Art Fairs

Meem Gallery at Abu Dhabi Art 2014: Booth A11


5 – 8 November

At this year’s Abu Dhabi Art Fair, Meem will exhibit the work of four important artists from the gallery’s roster: Dia Azzawi, Kamal Boullata, Mohamed Melehi, and Mahmoud Obaidi. The oeuvres of Azzawi, Boullata, and Melehi, all exponents of the region’s modern art movements, demonstrate how the 1960s generation of Arab artists wedded Western art practices (namely easel painting) with elements from their cultural heritage: Mesopotamian visual culture, literature and Arabic script, North African arts and crafts. Their more recent works, displayed at Abu Dhabi Art 2014, maintain a link to this early ideology but equally reflect the ways in which each artist has reassessed his contribution within a more contemporary context.

Dia Azzawi’s paintings, which date from 2008 onwards, demonstrate the artist’s more recent tendency towards pure abstraction while simultaneously exploring ideas relating to archaeology, a subject which has resonated with Azzawi from the start of his artistic career. The interlocking abstract shapes delineated in many of his paintings from the late 2000s seem to be buried beneath the earth’s surface, perhaps awaiting archaeological excavation. Similarly, the colourful waves found in Moroccan artist Mohamed Melehi’s works – the wave, which first featured in his work from 1963, is a leitmotif of Melehi’s oeuvre – display the artists continuing interest in abstracted signs and symbols culled from Moroccan arts and crafts as well as the classical elements of earth, fire, wind, and water. In his more recent paintings, Melehi’s compositions are busier and less controlled, creating unusual interactions between forms. Kamal Boullata’s triptych, Bilqis (2014), recently exhibited in his solo show at Meem (May – July 2014), beautifully represents the artist’s exploration of transparency and spatial ambiguity. Taking its title and subject from the Qur’anic legend of the Queen of Sheba (her name being Bilqis in Arabic), here Boullata, renowned for his for his formal experiments with the Arabic letter, uses the Qur’anic legend of Bilqis, most notably the aesthetic appearance of glass floors and glistening surfaces, as a point of departure for this work. In Bilqis, vertical and diagonal lines intersect at variable angles to create a horizontal composition.

Mahmoud Obaidi is part of the ‘eighties generation’ of Iraqi artists who studied under the guidance of second generation pioneers such as Shakir Hassan Al Said, Dia Azzawi and Rafa Nasiri. Obaidi’s work is from the series he recently presented in the Hajj: The Journey Through Art  exhibition held at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, 2013. Obaidi’s work is led by his conceptual approach to art-making. This enables him to experiment with a range of media as he is rarely confined by the materiality of the finished artwork. He recently held a solo show at Meem, The Replacement (2014), an exhibition that examined the transient role of power in the context of regional politics.

Meem Gallery has exhibited the work of all four artists at Abu Dhabi art previously and is pleased to bring their work together for this instalment of the fair. Azzawi, Boullata, Melehi and Obaidi’s work is held in major international collections including Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha; Tate Modern and British Museum, London; Centre Georges Pompidou, and Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris; MoMA, New York; and Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, to name a few.

Dia Azzawi

Born in Baghdad in 1939, 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.In 1969, Azzawi co-founded the New Vision group, uniting fellow artists ideologically and culturally as opposed to stylistically. Through his involvement with New Vision, Azzawi found inspiration in contemporary subjects and issues, particularlythe plight of the Palestinians. From 1968 to 1976, Azzawi was the director of the Iraqi Antiquities Department in Baghdad. He has lived in London since 1976, where he served as art advisor to the city’s Iraqi Cultural Centre from 1977 to 1980.

Azzawi’s oeuvre includes a range of subjects derived from Iraq’s Mesopotamian heritage, Arabic poetry and topical political issues, executed in a variety of media: painting, sculpture, prints, drawings, and book art. He lives and works in London but continues to draw inspiration from his homeland, Iraq.

With exhibitions of his work held worldwide – including, more recently, the unveiling of Sabra Shatila at the Tate Modern – his art features
in international private and public collections including the Museums of Modern Art in Baghdad, Damascus and Tunis; Jordan National Galleryof Fine Arts, Amman; Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha; Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah; Kinda Foundation, Saudi Arabia; Una Foundation, Casablanca; Arab Monetary Fund, Abu Dhabi; Development Fund, Kuwait; Jeddah International Airport; British Museum, Tate Modern, and Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Institut du Monde Arabe, Bibliothèque Nationale de France and Colas Foundation, Paris; Harba Collection, Iraq and
Italy; Gulbenkian Collection, Lisbon; and Library of Congress and the World Bank, Washington, DC.

