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Encyclopedia of Modern Art and Arab World
موســــوعة الفـن الحديـــث والعالــم العربـــي
Artists' Index

Notes for an Autobiography Dia al-Azzawi


Written by Dia al-Azzawi  

The Early Years


As a child, I was interested in what are called handicrafts. I would use cardboard to create different shapes or wire to make [little] cars that I would show off to the other kids in my neighbourhood. From time to time, I would try to draw members of my family. I was soon copying pictures from Arabic magazines, particularly ones from Egypt. In middle school, I discovered the library of the United States Information Service (USIS) Cultural Centre, which was located in the Waziriyya district, on the banks of the Tigris. There I had the freedom to peruse books and magazines of all kinds, and perhaps it was in those days that I started to become familiar with international art and academic art in particular.

It was when I entered the Markaziyya Preparatory School in 1955, and discovered the school's studio, that I settled on painting [and sculpture], and abandoned my other hobbies and interests, with the exception of reading. The encouragement I received from my art teacher, Mr Ibrahim, enabled me to build on what I had seen at the USIS library and impressed on me the necessity of continuing to draw freely, with encouragement from home, where I made dozens of drawings. I showed these to Mr Ibrahim and he would point out my mistakes.

The nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956, and its consequences, ignited the streets of Iraq with demonstrations in support [of Egypt].[1] The Markaziyya Preparatory School and Karakh Secondary School were at the forefront of confrontations with the police. The government resorted to everything in its power to suppress the protests, and that was followed by the arrest of some students and the expulsion of others. I was one of those expelled.

More than a month later, the government organised a visit by King Faisal II to my school, in order to show him that things had returned to normal. I was asked to return to school, possibly at the suggestion of my art teacher, who knew that the king had a love of painting and painted himself. During his visit to the school's studio, the king was shown my work, which he admired. The administration gave him one of my works, and I was given the chance to meet him at the Royal Palace.

On the date chosen for the meeting, I went with the headmaster of the school to the palace. We waited with the chief of the court for about a quarter of an hour. The headmaster was cursing the protesters, shooting me looks from time to time, until the chief of the court asked us to follow him. The king's office was small, containing no more than a desk and two simple chairs for guests. The king received me standing, and spoke to me jovially for a few minutes. The meeting concluded with a promise to send me abroad to study art after I obtained my baccalaureate. When I left, the chief of the court gave me a clock bearing the king's picture, as the headmaster continued to curse the protesters. In July [1958], a revolution toppled the monarchy and along with it my dream of going abroad.[2]

Ibrahim Jalal, an actor and director who was a friend of my older brother Majeed, helped me greatly. He had studied theatre at the Institute of [Fine] Arts and he helped me enroll in the College of Arts to study archaeology. From my first days at the university, I had the opportunity to join the studio run by the artist Hafidh al-Druby, and also learn about the arts of antiquity through my study of archaeology. Druby's humility along with his desire to create an environment that allowed students to think freely drew me and a number of other students to the studio.

It wasn't long before I started visiting Druby in the afternoons at the College of Science, where he also ran a studio. From time to time, I would help him fill out a few large paintings, including one of Babylon and Ishtar [Processional] Way, and another of the Battle of Qadisiyya. His scholarly source for these works was his friend, the archaeologist Mohammad Ali, known in archaeological circles as "Uncle Ali", and often the days would end at Druby's home, where we would stay up late into the night.

After a year at the College of Arts, I decided to enroll (in evening classes) at the Institute of Fine Arts, but this did not change my relationship with Druby. From time to time, he would still ask me to work on a painting, or he would talk to me about the importance of composition, and of the unity of the elements in a painting, even though my work was beginning to be influenced by other artists like Faiq Hassan, Mahmoud Sabri and Kadhim Haidar. These were artists whose work I had first discovered through the Nadi al-Mansur exhibition in 1956. I was 17 at the time and I was awed by the various works on display there and, two weeks later, in an "exhibition of rejects" at the Iraqi Women's Union, showing work by Nouri al-Rawi, Kadhim Haidar and others that had been rejected by the jury of the Nadi al-Mansur exhibition. But my study of archaeology in the first few years was a decisive factor in the direction my artistic interests would take. It gave me knowledge of Mesopotamian art in all its diversity, in addition to knowledge of the art of [other civilisations in] the region, as well as folk art.

My teachers included some of the most prominent archaeologists in Iraq, in particular Taha Baqir and Fuad Safar, both of whose knowledge was encyclopaedic. Baqir introduced me to ancient literature, with an emphasis on The Epic of Gilgamesh. He advised me to read From the Tablets of Sumer by Samuel Noah Kramer, a book that I still have to this day.[3] I thus came to have access to an immense store of knowledge [about art], in addition to reading the well known epics of antiquity, at a time when everything around me at the Institute of Fine Arts began with Roman statues, and led to studying the history of European art in general. This relationship predisposed me to experiment, and so the components and motifs of most of my early works were drawn from ancient or popular art.

In February 1963, the regime of Abd al-Karim Qasim fell.[4] It came after years of bitter rivalry between political forces in the country, and conflict over the nature of the regime. In the first days [after the coup], violence broke out as the leftist forces and Qasim's supporters put up fierce resistance.[5] This led to the arbitrary arrest of hundreds of intellectuals and professionals, and I was among them, spending two months in the central prison. But the resistance did not last and Qasim was executed along with several leaders of the Iraqi Communist Party.[6]  The name Qasr al-Niha¯ya  (The Palace of the End), where my brother Majeed spent two months, became known everywhere as a place of torture. That experience had significant implications that manifested later on, in the stance I took in regard to the complicated political landscape that emerged around me. It also appeared in my works relating to the Palestinian question, which I would use as a window to speak out freely against authoritarianism and repression.

