Hailing from the private collection of renowned duo art critic May Muzaffar and the late artist Rafa Nasiri, Christie’s is honoured to present a rare work from the oeuvre of celebrated Iraqi artist Dia Al Azzawi entitled Arsak Mowt (Your Wedding is Death) from 1970. As their close personal friend, despite its somewhat macabre title and subject matter, Al Azzawi imbued this work with a profound sense of personal sentiment by gifting it to the pair on the joyous occasion of their wedding.
Spending much of his time at the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, the extensive collection of famous monumental works of Mesopotamian and Islamic art significantly influenced the artist’s stylistic practice. Al Azzawi began to combine techniques of contemporary painting with motifs drawn from the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian heritage of Iraq and with geometric patterning drawn and arabesque from the contemporary tribal culture of the desert. This eventually lead him to establish the New Vision Group (al-Ru'yya al-Jadidah) in 1969 debating themes such as identity and modernity that serve as the backbone of his work today.
From the mid-1960s until the mid-1970s Al-Azzawi depicted human figures within his canvases that resembled those of Mesopotamian sculpture. The present work from 1970 is a seminal example capturing Al-Azzawi's fascination with themes of martyrdom, utilising the visual lexicon of Iraq's heritage.
As a single figure, composed of numerous geometric forms, appears within a contrasting sea of varying blues, interspersed with small passages of colour, its geometrical simple appearance is a nod to the Mesopotamian figurines that were so iconic to the artist. Unlike the majority of Al Azzawi’s works, in which the majority of the picture plane is filled with the amalgamation of various geometric and letter forms, this particular work only seems to have them in certain areas of the canvas, lending a sense of isolation to the composition. With the lone figure standing amongst a vast space of endless blue there is an impending feeling of isolation, heightened by the figure’s vacant stare and what appears to be an empty Kosha (traditional couch where the bride and groom usually sit at a wedding).
Rich in symbolic meaning and emblazed with a deep blue turquoise across its surface that is rather rare in the artist’s oeuvre, it is undoubted that the use of this colour was not the result of spontaneous thought, but rather a deliberate decision made by the artist. In reference to Assyrian tradition, where beads of a similar shade of blue were used to ward off evil, the canvas transforms into a talisman of good fortune to the couple on their marriage despite its underlying tale of woe.
The decade of the 1970s was a quiet period for the artist. With few known works produced during this time and their limited availability on the market, Arsak Mowt becomes a rare example of a painting created under special circumstances. However, this painting is also known for its great importance in the development of the artist’s style. With references to Cubism, this painting’s imagery and stylistic qualities seem to preempt his later style and is therefore evidence of his technical evolution.
Al Azzawi relocated from Iraq to London in 1976 where he currently lives and paints. With an upcoming solo retrospective at Mathaf in Qatar in October, the anticipation surrounding the exhibition has undoubtedly contributed to worldwide interest in the artist. With artworks spanning the entirety of his career, the exhibition will shed light on the diversity and fascinating technique of one of Iraq’s finest artists.