Exhibitions | Something Different ||
Something Different II
Dia al-Azzawi has not staged a solo exhibition in Amman for close to a decade, but he hardly needs an introduction for Jordanian audiences. As an artist, Azzawi stands with the signature names of a Middle Eastern art market that has changed beyond recognition in the last 15 years, with the likes of Syria’s late great Marwan Kassab-bachi, or Iran’s Parviz Tanavoli.
Born in 1939, the first year of the Second World War, he was, and remains, an artist both classic and contemporary, pioneer and path-breaker. He would publish his “New Vision” for Iraqi modernism in 1969. In 2017, nearly half a century later, he was celebrated with a sweeping retrospective at Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art. The show, in that flagship of a new era, featured close to 550 works, old and new.
In an interview last year Azzawi was asked what was next for him. “Sculpture,” he declared. In Something Different II, returns to Jordan with his first solo show in Amman in 11 years and his first exhibition in the country devoted solely to sculpture, a form that has long taken second place to his painting. “I challenge myself and adopt a new vision within a different landscape of creativity," the artist says, adding: “Maybe this will challenge the artists there, try to do something different in that sense.”
Veteran, survivor, exile, witness: Azzawi is all these and more. London's Tate Gallery calls him "one of Iraq's most influential living artists”; Art Dubai has recognised him as a pioneer of modern Arab art, and CNN describes him as "one of the region’s most influential artists”. For presenter and film-maker Ricardo Karam, “Dia al-Azzawi is an outstanding and world-class artist."
The exhibition features 23 sculptural works ranging from familiar classics of his oeuvre to several colourful pieces newly executed in Amman, romantic works that test the boundaries of sculpture and abstract painting.
There also are the pointedly political pieces, familiar to admirers, like Souvenir from Baghdad No 1, a lament for the artificial barriers that cut off Baghdad’s war-ravaged neighbourhoods from one another. The Ugly Face of Occupation, also in bronze, shows a tank lurking above the shape of an ancient Mesopotamian temple tower.
But in Nothing to Watch, a bronze piece first conceived in 2006, a figure looks out into emptiness from a seat on a boulder. “When I was in Iraq, I used to work in archaeology, outside the cities, the desert area,” the artist said. “In the desert, whatever you do, you cannot watch anything, you just sit and see what’s going on.” The desert is like the sea, he observes; it comes to you, you cannot comprehend it. This piece also reflects back to his time in Iraq, where he studied archaeology before becoming a practising artist.
The Desert Rose series continues his exploration of the geological phenomenon, in which wind, sand, and rock combine to create extraordinary natural sculptures in the desert, with petals like flowers. It was while working as an art advisor in Doha, in the 1990s, that he first encountered the desert rose. “It is something which is incredible, an abstract piece created by winds that are sometimes so strong. It is the way I try to get some sort of identity, doing something related to the area, to differentiate.”
In colourful pieces like Zuhra’s Portrait - directly inspired by a work by Matisse - the artist explores the common ground between painting and sculpture. There have often been comparisons between Azzawi’s work and that of Pablo Picasso; many artists, he observes, are influenced by these masters.
While it is decades since Azzawi left Iraq, the Karim Gallery exhibition marks his continuing determination to keep his work available to Arab countries.
The works are smaller scale than the monumental pieces he showed in his milestone retrospective in Qatar