First Exhibitions


The annual exhibition of the Iraqi Artists' Society was the most important exhibition in Baghdad and, in 1964, I participated for the first time, showing five oil paintings. The National Museum of Modern Art acquired one of these works, which motivated me to further develop my practice, and I also won a competition to design the exhibition poster [that year]. The first poster I had designed had been for the Iraqi film Abu Hayla, starring Yusuf al-Ani in 1962, which resulted from the development of my early work on posters by looking at [images of] an annual poster exhibition in Warsaw.[7] In 1965, I won a competition to design the poster of the Baghdad International Exhibition. From then on, the poster would constitute a key part of my practice, and I would try to promote it through local and international projects, driven by a personal interest to see this art form find a place in Iraqi art.

I had my first solo exhibition in February 1965 at  al-Wasiti Gallery. In that group of work, I tried to address a set of ideas that culturally referenced my university studies. This is clear in the subjects my work dealt with in this and the other two exhibitions in which I participated that year: the annual exhibition of the Iraqi Artists' Society and the fifth exhibition of the Impressionists' Group. At the same time, I was invested in developing my interest in the use of the line, which I consider to be one of the most important elements in my practice. For it takes a careful act of imagination in order to render subjects without relying upon supplementary elements like colour, such that the line, with its varying extensibility and sinuousness, remains the structural link in the composition, and which intrinsically drives the work. 

That year a number of other artists had solo shows, such as Rafa Nasiri, Ismail Fattah, Ghazi Saudi, Mohammad Muhriddin, Suad al-Attar and Kadhim Haidar. The work on display was largely the result of years studying abroad, and these artists brought subjects and interests that were completely different to what had been prevalent in Baghdad. That occurred in the two exhibitions that elicited the biggest reaction [at the time]: The Epic of the Martyr by Kadhim Haidar, and an exhibition of painting and sculpture by Ismail Fattah.[8]  These exhibitions generated the most debate about what constitutes a painting, its relation to local identity and the possibility of further opening what these artists had achieved.

Whether on account of my relationship with the Iraqi Pioneers (such as Faiq Hassan and Jewad Selim),[9] or because of my artistic and academic education, I was in [terms of] my own practice more on the "local" side in those debates. I found the works presented by Kadhim Haidar, which were related to popular and oral traditions about the slaughter of al-H˙usayn, closer to my artistic orientation, particularly in the way they were able to bind the artwork to Iraq's cultural traditions. This subject matter wasn't new; in the 1950s, [Haidar] had done work on the same set of traditions, but it was in a different style and perspective to what he [then] brought back from studying theatre design in London. The influence of theatre design is clear in the modifications he made to the popular motifs he worked with and, across this set of work, he was able to achieve a thematic unity and dramatic build-up of the staged event, turning the exhibition space into an imaginary theatre. That theatrical effect endowed the various motifs and elements he used with a particular quality, which remained in his later work.

This way of relating motifs transmitted [from the past] to a modern way of looking, and the ability to link the visual and the oral, inspired me to move in this direction. It built on the works of Jewad Selim that I had seen, and on my knowledge of the history of the ancient civilisations of Iraq, and it later guided me towards an interest in oral folklore and the decorative motifs found in different varieties of popular rugs. The variety known as bissāt˙  al-Samāwa inspired me most in designing ornamental compositions with  interlocking geometric shapes.

In 1965, I was accepted on a research program in Poland to specialise in art conservation; however, I was called up for military service in September, and despite all my efforts, I was unable to join the program. After six months of training in Baghdad, I was assigned to the military units in Mosul and I spent [my time there] between the towns of Aqra, Dinarta and al-Shikhan. I served until October 1966. During that time, my first solo exhibition in Beirut opened at Gallery One, which was run by the poet Yusuf al-Khal. He had seen my show [at al-Wasiti Gallery] when he visited Baghdad, and invited me to exhibit in Beirut.

After completing my military service, I worked for a few months with an archaeological team at the site of the Abbasid Palace of al-Ukhaydir, near Karbala. While working there, I had a lot of free time and made several clay figurines that I later cast in plaster. The sculptures varied in subject and size but were in keeping with my interests in Sumerian art.

These works were shown in April 1967 in my solo exhibition at the new studio centre built for the Iraqi Artists' Society, along with 29 oil paintings and 20 drawings called Study for The Epic of Gilgamesh. Samuel Noah Kramer's book on ancient Sumerian literature had motivated me to read Gilgamesh, and I made a series of drawings based on the epic, some of which were published in 1965 in the magazine al-ʿĀmilūn fīʾl-Naft˙ (Oil Workers), edited by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. With these drawings, from 1966 onwards, I tried to create a set of work with minimal detail and an emphasis on artistic composition, with distinct, independent signs and symbols, and a monochromatic background with gradations of gold or silver.

In February 1968, I had a solo exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art, where I showed watercolour and oil paintings, most of which were called Tales of One Thousand and One Nights. These works were distinguished by their distance from illustration and the independence of their compositions, where line and decorative motifs overlap. Watercolour added a certain aesthetic effect to the work as a whole and, at the same time, a distinctive visual coherence.

Text and Image


I was passionate about reading, and I read a lot, especially novels and poetry. I read al-Sayyab and al-Bayati and I was never far from [poetry by] al-Jawahiri. Perhaps the first drawings of poems that I published were the drawings I did for Muzaffar al-Nawwab's collection of poetry, Liʾl-rayl wa H˙amad (For the Train and Hamad). I met Muzaffar in 1968 after he escaped from the desert prison Naqrat al-Salman, which was associated with the history of the leftist political movement.

I had heard a lot about Muzaffar from Hafidh al-Druby as he had been active at his studio at the College of Arts and his poem For the Train and Hamad had begun circulating among intellectuals and lovers of poetry.

A few months later, I met the poets Youssef al-Sayigh and Saʿdi al-Hadithi, both of whom had been in prison with Muzaffar. During the period of political liberalisation that followed the Naksa of 1967,[10] those three [men] created a new scene, where poetry was mixed with song, in a spirit that challenged the social and political norms of the time. Saʿdi, who studied English literature at the College of Arts, and had an interest in folklore and ethnomusicology, occupied a unique position, combining the melody of Muzaffar's poetry with texts from folktales and folk songs. In this sense, like Muzaffar, he united the urban and rural cultures into a modern formation that became the talk of the cultural scene in Baghdad. It was through dialogue with Muzaffar's poem H˙asan al-Shamūs (Hassan of the Suns) that Youssef wrote his two poems Wait for Me by the Edge of the Sea and The Confessions of Malik ibn al-Rayb and Saʿdi responded to both with a selection of desert poetry in a similar vein.

