Artist to Know: Dia Azzawi

Liz Catalano
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Christie’s Upcoming Calligraphy Sale Features 10 Lithographs by Iraqi Artist

Dia Azzawi built his artistic career on a foundation of archaeology, calligraphy, and history. As a young artist attending classes in 1960s Baghdad, Azzawi understood the importance of connecting culture to politics. Art let Azzawi access the past while actively decrying present-day war and violence. An interest in peace has motivated the artist for decades, including after he left his home in Iraq to settle in London.  

Azzawi is now known as a pioneer of modern Arab art and a cultural historian. Critics particularly note his calligraphic works for their strong imagery and style. “I use the shape of the calligraphy to be part of the art,” Azzawi told The Independent in 2020. “I don’t use it to read Arabic. It is part of identity.”

A set of ten screenprints by Azzawi will be available with Christie’s in the upcoming Calligraphy: Art In Writing sale. Bidding closes at 9:00 AM EDT on April 7th, 2021. Before placing a bid, learn more about Dia Azzawi.

Dia Azzawi in 2016. Image from Olya Morvan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.
Dia Azzawi in 2016. Image from Olya Morvan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.

Dia Azzawi began his artistic and political activities at a young age. After demonstrating in support of nationalizing the Suez Canal, Azzawi was expelled from high school. His socially-engaged interests later helped him succeed in art school, where he studied archaeology, history, and drawing. Poetry was also an important part of Azzawi’s early artistic practice. 

Through the late 1960s and early 70s, Azzawi developed a style that commented equally on Western Modernism and current events. He also helped launch the New Vision Group (al-Ru’yya al-Jadidah) of ideological artists in response to the Six-Day War of 1967. Sensing the rise of the Ba’ath government and a decline in civil rights, Azzawi later moved to London. The artist earned a living as a curator but still created socially-responsive works of art in his new city. Azzawi often reflected on the happenings of the Arab world through calligraphy, poetry, and allegorical paintings.

“Azzawi’s work always has a presence,” says Nada Shabout, an art history professor at the University of North Texas. “It is a beautiful work of art, but when you look into it, you see all these details with these strong and vital messages that in general always have a sense of defiance.”

Dia Azzawi, Hommage to Baghdad, 1982. Image from Christie’s.
Dia Azzawi, Hommage to Baghdad, 1982. Image from Christie’s.

Azzawi describes his style as “the drawn poem” or a “visual extension” of poetic works. Geometric shapes and bright colors dominate his art. Azzawi frequently draws from his Iraqi cultural heritage to create paintings and screenprints. The upcoming Christie’s auction will feature a set of Azzawi’s geometric prints from 1982. Together titled Hommage to Baghdad, each lithograph blends Arabic calligraphy with bold colors and abstract shapes. Azzawi produced these works while still earning recognition in the West. Christie’s presents ten prints from the series with an estimate of GBP 12,000 to £18,000 (USD 16,550 – $24,820).

After hearing positive feedback from a Washington D.C. curator, the artist found inspiration for this series. “[Their] statement gave me more confidence in what I was doing,” he said. “By trying to produce an art that is accessible to everyone I was not only attempting to bridge the contemporary and the ancient, but also to bridge Western and Eastern art.”

Dia Azzawi, Arsak Mowt (Your Wedding is Death), 1970. Image from Christie’s.
Dia Azzawi, Arsak Mowt (Your Wedding is Death), 1970. Image from Christie’s.

The art world often describes Azzawi as one of Iraq’s most prominent artists. His auction results reflect that status. In 2016, Azzawi’s Arsak Mowt (Your Wedding is Death) sold for USD 235,500 at Christie’s against a $60,000 to $80,000 estimate. The piece explores the concept of martyrdom through traditional Iraqi motifs. It currently holds Azzawi’s auction record. More recently, Bonhams auctioned a textile work also titled Hommage to Baghdad for $25,886. Azzawi completed the piece in 1983. Skinner also offered several Azzawi paintings in the last decade, ranging in hammer price from $5,000 to $35,000. 

In 2016, the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and the Qatar Museums Gallery, Al Riwaq cosponsored a major retrospective of Azzawi’s work. Billed as the largest-ever solo show by an Arab artist, the show spanned over 50 years and 500 works of art. Azzawi is now in his eighties and splits time between his London and Doha studios. He has not visited his homeland in decades. While Azzawi is losing hope for peace, he remains committed to his art. “In a way, the whole world is very small… a small village,” Azzawi said in a Tate profile. “That means if I can give you some influence from my culture and you give me yours, this is what we are supposed to have, now. This is human creativity which can belong to anybody.”

Dia Azzawi’s Hommage to Baghdad prints will come to auction with Christie’s through the end of March and early April of 2021. The timed sale will close at 9:00 AM EDT on April 7th. Visit Christie’s for more information and to place a bid.

Looking for more artist histories? Check out Auction Daily’s profile of American landscape artist Guy Carleton Wiggins.

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