“Dia al-Azzawi is not an illustrator, and he’s not a man who makes political posters. But his work is completely infused with events in the Middle East,” said Catherine David, the curator of the Doha exhibition, who is the deputy director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Pompidou Center in Paris.
Ms. David described the artist as an exceptional draftsman and print maker and “a painter with a genuine sense of rhythm.” “Placed in the context of 20th-century art, Dia al-Azzawi is not only a great Arab artist, but a great artist, full stop,” she said.
So why is he little known in the West? “He’s not in major European and American collections,” Ms. David said. “He’s in major Arab collections, which don’t have the same visibility. The same could be said for many artists.”
His work appears at auction occasionally, with a high sale price of $235,500 in October at Christie’s in Dubai for the 1970 painting “Arsak Mowt (Your Wedding Is Death).”
Mr. Azzawi works in a large and luminous atelier located in an industrial cluster on London’s western outskirts. Window sills are covered with colorful sculpture models, and tall canvases lean against the wall. The artist’s frizzy gray hair and bushy mustache give him a Mark Twain air. He is friendly and unceremonious, and prone to bursts of high-pitched laughter.
He was drawn to art from a young age. His father, a Baghdad grocer with nine other children, disapproved, worried about the career prospects. Yet the boy’s talent quickly became obvious to his instructors, and to Iraq’s last king, Faisal II, when he visited young Dia’s school. Mr. Azzawi said that the king promised to send him to Italy for study. (King Faisal was subsequently executed in the 1958 revolution.)
Mr. Azzawi went on to become an archaeology student. He spent his days studying artifacts from Iraq’s past, and his evenings painting in the studio of a Western-trained artist and mentor, Hafidh al-Droubi.
He soon developed his own semiabstract style, fusing ancient Iraqi iconography — particularly the wide-eyed figures of Sumeria — and Western modern art, which he came across by observing the work of fellow artists who had studied abroad.
This can be seen in many of the works in Doha: the outstretched hand in “Three States of One Man No. 1” (1976) almost mirrors the ones in Picasso’s “Guernica,” and “Interconnection” (1972) features shapes that recall late Cubism.
“I’m from the generation which was very much fascinated with identity,” he said. “We had to create something different, something related to our own history.”
In the late 1960s, Mr. Azzawi published a manifesto titled “Towards a New Vision,” through which he “established, pioneered, supported and argued for creating a modern Arab identity in painting,” said Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, assistant curator of international art collections at Tate Modern in London.
Mr. Azzawi also became inspired by poetry: at first by verses written in the ancient Sumerian and Akkadian languages, then by modern Arab poems. He illustrated these in delicate single- or limited-edition artist books, many of which are on display for the first time ever in Doha.
In 1975, when he was 36, a maiden trip to Europe — during which he attended a printmaking workshop in Salzburg, Austria, and visited Rome and London — proved life-changing. After that, Baghdad seemed “too limited,” he said. “So I thought, why not leave and start something in Europe?”
Six years after his move to London came the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon, described in an eyewitness account by the French author Jean Genet. The killings were “too harsh, and too unbelievable. I couldn’t accept,” Mr. Azzawi recalled. “I just had a roll of paper. I started working on it without thinking that it would be better to work on canvas.”
The artist produced a long and dense ink-and-crayon drawing that was then mounted on four giant panels. The work is reminiscent of “Guernica,” yet Mr. Azzawi insists he was not thinking of Picasso when he made it.
Shown at the National Council for Art and Culture in Kuwait in 1983, the work remained on loan to the Kuwaitis there until days before Saddam Hussein invaded their country in 1990. It was transported back to London and kept in a box in the artist’s studio until it was shown at the opening of Mathaf in Doha in 2010. The work was bought by Tate in 2012.
“The scale and the style makes it really one of the most important works by an artist of the Middle East,” Mr. Oikonomopoulos said.
In his years in exile, Mr. Azzawi proved that Iraq was still the driving force behind his work. The first Gulf War and a decade of sanctions led him to start a body of work that he continued with the 2003 American-led invasion and the subsequent sectarian violence. One small but poignant example, on display in Doha: “Abu Ghraib” (2011), a small bronze sculpture of a dog and a contorted human figure that recalls the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the facility by American military personnel.
Mr. Azzawi recently completed his largest-ever work — a 34-foot-wide by 14-foot-high mural titled “My Broken Dream” that depicts what he calls “the chaos created by differences” in present-day Iraq, with three sharp knives placed at the very top.
“Iraq is not just a piece of land with a flag and a national anthem. Iraq is the inner soul which kept me working for all these years,” the artist said, pointing to a large paper-on-cardboard reproduction of the work. “I shared a dream with these people of how to build a country. When it became so sectarian, when it became ethnic cleansing, I could no longer think about the dream of rebuilding the country.”
Mr. Azzawi was last in Iraq in 1980, and he said he had no hope for his homeland. Yet the mood inside his studio seemed anything but despairing, and he approached art with visible appetite. “I come here in the morning and leave at 6 o’clock,” he said. “I don’t like to sit without doing anything. So I have to work.”