When Muzaffar was convinced to assemble his poems into a collection for the first time, he asked me to design the cover, and to do some drawings to accompany the poems for their publication in Beirut, overseen by our mutual friend Ibrahim al-Hariri. It was difficult to refuse Muzaffar's request, not because of our friendship, but because of the challenge it placed before me: these were texts written in [the southern] dialect that expressed emotions full of love, as well as the spirit of political rebellion; texts that offered a breath of rural air, in contrast to [what was usually written in] the city. It was also because they used a language that was new so the imagination could join the visual and the musical, transforming words that Baghdadis had never dreamt of including in their cultural lexicon.[11]

It seemed to me that the task was much greater than just creating drawings based on a poetic text. As I read them for the first time, his poems plunged me into worlds of the most extraordinary variety, mixed in a way that left their mark on all aspects of life. Since my drawings for that collection, I have been enamoured with Muzaffar's poetry, especially that which dealt with the often turbulent history of Iraq. The poem H˙asan al-Shamūs in particular, which I first heard recited by him during the first years of our acquaintance, has stayed with me. I still listen to the poem from time to time, either recited by him or by Saʿdi al-Hadithi, despite all the years that have passed. Listening [rather than reading], with its spiritual affinity to music, opens up a dimension and a space that pushes the forms of a drawing to an aesthetic state that carves its path deep into the text, making it intimate and captivating, without imposing itself on our senses. For the only limits to working with poetic text are those imposed by the techniques of the visual art.

Later, when I came across the tale of the [7th century] poet Waddah al-Yaman while reading a book containing selections of Arabic poetry, I became particularly drawn to the relationship between text and the events of everyday life -between narrative and the poet's disappearance in mysterious circumstances. According to legend, the poet was so handsome that he had to wear a mask, so that he would not be exposed to women's flirtations. But he fell in love with Habbaba, one of the caliph's wifes, after seeing her in Hijaz, and wooed her publicly. He ended up, as the historical narrative goes, being buried alive in a box. This relationship between love and death, and between the aesthetics of the poetic text, on the one hand, and the death of the poet, on the other, provoked me to turn his story and poems into a set of work I called Drawings Consecrated to Love. The works were exhibited in Beirut at the start of the 1970s, and it was my first exhibition to be based entirely on text.

Sumerian Symbols


In 1968-70, when I was working at the Iraq Museum, I was asked to supervise the creation of a new museum in Mosul where objects and statues from the city of Hatra were to be exhibited, in addition to objects from different periods of the Assyrian civilisation. Among my responsibilities was the excavation of a winged bull buried in Khorsabad. I was then assigned to work in the Sank district of Baghdad on the Ottoman customs building, which Miss Bell had turned into the British consulate, and which was being converted into an ethnographic museum that would also house relics from the period of the monarchy.[12] I toured different parts of Iraq with a team from the museum in order to collect samples of folk objects for documentary exhibitions that were to represent various aspects of popular life [in the country]. It was during this period that I collaborated with Dr Walid al-Jadir to create illustrations for his book Folk Dress in Iraq.

Some of those drawings were also published in the magazine al-Turāth al-shaʿ(Popular Heritage), published by the Ministry of Information. I contributed to its first issue in 1968, with an article on the Flood Myth. I then published an article on tattoos (in 1970, having used tattoos as a decorative element in a few paintings), and one on the subject of animals in folk tales. At the time, in constructing paintings, I had been using the ceramic lions produced in the town of Tuz Khurmatu, as an indirect symbol for man. When working with folk or other historical motifs, I transform them into symbols that add an internal dialogue to the composition of the painting and provoke questions about this transformation. In some cases, however, the decorative dimension of the motif I am using is directly related to the subject of the work (such as the use of the architectural motif popularly known as Char ʿAlī, which I had incorporated with other popular motifs to create one overall composition, in two paintings from 1965).[13] Similarly, in 1969, I used a Sumerian symbol of motherhood, not as a transfigured form, but as an artistic element related to the subject matter. That work was shown in a solo exhibition in Baghdad, where I also showed a large number of oil paintings and a set of works on paper, mostly under the title Min malh˙amat al-khalīqah al-Sūmiriyya (From the Sumerian Creation Myth). Later [in the year], this exhibition was shown at Gallery One in Beirut and then Sultan Gallery in Kuwait.

In Beirut, I met the poet Buland al-Haidari, who had turned his apartment into an Iraqi cultural salon. Muzaffar had been living with him after he had to leave Iraq when political circumstances became difficult once again. Buland was then the editor of the magazine al-ʿUlūm and, on the occasion of the exhibition [at Gallery One], he published an interview between Muzaffar and me. He also proposed that the three of us visit Damascus. It was my first visit to both capitals, but when we were returning from Syria, Muzaffar was barred from re-entering Lebanon, for reasons still unknown.

In my [next] solo show in 1970, a collaboration between the museum [The National Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad] and Sultan Gallery, I exhibited [several oil] paintings and works on paper in which I used text as a form. Among them was a painting inspired by Muzaffar's poem Hassan al-Shamus. Unlike my other works, the text here was sometimes legible, and sometimes concealed, camouflaged in spaces where the kind of writing and signs found in talismanic prescriptions are combined with the emerging shapes of figures representing the narrative of the poem.

Perhaps this tendency to use "free writing", not just the aesthetic form of the Arabic letter, was an attempt at combining [the visual aspect of] a legible text with what can be gleaned through the act of reading [it]; that is, a visual equivalent to the relationship between seeing and listening. It is a way of enriching the painting by visually linking the Arabic letter with various elements, although only as a part of the work's composition and not its entirety.

