup of 1963, seismic events for which Iraqis paid a catastrophic toll—it was during the 1970s that his approach veered into bolder, more dramatic color schemes, and his need to characterize the massed human trauma of political mayhem intensified. In this retrospective, we find a country suffering the throes of political instability and facing an uncertain future, and Azzawi’s questing vision, imbued with the forgotten riches of the past.