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Diyar Al Asadi: In His Own Words
Jan, 12, 2021
Diyar Al Asadi: In His Own Words
Local artist Diyar Al Asadi was born in Baghdad, Iraq, where he lived for the first decade of his life before death threats forced him and his family to flee from their homeland to Egypt. Then in 2009, yet another attempt on their lives drove them to find safe haven once again, but this time in Jordan.
All the while, Diyar used art as a means to dream, hope, and escape. Over the years, he studied and collaborated with many artists and teachers, including Russian artist Eleni Alexander and Saudi artist Elham Jean. Most of his training in Islamic art, however, came from his time working under Iranian professor Fatemeh Pourhatami in Jordan.
In 2012, Diyar moved to the United States after receiving a scholarship to the prominent Art Students League of New York, and today, he calls Phoenix his home, his community, where he paints highly intricate, large-scale works that can take up to 2,300 hours to create.
Here’s Diyar, in his own words, on what motivates his creative practice and the stories he strives to share through his art.
“I paint stories of my family’s suffering and struggles. Without using words, I have become a silent storyteller on canvas.”
Diyar Al Asadi. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: Tell us about who you are. Where are you from, and what first inspired you to pursue art?
Diyar Al Asadi: I am originally from Baghdad, Iraq, but have lived in Phoenix now for three years, and my family moved here in 2019. I started painting at the age of seven, teaching myself how to use oil paints with the help of local artists in Baghdad. After selling all of my paintings to famous Iraqi artists, I received a scholarship to study art in Egypt, but due to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was unable to take advantage of that opportunity. After militants made two attempts on the lives of me and my family for sectarian and political reasons, we eventually left Iraq for Egypt. I found inspiration in watching my mother and family fight to survive and their willingness to leave what they knew for an unknown future. Experiencing that much struggle with my family made art the only way I could travel to a better reality and paint my family’s forgotten stories.
PhxArt: What are some of your family’s stories that you like to paint, and what else do you depict in your art?
Al Asadi: I paint stories of my family’s suffering and struggles. Without using words, I have become a silent storyteller on canvas. I started my art career at a young age, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and experiencing war, killings, abuse, and fear so early in my life made me think of how I could paint beautiful realities. We traveled as refugees to the unknown, looking for a safe place to call home, but some of these stories that I have painted, of my pain and my family trauma, still show beauty and passion.
My art also tells stories of old Arab or Middle-Eastern mythology, while still sharing a part of my life story within it, in between the lines. For me, my work has been a connection between the past and the present, the spiritual and the physical.
Diyar Al Asadi, Diyar, 2018. Acrylic on canvas. Handmade painting of 850 hours. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What are the media that you prefer to work in?
Al Asadi: I’m trained in classical Islamic art and calligraphy, which I use as inspiration and a means to push boundaries within my artwork to explore beauty, balance, gender, religion, culture, and spirituality. When I work using traditional Islamic art techniques, I prefer acrylic on canvas or gouache on cardboard. I spend weeks working on the details of artworks, and it’s easier to use water-based paint because it dries faster. I also see water-based colors and a cloth of canvas as the most spiritual materials because they are basic and easy to find and use, characteristics I found especially important as I painted growing up when my family struggled a lot financially.
PhxArt: What inspires the sense of geometry and the bold colors in your work?
Al Asadi: Growing up in Iraq, my Muslim family took me to the Sanctuary of Imam ‘Ali and other beautiful, magical temples or mosques that usually contained the dead body of someone holy, and I’ve always wondered about how the perfection of geometry and the bold blue color combined with white and gold decoration in the art and designs of those places made them somehow even holier. In my paintings, which I consider “contemporary Islamic art,” I always want to capture a holy image and then give it to someone who feels the same way about it as I do.
Diyar Al Asadi, A Date between the Sun and Moon, 2020. Acrylic on canvas. Handmade painting of 700 hours. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What techniques and artists influence your work?
Al Asadi: I use many techniques in my art, but my main influence is Islamic art because it’s where I found my first inspiration. I like to combine techniques of traditional Islamic art to show where I’m from with newer techniques from contemporary art to show where I am now.
Also, as my family traveled as refugees from Iraq to Egypt, and then on to Jordan, my mom saw it as a great opportunity for me to improve my art and study other techniques from various traditions, under many great artists and professors. If you look closely at my paintings, you will find I employ all of the styles I’ve learned, with the purpose of telling an Arab traveler’s story.
In terms of artists, there are so many that influence my eyes, ears, and mind. I believe we all are recycled thoughts and so are all connected. I mostly listen to music while painting, and I usually choose Sufi chanting or classic Arabic music because one song can last up to an hour. My favorite singers are Umm Kalthom or Fairuz, and my favorite painters are contemporary Asian artist James Jean , contemporary Iranian carpet artist Jason Seife, and modern Islamic artist Mohammad bagher Aghamiri.
Diyar Al Asadi, Gate of Baghdad Bahamut, 2021. Acrylic on canvas. Handmade painting of 2,300 hours. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What is something you’ve most recently worked on or exhibited?
Al Asadi: Last November, a painting of mine was featured at the Sisao Gallery on Grand Avenue as part of The Carmody Foundation 4th Annual Grant Recipient Exhibition. I also completed multiple international commissions in 2020 for people and art collectors who have a taste for the styles of contemporary and Islamic art evident in my work.
PhxArt: What can our community expect to see next from you?
Al Asadi: Phoenix has been my home and community since I moved here in 2016, and I would love to show more in galleries and museums across the city this year to share my stories. I’m working on paintings for a solo exhibition that will be presented in May, but the location is still to be determined. I’m excited, though, to show my Phoenician community what’s in my mind by what’s on my canvas. I also won a competition to show my art in one of the new China tech cities this year, so I’ll be working on that as well.
Diyar Al Asadi, The Savior, 2020. Acrylic on canvas. Handmade painting of 1,750 hours. Courtesy of the artist.
We’re curious how creatives are navigating the time of coronavirus. Diyar Al Asadi shares what’s giving him life as a creative during quarantine.
Al Asadi: This time of COVID-19 is a very sad moment in our world. Given what is going on back home with my parents’ families in Iraq, where the environment is toxic and unsettling, with no health awareness or help provided to people, my family and I feel blessed to be in a place that cares for and understands what it means to be human beings. Having my friends and my five family members here in Phoenix around me during this time has provided a lot of support and made my life a little less of a struggle when clients cancelled work because of the pandemic. The city of Phoenix has also been very supportive; I’m currently working on multiple commissions so am staying busy to keep creating stories, as all of my work is sold out. I have also been busy showing my family here how to be Phoenicians and what it means to belong to this amazing, artistic city. Despite the challenges of this time, from the ashes we rise, and I know this pandemic will just make us stronger and give us more stories to tell to the future.
Diyar Al Asadi, Bahamut, 2019. Acrylic on canvas. Handmade painting of 900 hours. Courtesy of the artist.