The New Vision


Looking back quickly over the 1960s, we see a broad cultural efflorescence. Avant-garde poets were able to break the old forms, and new names appeared. In the visual arts, Faiq Hassan was at the pinnacle of amazing art practices, with a young artistic elite that were relentlessly hungry for modern knowledge at his side. In architecture, Rifat al-Chadirji, Qahtan Awni, Said Ali Madhloom and Qahtan Madfai began to do work that would come to fruition in the mid-1970s.

Alongside these transformations, we, the artists of that decade, had access to several exhibition spaces ready to show our work, in contrast to the artists of the 1950s, who had been limited to the galleries of the Folk Costumes Museum or Nadi al-Mansur. In 1962, the National Museum of Modern Art, built with the support of the Gulbenkian Foundation, opened. Private galleries started to appear in the mid-1960s (such as Ourzdi Bek, al-Wasiti Gallery and Aya Gallery), as well as exhibition spaces at the foreign cultural centres (the Society of the American Friends of the Middle East, the British Council, the Soviet Institute, the French Cultural Centre and the Czech Centre). The availability of these spaces, and the ease and appeal of showing at them, helped the artists of the 1960s to grow individually. A simple comparison shows that one exhibition was held in 1956, whereas there were 18 in 1965.

An art group called the Mujaddidīn (the "Innovationists") formed in 1965, in a spirit open to art practice around the world, and it included Ali Talib, Ibrahim Zayer, Amer al-Obaidi, Salem al-Dabbagh, Talib Mekki, Saleh  al-Jumaie, Faiq Hassan, and Salman Abbas, among others. What was unusual was that the members were still students at the time, and their basic concern was what the 1960s generation faced in the complicated political climate that followed the events of 1963, and the political and cultural liberalisation that followed, as well as being influenced by some of the European artists who were [their] teachers. All of that was reflected, for example, in the collaboration between the Mujaddidīn and the poet Moayed al-Rawi, who wrote the statement for the group's third exhibition. The defeat of the Arab armies in the war with Israel in 1967 elicited a reaction of anger and indignation that was expressed by the group in an exhibition of political posters at the Iraqi Artists' Society.

Towards the end of the 1960s, word spread about a conference on the arts that would be convened in Cairo. At the time, I believed that the presence of our generation at the conference could only be intellectual, because I was certain that Iraq's participation would be limited to official representation divided between the Ministry of Information and the Institute of Fine Arts. So we began to talk about distributing a statement among the participants in a small publication. Even though the conference ended up being cancelled, the manifesto was published under the title Nah˙ū al-ruʾya al-jadīda (Towards the New Vision), and it was signed by myself and the artists Ismail Fattah, Rafa Nasiri, Mohammad Muhriddin, Saleh al-Jumaie and Hashim Samarchi.

The manifesto text reflected many themes that were against the arguments of the first generation of Iraqi artists. Among them was an emphasis on the search for an Arab identity as opposed to an Iraqi identity, which earlier art groups had pursued, particularly the Baghdad Group for Modern Art. The statement also emphasised the need to adopt a critical perspective on a tradition that is able to adapt and cultivate the relationship between the artistic position and the political one, particularly in regard to nationalist causes (especially the Palestinian cause and the prominence of resistance in it). We were unable to hold an exhibition for the group, due to artistic disagreements over its format -Ismail Fattah was the first to refuse to show. Nonetheless, the manifesto continued to provide a space for artistic and cultural dialogue.

One of our first events was a poster exhibition held in April 1970. It was the suggestion of the artist Nadhim Ramzi, as he put his private design office and a modern press at the disposal of the project. It was the first poster exhibition of its kind, covering a variety of themes: political, touristic, commercial and cultural, in an attempt to encourage government and private institutions to adopt some of the ideas proposed in developing their social and cultural relations.

Our victory in the elections for the leadership of the Iraqi Artists' Society in 1971 was a golden opportunity to achieve the aims we had set forth in the New Vision manifesto. As secretary, I worked with Ismail Fattah, the president, to transform the society into a dynamic force that would enrich the contemporary Iraqi art movement, by making it address the challenges that intellectuals faced in the context of the political liberalisation. So we tried to work toward a professionalisation of art that surpassed the idea of an annual exhibition, and strengthened the relationship between visual art and other areas of Iraqi culture.

From the beginning, I worked with the other committee members to establish different cultural and artistic events, with a view to making them a part of the Iraqi and Arab cultural scenes. We organised poetry readings by Iraqi and Arab poets, and seminars on art and theatre. And for the first time, we collaborated with the Kuwaiti Arts Association to hold an exhibition of Iraqi art in Kuwait. In this context, the first poetry festival in Iraq, al-Marbid Festival, was held in April of that year [1971] in the city of Basra. On this occasion, Hashim Samarchi and I organised an exhibition of Iraqi [visual] art to accompany the various events of the festival. As an individual project, Hashim, Rafa Nasiri and I decided to print poetry posters, the first of their kind in the history of Iraqi and Arab posters, in collaboration with three Iraqi poets. I worked with Youssef al-Sayigh on the poem The Confessions of Malik ibn al-Rayb, a text that took the eulogy of Malik ibn al-Rayb as a historical means of denouncing the tribal leaders of the establishment [in Jordan for their position] against the Palestinian fedayeen in Black September. Hashim, for his part, took a poem by Buland al-Haidari, and Rafa used a poem by Fadhil al-Azzawi. The posters were printed as limited-edition silkscreens.

Our belief in the importance of developing our relationship as [visual] artists with other creative arts was reflected in the active collaboration between the design department at the Ministry of Information and independent artists in order to design a number of poetry books that were published that year. For my part, I designed covers and made illustrations for collections of poems by Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Abdul Razzak Abdul Wahid and Shafiq al-Kamali.

Al-Wasiti Festival


Our initiative gave us the opportunity to meet with the Minister of Information, Shafiq al-Kamali, who had not been well-disposed towards us after we won the [Artists' Society] election; however, during the meeting, he proposed that we explore the possibility of an arts festival similar to the poetry festival. It was an unmissable chance to organise events that would allow us to get to know artists from other Arab countries, at a time when there were no publications and magazines that would do that. On behalf of the society, I presented a detailed proposal for the festival, under the title Mahrajān al-Wāsit˙ī (al-Wasiti Festival), in honour of the 13th century Iraqi artist Yah˙yā al-Wāsit˙ī,[14] and we set a date for April 1972.

