Dia Al-Azzawi (Arabic: ضياء العزاوي) is an Iraqi painter and sculptor, now living and working in London and one of the pioneers of modern Arab art. He is noted for incorporating Arabic script into his paintings. Active in the arts community, he founded the Iraqi art group known as New Vision and has been an inspiration to a generation of young, calligraffiti artists.
Dia al-Azzawi was born in al-Fadhil, an old traditional neighbourhood in Baghdad, in 1939. His father was a grocer in the city centre. Azzawi was the third of ten children in the family.
Azzawi studied archaeology at the College of Arts in Baghdad, graduating in 1962 and later studied at the Institute of Fine Arts, under the guidance of the eminent Iraqi artist, Hafidh al-Droubi, and graduating in 1964. By day, he studied the ancient world, and by night he studied European painting. Azzawi explains, "This contrast meant that I was working with European principles but at the same time using my heritage as part of my work." His exposure to archaeology would influence him greatly as an artist, and he drew inspiration from the ancient myths of Gilgamesh and Imam Hussein, a revered Muslim figure. Azzawi then continued to study art at the Institute of Fine Art, graduating in 1964.
In the 1950s, Azzawi began working with Iraqi artist, Faeq Hassan, who was involved with the Baghdadi arts group called “the Pioneers.” This group aimed to locate a continuity between traditional and contemporary Iraqi art. During this period, he began to develop his own aesthetic, and was inspired by dramatic moments in Iraq's history.
While enrolled at art school, he joined the local art group, known as the Impressionists, founded by his professor, Hafidh al-Droubi in 1953. While Azzawi was not particularly drawn to impressionism as a style, the group encouraged artists to experiment with different styles, and also to pursue local themes as subject matter. Through his involvement in this group, he began to explore Arab cultural history and mythology, which became recurring themes in his work. He continued his active involvement in Iraq's arts community by joining the group known as the Baghdad Modern Art Group, founded by the artist and intellectual, Shakir Hassan Al Said, in 1951, and later the New Vision Group, for which he wrote the manifesto, which was published in a Baghdad newspaper in 1968.
During a turbulent political period in Iraq, Azzawi served as a reservist in the Iraq army between 1966 and 1973, where he witnessed many atrocities. Through this experience, he learned that he needed to speak for those who have no voice. A number of his works are expressly designed to give a voice to those who have been silenced through war and conflict.
He held the positions of Director of the Iraqi Antiquities Department in Baghdad (1968–76) and Artistic Director of the Iraqi Cultural Centre in London, where he arranged a number of exhibitions. He was the inaugural editor of the magazine, Ur (1978-1984) - a provactive new journal published by the Iraqi Cultural Centre in London. He was also the editor of Funoon Arabiyyah (1981-1982) and a member of the editorial board of the scholarly journal, Mawakif.
He was still living in Iraq when he witnessed the demise of the avantgarde art groups. At this time, he became more actively involved in the arts community. In 1968, he founded the pivotal Iraqi art group, Al-Ru’yah al-Jadida (New Vision) and wrote its manifesto, Towards a New Vision, which is co-signed by Ismail Fatah Al Turk. Al-Ru’yah al-Jadida represented a freer art style which encouraged artists to remain true to their own era., but also to look to heritage and tradition for inspiration. In this respect, it sought to maintain the broad trends of the prior art groups, such as the Baghdad Modern Group, but at the same time acknowledging that artists were already developed a more free style. This group promoted the idea of freedom of creativity within a framework of heritage. He was also a member of the group One Dimension founded by Shakir Hassan Al Said, which rejected the earlier modern Arab art movement as being too concerned with European techniques and aesthetics.
In the late 1970s, after Iraq fell under the control of Saddam Hussein, Azzawi left his home country and settled in London where he met his first wife, the Swedish-born Shashten Finstrom, who worked at the Patrick Seale Gallery, where Azzawi had his first solo British exhibition in 1978.
Azzawi now spends his time living and working in both London and Dubai. In 1991, Azzawi fell into a state of despair when his saw the destruction to his native Iraq due to the Gulf War. He shut himself away in his home for several months, concentrating on his art and producing a series of works, including the Balad Al Sawad [Country of Blackness] series of "violently drawn images of terrified, crying and screaming faces, haunting images of despair."
He is one of the pioneers of the modern Arab art world, with a special interest in the combination of Arabic traditions, including calligraphy, into modern art compositions.