Dia Azzawi (Iraq, born 1939) Bird of Death

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Lot 20
Dia Azzawi
(Iraq, born 1939)
Bird of Death

Sold for £ 75,000 (US$ 97,724) inc. premium
Dia Azzawi (Iraq, born 1939)
Bird of Death
oil on canvas
signed "Dia Azzawi" and dated "68" in Arabic (lower right), inscribed "Bird of Death, Dia Azzawi, 1968, Iraq" on the verso, executed in 1968
102 x 84cm (40 3/16 x 33 1/16in).


  • "The 1950s brought a new promising atmosphere in Iraq politically, culturally and even artistically but suddenly something happened and revenge was on the politicians' minds...the 1960s was a vindictive time, instead of being a time to work together to make things better and to build a country. The sectarian mentality became more prominent and is even more pronounced today, where everyone tries to gain as much as he or she can for his sake and not for the country's. If you look at my works executed in 1967-68, you will find that many titles refer to the notion of tragedy, such as 'defeated warrior', 'bloody monument' or 'suffering'. Many of these works are in fact elated to the political events that happened in 1968"
    - Dia Azzawi

    "How to use Islamic symbols and signs without seeming precious or merely folkloric, how to hark back to Sumerian sculpture and myth without seeming to be merely an illustrator, how to merge all these with the spontaneity of a dreamer; these are the secret of Dia Azzawi's art"
    - Jabra Ibrahim Jabra

    Harrowing, intense, and forceful, the present work from one of the undisputed doyens of Middle Eastern Art, Dia Azzawi, is a chilling yet vigorous composition executed in perhaps the most critical year of the artist's career; 1968 was a year which witnessed Iraq's Baathist coup, and with it the breakdown of all hopes for democracy, this spurred a darker, more politically energised output from Azzawi who had begun to realise that art and ideology could not always be kept apart.

    1968 was a year of tragedy and turmoil both in the wider Middle East and for Iraq, and Azzawi professes that the effects of wider events had a clear influence on the direction of his works. Not only had the Arab nations just suffered a humiliating defeat in the Six Day War at the hands of Israel a year before but a Baathist coup had engulfed Iraq in July of the subsequent year. The 17th July Revolution was a bloodless coup, led by General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, which brought the Iraqi Regional Branch of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party to power. Both Saddam Hussein, later President of Iraq, and Salah Omar al-Ali, were major participants in the coup. The Ba'ath Party ruled in a de facto one party state from the 17 July Revolution all the way till 2003.

    Azzawi, close at that point to the dissident revolutionary poet Muzaffar Abdul-Majid Al-Nawab, began developing a fondness for Nawab's spirit of rebellion and calls for justice and democracy in the Arab world. Many of his paintings from 1968 channel societies collective cry for help, and decry the excruciating descent of Iraq into totalitarianism.

    In the present work, a thick black background pays a subtle homage to Picasso's Guernica, "my understanding is that many artists use black as a dominant colour, Picasso among them" states Azzawi, and there is no doubt that a spirit of mourning permeates the black shroud surrounding the ominous bird which dominates the foreground. The bird itself is iconic Dia Azzawi; referencing Mesopotamian visual culture, within an aesthetic that is distinctly modern. Through supreme mastery of his technique, Azzawi demonstrates his perfection of an Iraqi style which balances tradition and modernity, and Iraqi identity within the context of a wider international modernist sensibility.

    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-Ru'yya al-Jadidah), uniting fellow artists ideologically and culturally as opposed to stylistically. The group's manifesto, Towards a New Vision, highlighted an association between art and revolution, and sought to transcend the notion of a 'local style'—coined by the Baghdad Modern Art Group—by broadening the parameters of local culture to include the entire Arab world.

    With exhibitions of his work held worldwide, including a landmark retrospective in 2017 at Qatar's MATHAF, his art features in the collections of some of the world's most prestigious museums and institutions. He is also regarded, in the tumultuous post-conflict climate of 2000s Iraq, considered to be the ultimate authority on modernist and contemporary art from the region.
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