Al-Wasiti Festival was no ordinary event for me and the group overseeing its organisation as we were able to meet prominent Arab artists and establish personal relationships that would help to enrich our future activities. It also enabled us to showcase Iraqi art. The festival opened in April 1972, with what was considered the largest and most diverse exhibition in the history of Iraqi art, reflecting the serious and distinguished contributions of a number of young artists, especially those who had returned to Baghdad after studying abroad. The exhibition was accompanied by the publication of a large number of political, artistic and historical posters that included contributions from Nadhim Ramzi, Rafa Nasiri, Hashim Samarchi, Mohammad Muhriddin, Yahya al-Sheikh, Jawdat Hassib, Khalid al-Naeb and Amer al-Obaidi; and I designed two posters.

As part of the festival, a number of publications were produced about contemporary Iraqi art and also the artist al-Wāsiti and the Baghdad School of miniature painting. A newspaper with the name al-Wāsit˙ī, edited by Mohammad al-Jazairi and Hashim Samarchi, was [also] issued. In its coverage of the festival, the French-language Moroccan magazine Integrale dedicated four pages to Iraqi poster art.

Through these activities, and discussions about establishing a biennial exhibition of Arab art, we were able to push our practice beyond the local borders and to participate internationally in different European and Arab countries. We were absolutely convinced that we could actively contribute to developing social relations and building a cultural and artistic base that would mobilise our generation. That year, the Iraqi government nationalised the oil industry, something that the public widely supported. To celebrate the event, and in collaboration with the magazine Waʿī al-ʿummāl (Workers' Awareness), we organised a poster exhibition under [Jewad Selim's] Monument of Freedom in Tahrir Square. The exhibition was coupled with a series of poetry readings by Youssef al-Sayigh, Fadhil al-Azzawi and others. The event then travelled to other cities, such as Basra, Najaf and Babylon.

This creative explosion was in a way linked to the political and cultural situation in Iraq at the time: the openness of state institutions to collaboration with artists, and its interest in using the poster as a means for developing society and deepening the citizen's sense of belonging to his or her society. There was a measure of freedom in addressing the issues of the time, and the state, which was an important source of support in printing the posters, which did not then put pressure on artists to work in a particular style. Things, however, started to change after I left in the middle of 1976, and the political situation became more restrictive, and the poster changed into a mere political device, becoming more and more closed.

The Arab Biennale of Art


In December 1971, I [had been] part of a delegation of Iraqi artists who attended the first Arab Conference of Fine Arts in Damascus, at the invitation of the Syrian Association for Fine Arts. The Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout proposed the creation of a union of Arab artists in front of members of the association's committee. Members of the participating delegations welcomed the idea, and in the final session regarded the conference as the founding event of the union. A secretariat was formed comprising the heads of the seven participating delegations and Ismail Shammout was elected Secretary General. So the first conference of the Union of Arab Artists was held in Baghdad in October 1973 (but I didn't have the chance to participate, as I was called up for reservist duty for a third time). It was agreed that the union would have its headquarters in Baghdad and that Dr Khalid al-Jadir would be appointed its Secretary General. Hashim Samarchi and Mohammad Muhriddin designed posters and the Iraqi delegation presented the idea of a biennial exhibition of Arab art, which had emerged during al-Wasiti Festival, for the delegates to discuss in greater detail, and agree to its general organisation.

The First Arab Biennale of Art, which opened in Baghdad in March 1974, was an event of historical significance. It made it possible to look at different practices of art in the Arab world, and it generated debates and conversations among artists from Iraq, Algeria, Morocco, Qatar, Kuwait and South Yemen. This event (and earlier ones) opened the door to collaborations between Arab artists, whether on a personal or collective level, and it resulted in joint exhibitions. For example, thanks to the relationships I forged with Moroccan artists, Galerie Nadar in Casablanca organised a solo show for me in 1976.

In 1976, the Second Biennale of Arab Art was held in Rabat. The Moroccan Art Association did not collaborate with the Ministry of Culture, due to artistic and administrative disagreements. So I was asked by the minister to join the team supervising the organisation of the event, during which Morocco officially became a member of the union. The Moroccan Ministry of Culture published a special issue of its magazine Funūn, including contributions from different countries, in addition to articles about Moroccan art and Arab art in general.

The exhibition was held at the Oudaia Museum[15] with the participation of artists from Morocco, Tunisia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and South Yemen. I took part in the exhibition with a painting I had made at Mohammad al-Qasimi's studio in Agdal [From the Years of Palestine Slaughter, 1976]. Unfortunately, the quality of work shown was not at the level of the first biennale; it had become more representative of the official establishment, which was leading to the impoverishment of the art scene in many Arab countries.



From the start, the Palestinian cause was close to our efforts to bring about an Arab art. In 1969, I [had] designed the cover of the first issue of the Iraqi magazine Shiʿr (Poetry), in which I published drawings about an Iraqi who died fighting with the Palestinian resistance. This work was connected with what we advocated in the Towards the New Vision manifesto in terms of solidarity with the Palestinian cause and support for the resistance.

At my solo exhibition in Beirut in the same year, I met the writer Ghassan Kanafani, who was the editor of al-Hadaf, published by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinine. He expressed an interest in collaborating on the arts and culture section of the magazine. When I returned to Baghdad, we kept in touch, and I later sent him some of my drawings to publish. After his assassination in 1972, I was asked by the Ghassan Kanafani Memorial Committee to create some drawings for his short stories, which were to be published in an edition of collected works. The content of those stories affected how I built composition in ways that enriched my practice, by challenging me to create an atmosphere directly related to the text.

