“Humanity has organised the world in a devastating way…. Painting, as a reaction to all this, is a kind of liberation and thrilling road, even if that road is sometimes bumpy”  Amar Dawod[1]

Born in Baghdad in 1957, Amar Dawod would grow up to become one of the many Iraqi artists living in exile, with a spiritual, philosophical and historic depth running through his experimental artwork. As a teenager, Dawod was influenced by Jewad Selim and the Baghdad Modern Art Group, and spent most of his time drawing on books, exploring the world of colour and calligraphy.[2]A promising young artist, he enrolled in the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad in the mid-1970s and graduated in 1979 with a diploma in graphic art. One year later, Dawod left Iraq for good and began a new life, first in Poland and then in Sweden.[3]

Whilst a student in Baghdad, Dawod was taught by Shakir Hassan Al Said who introduced him and his fellow classmates to the foundations of art practice, including the educational, moral and social aspects of art, but also discussions on philosophy and mysticism. This had a great impact on the young artist, with Dawod himself claiming that these lessons were “a real breakthrough that made me understand the meaning of being an artist”.[4]Dawod, already part of a political family and exposed to the increasingly tense political atmosphere in Iraq, was now also being exposed to Sufi thought and existentialism. It was during his years as a student in the 1970s, through his own personal study and the influence of Al Said and others, that Dawod began to explore the works of al-Hallaj, who would inform much of his later work: “although I am a descendant of a Communist family, I came out of the cloak of al-Hallaj”.[5]

Although Dawod was in Poland and Sweden during the 1980s, he was always connected back to Iraq. Part of the “Eighties Generation” – a term coined in 1991 to describe the artists who had “reached maturity” during the Iran-Iraq War – he was internationally in sync with many of his Iraqi contemporaries, some of whom were exhibiting within Iraq, and many outside Iraq.[6]What these artists had in common was their heritage, their culture and for many, their artistic training. Dawod exhibited extensively throughout the 1980s and 1990s across Europe in solo and group exhibitions and a range of biennales and other art fairs. He also pursued further training, receiving an MA in graphic art in 1987 in Poland, and a qualification in animation in the early 1990s in Sweden.[7]During this period, whilst many artists were overcome with the grief of war and exile, Dawod’s spiritual and mystical understanding of the world enabled him to approach his artwork in an optimistic light, veering away from tragedy and instead adopting what he describes as “a poetic energy that praises the beauty of the world”.[8]This approach connected with his interpretations of al-Hallaj’s teachings, using the Persian mystic’s philosophy that death is a new beginning for another life. 

The new millennium began with Dawod taking part in exhibitions almost every year, one of which was Dafatir. Contemporary Iraqi Book Art that took place across the USA, over several years. This new phenomenon of book art, a continuation of Iraq’s rich history of illustrated manuscripts and literary traditions, had been reinterpreted as a mobile national tool to creatively communicate the Iraqi struggle, be it locally under sanctions, war and occupation, or from the distance of melancholic and nostalgic exile. The exhibition helped to establish the concept as a significant artform and Dawod made several of his own dafatir, one of which is now part of the British Museum’s collection.

The physical manifestation of the impact of al-Hallaj on Dawod’s artistic output increased significantly from 2010 onwards, with Dawod creating a series of paintings based on his celebrated Kitab al-Tawasin, with each chapter called a ‘ta’sin’. There are twelve paintings by Dawod in the Dalloul Collection, of which ten are from his al-Hallaj-inspired series, including The Ta-Sin of Before Endless-Time and Equivacation I(2010)The Ta-Sin of the Self -Awareness in Tawhid I(2011)The Ta-Sin of Purity II(2012)The Ta-sin of the Disconnection-from-Forms II(2012)The Ta-Sin of the Prophetic Lamp I(2013)The Ta-Sin of the Disconnection-from-Forms III(2013)The Ta-Sin of Purity III(2013)The Ta-Sin of Point III(2013)The Tawasin 9(2016) and The Tawasin 10(2016). Exhibited in a solo show at a prominent Dubai gallery in 2013, Dawod brought pencil, ink, pastels, watercolours, acrylic paint, charcoal and mixed media collage on to paper to interpret al-Hallaj’s verses in abstract, and sometimes cubist vivid colours and forms. He depicted a range of figures, shapes and patterns in an effort to rebel against “pure painting”, an active choice Dawod made in order to visualise the complexities of al-Hallaj’s style of writing and theories.[9]

The final two paintings in the collection, both of which were composed in 2017 – Al-Faris and Self Portrait– show other aspects of Dawod’s influences and skills. Al-Faris, meaning ‘the knight’ is a hark back to medieval times and tales of warriors and battles. Dawod often uses references from ancient Eastern civilisations and local cultural heritage, creating this textured, patterned cubist rendering to enable this knight to come to life with a colourful and vibrant energy. Self Portrait takes a different turn, incorporating his usual patterns and colours in depictions of his canvases in the background, but the foreground shows a vivid, hyper-realistic portrait of the artist himself, almost providing a three-dimensional vision into his studio and thus his world.

Dawod experiments with illusions and fantasy just as much as he incorporates rich historical traditions and Sufi mysticism, resulting in an incredible range of artworks. Even when heavily referencing his homeland and his personal experiences and traditions, his work has a universalism, which crosses cultural and geographic boundaries.[10]Rarely does he insist on one interpretation, preferring to avoid any particular meaning: “for me, the aesthetics of a painting lie in the vagueness and recklessness of the content and the absence of a one-dimensional purpose”.[11]As a result, it is incredibly difficult to pigeonhole Dawod’s style, influences and artistic purpose, and instead, as he most likely intended, his work is open to any form of philosophical, mystical and creative analysis and appreciation. Dawod still lives and works in Sweden, and continues exhibit his paintings across the world.