LONDON.- Dia Azzawis epic work Sabra Shatila will be displayed at the Tate Modern (level 3) this July. The Tate Modern collection comprises international modern and contemporary art dating from 1900 until today. The permanent collection is displayed on levels 3 and 5, level 4 displays temporary exhibition, and level 2 holds the work of contemporary artists.
Described by Azzawi as a manifesto of dismay and anger, Sabra Shatila was created by the artist in response to the 1982 massacre of civilians in Beiruts Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps during the Lebanese civil war. The motivation behind the brutal murder of innocents, at the hands of the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia, was presented as a reprisal for the assassination of president Bachir Gemayel, leader of the Kataeb Party. The day after the news of the massacre Azzawi was compelled to construct a work based on the killing: I had at that time a roll of paper and, without any preparatory sketches, the idea for the work came to me. I tried to visualize my previous experience of walking through this camp, with its small rooms separated by a narrow road, in the early 1970s.
Sabra Shatila displays the massacre through a series of fragmented scenes joined together to create a narrative which invokes the merciless cruelty and brutality of war and human suffering. Silent screams and hands outstretched in desperation pervade the composition; the careful use of blood red and the fragmented bodies of humans and animals reinforce the horror of the slaughter. Indeed Azzawi, who has often used textual referents in the construction of works, was deeply moved by the French writer Jean Genets 1983 account of the massacre which also aptly describes the scene presented in Sabra Shatila:
A photograph doesnt show the flies nor the thick white smell of death. Neither does it show you how you must jump over bodies as you walk along from one corpse to the next. If you look closely at the corpse, an odd phenomenon occurs: the absence of life in this body corresponds to the total absence of the body, or rather to its continuous backing away. You feel that even by coming closer you can never touch it. That happens when you look at it carefully. But it should you make a move in its direction, get down next to it, move an arm or a finger, suddenly it is very much there and almost friendly.
As one of the more politically inclined artists of his generation, Azzawi has since the 1970s created works which address the issue of human suffering as a result of political instability. Previous works which explore the Palestinian plight include Witness From Our Time (1972), based on Black September and the series of works about the Tell al-Zatar massacre of 1976. His more recent works Wounded Soul, Fountain of Pain (2010) and Elegy to My Trapped City (2011) relate to the post-2003 destruction of Iraq. Azzawis politically motivated works (his oeuvre demonstrates an interest in a range of subjects including archaeology, Arabic literature and poetry, and nineteenth-century European painting) are often likened to Picassos seminal painting Guernica (1937).
Dia Azzawi (b. 1939, Baghdad), is internationally recognised as one of the pioneers of modern Arab art. Defined by its powerful visual impact and brilliant colour, Azzawis art covers a range of subjects executed in a variety of mediaincluding painting, sculpture, prints, drawings, and book art. He lives and works in London but continues to derive inspiration from his homeland, Iraq.
Azzawi started his artistic career in 1964, after graduating from the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad and completing a degree in Archaeology from Baghdad University in 1962. His studies of ancient civilizations and Iraqi heritage had a profound impact on his art, and a key objective in the early formation of his artistic style was to link the visual culture of the past to the present.
In 1969, Azzawi formed the New Vision Group (al-Ruyya al-Jadidah), uniting fellow artists ideologically and culturally as opposed to stylistically. The groups manifesto, Towards a New Vision, highlighted an association between art and revolution, and sought to transcend the notion of a local stylecoined by the Baghdad Modern Art Groupby broadening the parameters of local culture to include the entire Arab world. The group held their final exhibition in 1972.
Through his involvement with the New Vision Group Azzawi found inspiration in contemporary subjects and issues, particularly the plight of Palestinians. His shift from themes of antiquity and legend to that of pain, death, and conflict altered his stylistic approach to painting significantly. These works lacked the vivid colour and ornamentation of earlier images and, instead, utilised bold outlines, attention to detail, and improvisational techniques.
Azzawis move to London, in 1976, led him to rediscover book art. Having researched the collection of Islamic manuscripts housed in the British Library, he affirms that the art of the book is the truest art form of the Arab world, even more so than painting, and encourages artists of the region to draw inspiration from, and reinterpret, this tradition.
With exhibitions of his work held worldwide, his art features in the collections of museums and institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad; Arab Museum of Modern Art, Qatar Foundation, Doha; Museum of Modern Art, Damascus; Museum of Modern Art, Tunis; Museum of Modern Art, Amman; Kinda Foundation, Saudi Arabia; Una Foundation, Casablanca; Arab Monetary Fund, Abu Dhabi; Development Fund, Kuwait; Jeddah International Airport; British Museum, London; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Saudi Bank, London; United Bank of Kuwait, London; Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris; Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris; Colas Foundation, Paris; Harba Collection, Iraq and Italy; Gulbenkian Collection, Barcelona; Library of Congress, Washington D.C.; and The World Bank, Washington D.C.