Meanwhile, I had also made a number of unpublished sketches using popular Palestinian texts and folk songs, which led me to make [a series of drawings] based on the [imagined] journal of a Palestinian martyr [from Black September 1970]. They were published in 1972, under the title Shāhid min hādha al-ʿas˙r (A Witness of Our Times), with sponsorship from the Iraqi Ministry of Information. The book included supplementary material related to the struggle, such as resistance songs and military statements.

The relationship between drawing and text constituted a challenge in regard to artistic composition. I tried to sustain the relationship in order to create an internal monologue that intensified with the different kinds of texts, moving between military reports, popular songs sung by the fedayeen and the text of the journal. In these drawings, I sought to maintain both the artistic and psychological relationship that would distance the drawings from mere illustration by sometimes putting the emphasis on the line within the composition and sometimes on empty space. I made the book as an original work, and added the texts later, at the time of printing. But the original copy has been lost, and the only original work I have left is an idea for the cover, which is different to what ended up being printed.

Later, the assault on the Palestinian refugee camp of Tel al-Zaatar by Christian militias in August 1976 was a tragic event that haunted me for months because of the continuous press coverage of the massacre. In response to that tragedy, I created drawings using poems about that horrific event by three poets, Taher Ben Jelloun, Mahmoud Darwish and Youssef al-Sayegh. I also relied upon on the recorded testimony of a nurse named Sabah, who worked at a clinic in the camp. Unlike my earlier drawings on the Palestinian resistance, I wanted this work to form a dramatic build-up appropriate for the subject matter. I also moved away from an emphasis on the heroic action of an individual, which had been a distinctive feature of A Witness of Our Times.

Leaving Iraq


For about a year, between 1973 and 1974, my military service had limited my activity in the Iraqi art movement. After the end of my service, I spent several months on a set of work related to what I went through during my time stationed in the Harir region. In a solo exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art in 1975, I showed this work, which reflected the conditions in the north and the site of military confrontations between Kurdish forces and the Iraqi army.

The exhibition included different types of paintings, some were gouache on paper, others oil on canvas, with most being in gouache. The exhibition bore the title H˙ala¯t insa¯niyya¯ (Human States), although I initially wanted to cite a verse from a poem by Fadhil al-Azzawi: "Ana al-s˙arkha, ayat h˙unjura taʿzifuni?"

(I Am the Cry, Who Will Give Voice to Me?). Throughout the works, an internal monologue related to death appears in the presence of human remains or the emphatic presence of a cry, either in pain or protest. The exhibition received wide critical acclaim, even though [the reviews] did not name what was behind the shift away from the historical and popular subjects that I had [previously] been known for.

My final experience in the Iraqi army was a decisive factor in my decision to leave Iraq. I had the opportunity to enroll in a summer course in Salzburg to learn etching, and it gave me a sense of freedom that fully convinced me that I had to follow my dream [of leaving Iraq]. There, in the span of a month, I completed about 16 works, for which I was awarded the course's top prize. This included two weeks in Rome, which I spent visiting art museums, and then I travelled to Algeria where I attended, on my own, the second conference of the Union of Arab Artists. Because it was difficult for the Moroccan delegation to attend, they suggested I respresent them.

After I returned to Baghdad, I made an official request to the administration of the Iraq Museum, where I worked, to obtain a visa to study abroad. My request was denied for reasons unknown. I subsequently resigned, even though my father did not support my decision, and, in July, I left Iraq for London.

A few months after arriving in London, I applied to the Royal College of Art, from which [some of] the most illustrious British artists had graduated. After an official interview and a review of examples of my work, the dean of the Painting Department asked me if I wanted a piece of paper to be proud of or if I wanted to be an artist. I answered that I wanted to be an artist, and he told me that, "in this case, you should take your work to a level higher than that which you would attain by studying". Some months later, I was hired as an artistic consultant at the Iraqi Cultural Centre, which had recently opened on Tottenham Court Road. For four years, I oversaw a variety of Iraqi, Arab and international exhibitions.

Through my work at the Iraqi Cultural Centre in London, I sought to develop ties with Arab artists. From the beginning, I worked hard to organise exhibitions that showed the work of different Arab artists, such as the 1978 exhibition Contemporary Arab Graphics, with artists from Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Kuwait, Sudan, Yemen and Tunisia. In the same year, I had my first exhibition in London at the Patrick Seale Gallery. It included works I had done in London and others that I had brought with me when I came to Britain.

In 1979, I oversaw the organisation of two collective exhibitions for artists from Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Iraq and Palestine, followed by prominent international events. For example, I supervised the organisation of the Baghdad Poster Exhibition in 1979, which was structured around two themes: Palestine, and freedom of opinion. It was one of the most important exhibitions [of its kind]. The important Swiss magazine Grafik devoted approximately eight pages to documenting the event. International participation was fundamental to the exhibition, which opened in London and then moved to Baghdad, as a way to link Baghdad to other art events in the world. In 1980, I used the same idea when I organised an exhibition of graphic art from the Third World, in the belief that Arab art only makes sense in an international context. So the exhibition included artists from Latin America, Africa and Asia, with the important addition of artists from the Arab world.

Afterwards, I worked for a year and a half at the magazine Funūn ʿArabiyya (Arab Arts), before devoting myself to painting [full-time]. My first studio was a large room at my house in Highgate but, in 1986, I moved to a studio in White City [where I worked] for 30 years, before being forced to leave for my current studio in Park Royal.[16]



During these years, the Arabic letter became one of the most important motifs in my paintings, one that intertwines with different signs and intrudes into the empty spaces that surround a composition. This relationship between the general space of the canvas and different variations in the form of the [Arabic] letter, and the interaction of that form with abstract forms related to nature, became a unique characteristic of my painting; along with the juxtaposition of distinct colours that has been with me throughout my practice. My view of the Arabic letter was not that of traditional calligraphers, nor was it metaphysical hyperbole, but rather it was based on the demands of the canvas in the Western sense, as opposed to a superficial understanding of identity which [mis]uses tradition in all its forms, and has no relationship to modern art.

