The third edition of the Qalandiya International contemporary arts biennial drew global attention to the issue.
On an ethereally sunny and surreal day in Doha, in the company of a dear Qatari artist friend, we walked into Qatar Museum Gallery Alriwaq, now exhibiting an awe-inspiring retrospective of the pre-eminent Iraqi artist, Dia Azzawi.
In two complementary exhibitions, one here in Alriwaq and another at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Arts, we are treated to a rare retrospective of a monumental figure in contemporary and modern Arab art.
Exquisitely curated by Catherine David, “I am the cry, who will give voice to me?” is the thematic title of this retrospective that is subtitled: “From 1963 until tomorrow.” That is more than a half-century.
When Azzawi began painting, Iraq was just emerging from under the yoke of British imperialism. When Azzawi painted his latest work for this exhibition, US imperialism under George W Bush had laid waste to his homeland. Imagine an artist of Azzawi’s iconic gaze and then ask yourself what would that history do to him?
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Azzawi himself has described this retrospective as a “manifesto against events following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003”.
Putting all these indications together, you may think the breathtaking spectrum of Azzawi’s oeuvre is a manifesto against the barbarity of George W Bush’s invasion, occupation, and subsequent destruction of Iraq. But artistically documenting the devastation of Azzawi’s homeland is only one aspect of his lifetime achievements. He has the larger Arab and Muslim world, the even more far-reaching worlds at the receiving end of US and European militarism, under his unforgiving gaze.
The prodigiously prolific Azzawi is politically mesmerised and aesthetically beguiled by nothing less than the entire lingering legacy of the Arab world, in fact, the very idea of it. Take Azzawi’s art out of that world, it will lose its aesthetic intuition of where and what it is all about.
The spacious austerity of the museum was entirely empty of any human soul when we walked in except for two lonesome guards pacing their boredom away at the front door, happily surprised to see us as they handed us two brochures of the exhibition.
We entered a colossal gathering of one of the towering figures of contemporary Arab art on wide, white, generous, and happy walls bereft of a single spectator except the two of us. The space was awe-inspiring, meditative, mournful. We meandered through the galleries until we reached one of his signature masterpieces, “Sabra and Shatila Massacre” (1982-1983). There was a bench at a necessary distance. We sat down in quiet prayer.
Azzawi dwells on the brutality of violence, face to face, as he looks deeply into the abyss of the terror of imperial hubris raining death and destruction on his homeland.
Where were we? Where was Azzawi? What happened to his Iraq, to Palestine, to the Arab world? Who was this patient, angry, defiant, unforgiving chronicler of nations tormented by foreign domination and domestic tyranny?
“All I am trying to do,” I glanced at the catalogue citing Azzawi in my hand, “is to calmly remove the human from the dungeons of oppression and murder, and deliver it to a place where it is possible for its body to be spread wide across the face of the earth, in order for it to be broken and thereby released from the legacy which makes it an oppressed creature.”
What a daunting, metaphysical, task for an artist to impose upon himself! “Palestine: The Years of Slaughter” was the title of a gallery we now entered. The space was sacerdotal: where art rises quietly to meet the sacred.
Azzawi’s retrospective feels like a painterly panegyric, violently lyrical in its mournful remembrance of things past and present, elegiac in its visions of his ruinous homeland. In his overwhelming broad brushes, at once lyrical and confrontational, poetic and political, he fuses the memorial tenderness of his fellow Iraqi Badr Shakir al-Sayyab with the daring defiance of Pablo Picasso and Juan Miro who have had lasting influences on him.
To be embraced and lost in the heart of Azzawi’s art so overwhelmingly is to be in the presence of an aesthetic intuition of transcendence where the political has blown itself out of the mundane and become formal, planting the particularity of its whereabouts in a commanding universe where the prosaic yields itself to the translucent.
Azzawi dwells on the brutality of violence, face-to-face, as he looks deeply into the abyss of the terror of imperial hubris raining death and destruction on his homeland – not just on Iraq, but particularly on Palestine, which he has transformed from factual evidence to a furious allegory of the world at large.
The sensual vicinity of those everlastingly wide and white gallery walls was subterranean – a soulful place with only two solitary souls as their spectators. We approached a larger than life statue of Handala, the Palestinian artist Naji al-Ali’s doppelganger, that Azzawi has done with astonishing figurative monumentality. “We are not supposed to see Handala frontal,” I whispered quietly. He has turned his back to us, witnessing the events. “But I think after a lifetime of friendship with Handala, Azzawi has earned the privilege of seeing him face to face.”
Worlds are falling further and further apart. It is an uncanny feeling to come so close and personal with the works of Azzawi’s in the heart of an Arab world that is coming to pieces from Syria to Yemen. Is this ruinous world a vindication of Azzawi’s work or is his work its salvation? One overnight flight from Doha to New York you will be lost in the irredeemably ignorant world of Donald Trump and everything he stands for, at the epicentre of a gargantuan military machine that does not even look at what it is it is destroying when it starts dropping its ignorant smart bombs on people and their lived experiences.
Azzawi is Iraq. Azzawi is the Arab world: bleeding and singing and painting its pains for the world to see. But who is watching?
We exited Azzawi’s pantheon and walked quietly towards the bay by the Museum. There was a soothing call to prayer. My companion stood up to pray. I sat down to mourn the news of the passing of John Berger at precisely the moments we were with Azzawi. The prayer done, we drove to another exhibition of a gifted Iraqi artist, Mahmoud Obaidi’s.
Between the death of a committed art critic and the birth of a young Iraqi artist, Azzawi had declared the span of a lifetime and a century.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.