Kamal Boullata

Kamal Boullata was born in Jerusalem in 1942. He is a graduate of the Fine Arts Academy of Rome and the Corcoran Art Museum School in Washington, DC.  His work may be found in private collections in the USA, Europe and the Arab world. Public collections holding his art include the British Museum, London; Alhambra Islamic Museum, Granada; Darat al-Funun, the Khalid Shoman Foundation, Amman;Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris; New York Public Library, New York; Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah; Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha; Bibliothèque Louis Notari, Monaco.

In 1993 and 1994, he was granted a Fulbright senior scholar fellowship to conduct field research on Islamic art in Morocco and Spain. In 2001, he received a Ford Foundation grant to research Post-Byzantine painting and the origins of modern art in Palestine. During the academic year 2012/13 he was elected as a fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin. The studies, sketches and the series of paintings on exhibition were conceived during his residency at the Institute.

Boullata’s writings on Islamic and modern Arab art have appeared in numerous academic publications. Books he has edited include If Only the Sea Could Sleep: Love Poems by Adonis (2003), and Belonging and Globalization: Critical Essays in Contemporary Art and Culture (2008). Books he has authored include Istihdar al-makan: Dirasat fi al-fan al-tashkili al-filastini al-mu’asir (2000); Palestinian Art from 1850 to the Present (2009); and Between Exits: Paintings by Hani Zurob (2012).  

Kamal Boullata has lived most of his life in the USA and in France. At present, he lives in Berlin.

Mohamed Melehi

Mohamed Melehi was born in Asilah, Morocco in 1936. He graduated from the École des Beaux-Arts, Tétouan, Morocco, in 1955. He continued his studies abroad, learning fine art in Seville and Madrid, sculpture in Rome, and engraving in Paris. In the early sixties, he travelled to the United States, where he studied at Columbia University (with a scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation) for two years before returning to Morocco in 1964. It was during this time that Melehi began to explore his cultural heritage as a primary source of inspiration and started using a bolder, more brilliant colour palette.

In 1969, Melehi organized the first open-air group exhibition, held in Marrakech medina’s Jamaa el-Fna Square, in Morocco. Eliciting much acclaim from the public and art critics, this exhibition radicalized the country’s contemporary art scene. 

Melehi was Professor of painting, sculpture and photography at the Casablanca School of Fine Arts from 1964-69.  In 1978, Melehi and Mohamed Benaissa created the Al Mouhit Cultural Association, a non-political organisation with purely cultural objectives. The result of this venture is the Asilah Cultural Moussem, an annual festival held every summer. A highlight of the festival is the mural painting event, first held in April 1978, a project which has revitalized the formerly dilapidated appearance of the artist’s birthplace. Asilah is now celebrated for its vividly coloured murals, many of which have been created by Melehi.    

Melehi is also President of the Moroccan Association of Plastic Arts, and was the Director of Arts for the Ministry of Culture, from 1985-92, and was also the cultural consultant to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Co-operations, from 1999-2002. He has held numerous solo exhibitions including a retrospective at the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, 1995, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York, 1984. He has participated in group shows in Casablanca, Tangiers, Rabat, Marrakech, Baghdad, Algiers, London, Paris, Rome, Zurich, New York, Chicago and Montreal. His work is held in international museum collections such as Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, MoMA, New York, and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha.

Mahmoud Obaidi

Mahmoud Obaidi was born in Baghdad in 1966. He graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts, Baghdad, with a BA in fine art, in 1990. In 1996, he received a diploma in New Media from Ryerson University, Toronto and, in 1998, a further diploma in film producing from HIF Film Academy, Los Angeles. He also holds an MA in fine art from the University of Guelph, Ontario (1999). Obaidi is particularly interested in exploring the conceptual side of art, and has noted that the concept behind his work often determines his choice of media.

His solo exhibitions include the Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, 1990; Darat Al-Funun, 1995; Stevenson Hall, Toronto, 1998; 4 Walls Gallery, Amman, 2002, and Fair Skies, Agial Gallery, Art Dubai, Dubai, 2010. He has participated in festivals, biennales and group exhibitions including Contemporary Arab Artists, Darat Al-Funun, Amman; KHOJ International Festival, Delhi, 1999; Dafatir: Contemporary Iraqi Book Art, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas, travelling exhibition, 2005-2008; Modernism and Iraq, Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, New York, 2009; and Beyond the War, LTMH Gallery, New York, 2010. His work is held in public collections including Mathaf: Museum of Modern Arab Art, Doha; Museums of Modern Art, Amman, Baghdad and Quebec; Sharjah Museum; and Tidi Gallery Collection, New York. He lives and works in Doha and Toronto.


