Dia Azzawi - The Massacres of Sabra & ShatilaDescribed by Azzawi as ‘a manifesto of dismay and anger’, Sabra Shatila was created by the artist in response to the 1982 massacre of civilians in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps during the Lebanese civil war. The motivation behind the brutal murder of innocents, at the hands of the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia, was presented as a reprisal for the assassination of president Bachir Gemayel, leader of the Kataeb Party. The day after the news of the massacre Azzawi was compelled to construct a work based on the killing: ‘I had at that time a roll of paper and, without any preparatory sketches, the idea for the work came to me. I tried to visualize my previous experience of walking through this camp, with its small rooms separated by a narrow road, in the early 1970s.’
Sabra Shatila displays the massacre through a series of fragmented scenes joined together to create a narrative which invokes the merciless cruelty and brutality of war and human suffering. Silent screams and hands outstretched in desperation pervade the composition; the careful use of blood red and the fragmented bodies of humans and animals reinforce the horror of the slaughter. Indeed Azzawi, who has often used textual referents in the construction of works, was deeply moved by the French writer Jean Genet’s 1983 account of the massacre which also aptly describes the scene presented in Sabra Shatila:
A photograph doesn’t show the flies nor the thick white smell of death. Neither does it show you how you must jump over bodies as you walk along from one corpse to the next. If you look closely at the corpse, an odd phenomenon occurs: the absence of life in this body corresponds to the total absence of the body, or rather to its continuous backing away. You feel that even by coming closer you can never touch it. That happens when you look at it carefully. But it should you make a move in its direction, get down next to it, move an arm or a finger, suddenly it is very much there and almost friendly.
As one of the more politically inclined artists of his generation, Azzawi has since the 1970s created works which address the issue of human suffering as a result of political instability. Previous works which explore the Palestinian plight include Witness From Our Time (1972), based on Black September and the series of works about the Tell al-Za’tar massacre of 1976. His more recent works Wounded Soul, Fountain of Pain (2010) and Elegy to My Trapped City (2011) relate to the post-2003 destruction of Iraq. Azzawi’s politically motivated works (his oeuvre demonstrates an interest in a range of subjects including archaeology, Arabic literature and poetry, and nineteenth-century European painting) are often likened to Picasso’s seminal painting Guernica (1937).