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6Qs with Artist Dia Azzawi //

byAhmad Khodr Minkara

azzawi_fenFull-time artist, Dia Azzawi was born and raised in Iraq. Though he has resided in London since 1976, the long exile has not diluted his passion for his homeland. Over the decades, Azzawi has built up an international reputation as a brilliant artist and his work has been exhibited extensively. His paintings prestigious places such as the Library of Congress and the Museums of Modern Art in Damascus, Amman and Tunisia and the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. A few years ago, his work received a distinct seal of approval from none other than the top French fashion designer Pierre Cardin, who saw Azzawi’s work at an exhibition in Paris, and bought two of his paintings, which he later displayed as centerpieces in his own fashion show. And to think that Azzawi almost became an archaeologist, instead of an artist!

1. How did your story with art begin?
As a child, I particularly enjoyed drawing, and would often copy images from magazines or draw my family at home. At that time, I preferred to utilize watercolors on paper. Upon reaching secondary school, I was fortunate enough to benefit from the encouragement of my art teacher, who allowed me to use the studio at school. There, I was able to experiment with a wider range of media.

Later, as a young man studying archaeology, I encountered the ancient art of the Middle East – Sumerian sculptures, Assyrian reliefs and others – all of which heavily influenced my work, and continue to do so today. I was also increasingly fascinated by the old poetry and mythology of Mesopotamia, and began producing art based around the famous Gilgamesh epic. Other sources of inspiration include literature, for example the One Thousand and One Nights and Sufi texts.

2. You have been quoted as saying: “I may be British on paper, but in reality, I’m an Arab. The colors I use are also Arab.” What are Arab colors?
These are the colors of the Bedouins, of the desert. Almost all tribes, from Morroco to the Gulf, share a preference for warm colors – reds, oranges, yellows – in contrast to Europe, where pastels are more common. Such colors stand out against the neutral tones of the desert, and, indeed, Bedouins will often surround a black tent with textiles of vibrant colours, as if replicating a garden.

When the European artists of the Cobra Movement travelled to Africa, they returned with a completely new color palate incorporating these warmer hues that were so characteristic of the area.

Dafatir or Art Book

3. You are famous for your dafatirs. Can you describe what they are?
Dafatirs are original works that take the form of a book, where the pages are themselves transformed into a canvas; often, the images are married with verse, though the narrative they represent is an abstract interpretation, rather than an illustration of the text. I have been interested in Dafatirs for some considerable time, producing my first piece back in 1968, entitled The Blood of Hussein. Following this, I created some work related to the Palestinian situation. At the end of the eighties I returned again to the form, producing, amongst others, a collection of work related to the first Gulf War, documenting the first three or four months of the tragedy. I then moved on to creating around twelve large books interpreting Arab poets; these remain in my collection, having not yet been exhibited. And the Book of Shame is a work about the destruction of the Iraqi Museum, and the brutality of the invasion.

4. You are known to be leader on the subject of the looting of the Museum of Iraq and the treasures of Mesopotamia. How have you been involved?
In terms of modern Iraqi art, I have in recent years been assisting Dr. Nada Shabout in this area. Difficulties arise as a result of the lack of documentation — pieces can spend several years wandering the market unnoticed. Initially, the early government could have prevented this by purchasing back the stolen items from the looters. In the long run, this would have in fact proved less costly, because the looters seldom possessed an understanding of the true value of the pieces.

5. You have produced numerous book illustrations for Contemporary Arab Literature. Can you elaborate on this experience?
Until the ’70s, I generated a lot of illustrations for poetry books or novels, perhaps because my interest in reading made me feel close to literature. However,

I wanted to take this idea further, to enter into a dialogue with the text rather than to simply illustrate it. The result was an abstract interpretation in shape and form,…

similar in concept to the work produced for my dafatirs. Thus, in order for the reader to properly appreciate the poem, an understanding of modern art is required.

The union of image and text adds another layer to be interpreted, draws on both forms to create a new, expressive vision.

6. Pierre Cardin bought two of your paintings in Paris. What were they?
Pierre Cardin is of course most renowned as a fashion designer, but he is also prominent for his work with furniture. The two paintings of mine that he bought from the Fiac Art Fair, and were later incorporated into his space at a furniture exhibition, as the colors of the paintings complemented those used for his furniture.


About the Author: Ahmad Khodr Minkara is a U.S.-based writer and physician. This piece was originally published on Dia Magazine. Nowar Naffouri also contributed to this piece.

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