I had the chance to study various Islamic manuscripts on different subjects, which convinced me of their artistic importance and the possibility of taking elements from them to develop in the context of modern art. There was a fundamental change in my relationship with text when I published a collection of al-Muʿallaqāt al-Sābʿ (The Seven Golden Odes) in 1978, as they were, primarily, a standalone collection that relied upon the techniques of hand printing and, secondly, because they had been specifically made for exhibition, and not as illustrations to accompany text in a book.

Seeing works by French artists that integrated text with different visual elements, as in (for instance) Matisse's collection Jazz, in addition to my growing interest in Islamic manuscripts of Arabic texts, led me to produce a unique daftar (artist's book) in 1983. I worked with the poem The Confessions of Malik ibn

al-Rayb by Youssef  al-Sayigh in which he tried to connect an old and well-known text with the historical event known as Black September. I wanted to capture the angry spirit of the poet as he was glorifying the slaughtered Palestinian, while calling on the tribes to stop killing Palestinians, making a symbol of protest out of the refugee camp al-H˙usayn.

In the same year, I took another poem by Sayigh entitled Wait for Me by the Edge of the Sea and I tried to overlap the verses of the poem and the drawings, such that they changed formally as they intertwined among the lines of poetry, forming a visual unity that differed from the [conventional] concept of a book of poetry. I had drawn that same poem in 1971 and published it in a small book with a limited print run; however, any comparison between the two works would show the later version reflecting a more visually developed relationship between the elements of the composition. These acquired a necessary dimension to lend the text a sense of continuity that deepened its spiritual journey and the poet's shifting emotions across the entirety of the poem.

In 1988, I returned to dafātir and prepared 10 books of the same size, with thick covers. That year I made a daftar entitled Homage to Jewad Selim, for an exhibition at the Kufa Gallery in London. In this artist's book, which was not exhibited after all, as in the collection of prints that I did show in the end, I was inspired to develop subjects that had been used by Selim.

In addition, I made five books for the poets Buland al-Haidari, Muhammad Fayturi, Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Salah Abdel Sabour. In these five works, text is interspersed among abstract elements drawn from nature, or forms derived from the content of the text, emphasising the integrity of the book as a distinct work of art. That is, the words follow a path through forms and symbols and, in order to read these books, the viewer must be equally capable of grasping the connotation of the text, as well as the visual form. Literacy alone is not enough for the reader-viewer, as he must probe the relationship between colour and word, experience the forms and their distribution [across the page], and follow the text.

I proposed the idea of recreating Ibn Hazm's book T˙awq al-h˙amāma (The Ring of the Dove) to the poet Mohammed Bennis, who supported the idea, and we published a limited-edition book in Arabic and French, entitled Kitāb al-h˙ubb (The Book of Love) in 1994. Later, during my first trip to Bahrain at the invitation of the Bahrain Artists' Society, I met the poet Qasim Haddad, and I proposed to him a similar collaboration where we would re-write Majnūn Layla, and the result was a limited-edition book, published in 1995. In both cases, I tried to lay the foundation for a mutual exchange between painting and poetry by setting forth the challenge of coming up with a text and a new form, and then developing it as a cultural project. For the distinctive value of any work of art related to literature is its total independence from the subject that inspired it, in contrast to what is produced by painters who are concerned with [capturing] the reality of reading and not the reality of sight.

By the mid-1990s, dafātir had become a fundamental part of my practice. In 1992, I started working with Cuban cigar boxes, transforming them into objects by adding colour and incorporating [little] sculptures. The space defined by, and the modifications added to, each box formed individual environments, some of which contained small poetic dafātir related to different subjects.

The daftar has stayed with me, taking on different shapes and forms in the way that they are presented, and in their tendency to give their outer form an importance that makes it possible to distinguish one from another. I was not drawing the poem itself, but rather trying to arrive at a complete work of art by expressing the human condition visually, enriched by signs and symbols. I therefore find poetry close to drawing in more than one respect, and particularly in regard to its power to evoke.

Bilad al-Sawad


The [Gulf War] in 1991 became the epitome of military brutality against civilians as much as soldiers. And so I resorted to making works as a diary to document the pain and destruction prevalent at the time. Perhaps what shocked me most was the bombing of the Amiriyya shelter, packed full of innocent civilians, which emerged in the form of nine charcoal sketches under the title Bilād al-Sawād (The Land of Darkness). This auspicious and ancient moniker had been given to Mesopotamia at various times throughout history to describe the fertility of the [black-silted] land; however, I was reusing the name in a double sense, to also describe the sorrow and destruction and the scale of this tragedy.

By following the activities of the Iraqi opposition before [the invasion of] 2003, it was clear that it intended to establish a sectarian government, through its continued rejection of the idea of civil society and a liberal state. Later, the occupation represented the greatest indication of the [opposition's] refusal to [build] a democratic state and the creation of a cabal of corrupt politicians to support the new regime, who ignored the organised assassinations of the best and most knowledgeable experts in various fields by unknown agents, and the destruction of cultural and artistic heritage. All this drove me to feel an ethical and artistic responsibility to produce various works to denounce what had happened and what was still happening -the systematic destruction of Iraqi society.

A Collaboration


I met Sheikh Hassan Al Thani in London in 1994. At the time, he was working on collecting orientalist art alongside his interests in works that outline the history of Qatari art and Arab art in general. It was not long before we were working together and we invited several Iraqi artists to come to Doha to produce large works or to realise ideas for sculptures; among them was Ismail Fattah, by way of example.

Our relationship developed through this collaboration, so I was always travelling between Doha and London. I started to make pieces with large dimensions, which would have been impossible to do in London. I also became more interested in studying the nearby phenomena of the Qatari natural landscape, particularly what is known as the "Desert Rose": a stone formation that can take on extremely complex and varied abstract shapes, which became one of the most generative forms in the sculptures I made. In addition, I was charmed by the folk textiles popular among Bedouin women, which I used as an collaged element in my paintings. By incorporating folk elements into modern artistic compositions, I was able to create works that had a contemporary feel.