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Dia Azzawi: Selected Works 1964-1973


11 – 20 October 2014

Meem Gallery is pleased to announce the display of Iraqi artist Dia Azzawi’s work at this year’s Frieze Masters. The exhibition is dedicated to the earlier works of the artist who is regarded as one of the pioneers of modern Arab art. Ten paintings from the period of 1964–1973 have been selected for Meem’s booth, displaying the artist’s creative output in the years when he was still a resident in his birthplace Baghdad, prior to his relocation to London in 1976.

Works such as Crying Wolf  (1968) showcase Azzawi’s early style and references to Mesopotamian visual culture, demonstrating how he created an aesthetic that is rooted in tradition and modernity. This is the result of both Azzawi’s academic background in archaeology and his commitment to forging an artistic identity specific to modern Iraqi art. Memories (1973) and Human States (1976) demonstrate Azzawi’s expressive use of colour, a trademark of his artistic output, which he uses to invoke personal experience and memory. Utilizing abstraction to explore his subject, Azzawi simplifies human forms and figures into an arrangement of shape and colour. Earthy tones and organic shapes heighten the viewer’s sense of Iraq’s heritage while the disjointed forms allow us to reflect on the state of Iraq’s more recent history.


Born in Baghdad in 1939, Dia Azzawi’s oeuvre comprises over forty years of work displaying the remarkable creativity of an incredibly versatile artist.  Defined by its powerful visual impact and brilliant colour, Azzawi’s art covers a range of subjects executed in a variety of media: painting, sculpture, prints, drawings, and book art (dafatir).  He lives and works in London but continues to derive inspiration from his homeland, Iraq. 

With exhibitions of his work held worldwide, his art features in the collections of museums and institutions including the British Museum, Tate Modern and Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Museums of Modern Art in Baghdad, Damascus and Tunis; Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha; Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, Amman; Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah; Institut du Monde Arabe, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and Colas Foundation, Paris; Harba Collection, Iraq and Italy; Gulbenkian Collection, Barcelona; Kinda Foundation, Saudi Arabia; Una Foundation, Casablanca; Arab Monetary Fund, Abu Dhabi; Development Fund, Kuwait; Jeddah International Airport; Saudi Bank and United Bank of Kuwait, London; Library of Congress and The World Bank, Washington D.C.

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.  The group held their final exhibition in 1972. 

Through his involvement with the New Vision Group Azzawi found inspiration in contemporary subjects and issues, particularly the plight of the Palestinians.  His shift from themes of antiquity and legend to that of pain, death, and conflict altered his stylistic approach to painting significantly. These works lacked the vivid colour and ornamentation of earlier images and, instead, utilized bold outlines, attention to detail, and improvisational techniques. 

Arabic script, literature and poetry have also featured in Azzawi’s work.  However, he did not use text as the central motif of his images as he considered it to be, ‘part of the group of elements of which the painting is composed.’ Similarly, his incorporation of literature and poetry does not result in a visual narrative of the text, but simply alludes to its literary content, which acts as the initial source of inspiration. More recently, Azzawi stopped using Arabic script altogether, stating that he ‘found that this kind of work became less challenging, and lately we can notice how it has become part of market demand rather than the source of creative and inspiring work.’

Azzawi’s move to London, in 1976, led him to rediscover book art.  Having researched the collection of Islamic manuscripts housed in the British Library, he affirms that the art of the book is the truest art form of the Arab world, even more so than painting, and encourages artists of the region to draw inspiration from, and reinterpret, this tradition.

In 2012, Azzawi’s monumental work Sabra Shatila (1983), created in response to the 1982 massacre of civilians in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps during the Lebanese civil war,was unveiled at London’s Tate Modern in Facing History: Dia Al-Azzawi and Leon Golub.

Exhibition Catalogue

A catalogue will be produced in conjunction with the Frieze Master’s exhibition. The publication will include essays by Professor Nada Shabout (author of Modern Arab: Formation of Arab Aesthetics, UPF, 2007) and Saleem al-Bahloly (PhD candidate at the University of Berkeley) and colour plates of the works exhibited.  

 Download Exhibition Catalogue

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