At the beginning of the year 2000, I started to devote more of my time to sculpture. Over the years, I had nurtured various techniques, using materials such as bronze, plaster, and wood, in addition to synthetic materials, such as polyester resin, which I first encountered in 1978, and used to produce works in many dimensions. But colour remained the most important factor in developing the relationship between the different shapes, and in these [sculptural] works I still used the technique of painting as found in the concept of the canvas, even if it then sometimes became a concept in [the context of] 'object art'.

But I really started producing large-scale sculptures when I was commissioned by the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, to make two sculptures for its opening in 2010, which were exhibited alongside works by Farid Belkahia, Ahmed Nawar and Ibrahim el-Salahi. These works were both called Wounded Soul and I produced them using the modern technique of 3D printing for the first time, in which a model is made out of compressed cork, and is then rendered in artificial clay to create a wax mould before, finally, being cast in bronze.

This mode of production drastically reduced the amount of time and physical effort. It opened up possibilities for future work, like the two sculptures I produced for Hamad International Airport in Doha, under the title Flying Man, representing the scientist and poet Ibn Firnas' attempt to fly. I also made a group of large sculptures [using this technique], including Hanging Gardens of Babylon; Al-Hawasim Wagon: Looters (which is a visual document and historic condemnation of the plunder and barbaric destruction of Iraqi cultural institutions in 2003); and, in homage to the innovative Palestinian artist Naji al-Ali, who was assassinated in London in the mid-1980s, a sculptural work inspired by one of his drawings called Good Morning Beirut.

A Final Remark


I believe that the defining features of an artwork are made by intuition and not technical skill, and they have long been linked to various stages and histories in our collective memory. The most important thing for researching and investigating the memory of a certain civilisation is [recognising] that the people from whom the memory comes do not have ownership over it, rather that their continued presence is what enriches it. When making art, it is best for me to keep the artwork at a distance and avoid any emotional involvement while tracing its history. The title of an artwork remains less important than the work itself. Some will see the work through its title; however, I want the title to become a spark for a burning dialogue between the viewer and the work itself. The title alone is not enough to make a work innovative, but the role of a dialogue with the artwork is to make [the viewer feel] inner joy at the elements and shapes of the presented work, and observe its rich details.

I find that combining poetry and painting creates a lasting spiritual dimension and space to accommodate the density of the poetic language and its nuances, which allows the musical colour and the variety of shapes and elements used to emerge as visual components. They can sometimes be tools for opening and developing dialogue and, sometimes, they can restrict dialogue and shun artistic value.This disconnection happens when there are too many constraints: when language is [only] used for description, it can turn the painting into a soulless form. But when the poetry has an abstract meaning, the artwork can then be liberated from it to become an independent expression of its very own.

1] After the Suez Canal was nationalised, Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt in an effort to regain control, in a unsanctioned move that was criticised worldwide, most notably by other Arab nations and the USA.

[2] Over the 1950s, a combination of the inflationary cost of food, discontent with the foreign policy of the government, and the repression of civil liberties had led to a broad opposition to the Hashemite monarchy. On 14 July 1958, a group of officers overthrew the monarchy, executing the king and the royal family and beginning a long period of political instability.

[3] Translated into Arabic by Taha Baqir under the title Min alwāḥ Sūmir.               

[4] Qasim (1914–63) had come to power in 1958 as one of the leaders involved in overthrowing the monarchy. He tried to steer a course between the Iraqi Communist Party, which had mass support, and the Baʿath Party. On account of the social and economic reforms he oversaw, Qasim was popular among the poor and the working class, which came to his defence during the coup. Hundreds of protesters who filled the streets in his support were shot dead by the military.

[5] This conflict revolved around Iraq's relationship to pan-Arabism. In 1958, Syria and Egypt had joined to form the United Arab Republic, putting tremendous pressure on Iraq to enter that union. The country was divided over whether or not to do so, but this was also a division over political priorities, whether the focus should be on Arab unity or on social and economic reforms.               

[6] After the coup, the Baʿath Party moved to eliminate the Iraqi Communist Party. Between February and November 1963, the National Guard, the party's militia, detained anyone suspected of being a communist. Though he was not a member of the Iraqi Communist Party, Azzawi was involved in the General Union of Iraqi Students [Ittiḥād al-ṭalaba al-ʿāmm], a student association at the University of Baghdad with pro-Soviet leanings, and he was a supporter of Abd al-Karim Qasim, making banners for demonstrations the union organised in his support. Because of his involvement with the union, it is likely that his name was on lists that we now know the CIA had compiled and passed to the Baʿath Party.

[7] The Polish magazine Projekt, first published in 1955, made its way to Baghdad thanks to the Polish artist Roman Artimovsky who taught graphic design at the Institute of Fine Arts.

[8] In 1965, Kadhim Haidar exhibited at the National Museum of Modern Art and Ismail Fattah's exhibition was at al-Wasiti Gallery.

[9] Azzawi was enrolled in Faiq Hassan's studio at the Institute of Fine Arts.

[10] Naksa Day (5 June 1967) refers to the end of the Six-Day War, when Israel took control over the West Bank (which had been annexed by Jordan in 1948) and Gaza Strip (controlled by Egypt since the 1948 war), causing the displacement of Palestinians.

[11] It was the first time that both colloquial Iraqi language and rural themes appeared in literature that could be considered sophisticated or civilised by literary circles: Nawwab therefore rebelled against literary and social norms as well as political ones.

[12] Azzawi is referring to Gertrude Bell (1868–1926), an Arabist and archaeologist who lived in Iraq for the last decade of her life. She was instrumental in the creation of Iraq, served King Faisal I, and set up the first museum of archaeology in Baghdad.

[13] Char ʿAlī is the Persian term for the name of ʿAlī written four times, in four directions, with the letters interlocking. It is a popular Shiʿa symbol, along with the hand of Fatima and the evil eye, which also appear in these paintings (p.58).

 [14] His famous illustrated manuscript of Maqāmāt al-Ḥarīri is dated 1237.

 [15] Now the National Jewellery Museum in Rabat.

 [16] The redevelopment of White City, and in particular the area around the Paddington Branch canal, meant that the artist had to leave his studio of more than 30 years in June 2016.

 MATHAF Exhibition


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