Malak Mattar is 18 years old, and a college student in Istanbul, Turkey. The young artist from Gaza paints mostly haunting portraits that express the pain, persistence, and sumud (resilience) of the Palestinian people, a people who, in the words of the famous Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, suffer from “an incurable malady, hope.”
Mattar’s paintings have been shown in exhibitions around the world, from India to Washington DC, but so far, she has not been present at any of these shows outside of Palestine. Her case made the news last year, when she placed first in Gaza and second in all of the Palestinian territories in the “tawjeehi,” the end of high school exam that is a requirement for Palestinians to attend university. Her score immediately qualified her for a scholarship in Turkey, which every year offers a full ride package to the top ten Palestinian students. But Mattar’s dreams were shattered when her scholarship went to another young Palestinian, whose greater “qualifications” seemed to be that he was a relative of someone high up in the Palestinian Authority. Mondoweiss, among a few other progressive outlets, brought enough attention to her case that the scholarship somehow re-materialized.
Mattar has since been living in Turkey, enrolled in college, and doing what she does so well: paint, and share her people’s stories with the world.
But leaving Gaza has not proven to be the escape to opportunity that she had hoped for. Just this week, Mattar’s dream of finally being present at one of her world exhibitions were shattered, as she was denied a visa to both France and England. Her paintings were just shown in Paris and Avignon, and she was looking forward to her first global experience. To top that, her French friends had secured an artist’s studio for a full month for her exclusive use, and she was beyond thrilled at the opportunity to devote herself to painting in this new environment. But when she went to the French embassy to pick up her passport, she found out she had been denied a visa and, as she wrote, “it looked like nobody had even looked at all the supporting documents I had provided.”
Mattar was still hopeful, as she has also applied for a visa to England, where her paintings, which have already arrived there from France, will be shown this week at the Greenbelt Art festival. But again, she felt only heartbreak and humiliation, when she had expected elation—her visa application was denied, not be appealed, as the consulate was not convinced she was truly a student, let alone an artist.
As Mattar wrote in a Facebook post asking her fans to protest the British Consulate’s decision to deny her a visa:
“I was always told that ‘once you are out of Gaza, you will be free’.
Getting out of Gaza was a dream for me, a dream in which I would be able to study and progress with my art. I have had many of exhibitions in various countries, and in the past I never felt bad for not being able to attend them. Seeing others in Gaza lose their Student Visas and Medicine Travel Permissions, it made me feel more acceptable of not travelling.
Gaza was indeed a cage, but I never thought that the world was just a bigger cage for many people, including myself.
I had found a refusal letter with a note of not appealing or complaining. which accused me of many things, including the accusation that I was not a real student and that they didn’t believe my intentions. After reading this, I felt compelled to quit making art. This was my first reaction to it. It has really broke my heart.
I haven’t been able to see my paintings outside Palestine, and I’m afraid I won’t ever be able to.
My dream is to just have the ability to be present with my paintings and attend my exhibition. I really hope this won’t be my Primary dream for so long, but it really feels this way.
It seems that the hatred of Palestinians, and the ambition to keep us from travelling and living Normal lives, is shared by more than just Israel. However, I will never stop creating Art.”
Mattar’s plight is in keeping with the “lurch to the right” amongst politicians in the West, and the denial of visas to many artists from Global South countries . Thus Chris Smith, the director of WOMAD international music festival, said that for the first time this year, musicians had rejected invitations rather than face the “humiliation” of dealing with Britain’s visa application process. “We’ve had situations where, say, an African artist has been due to come who plays a particularly rare instrument, and we’ll be asked: ‘Can’t you find someone in the UK who plays that instrument?’, which is absurd,” Smith explained. “Culture is being crushed as politicians lurch to the right,” he said, adding “My fear is the situation is only going to get worse.”
Those of us who advocate cultural boycott are told, ad nauseam, that “art is a bridge across cultures,” which we are somehow trying to cut off. Yet as the institutional barriers prove ever higher and more selective for some artists, that “bridge” seems to be, like the segregated roads in the West Bank, a bridge that only a select few can cross, regardless of their talents and qualifications. Malak Mattar will continue painting—art courses through her veins, and its flow cannot be stemmed. Her situation, however, shows the relentless attack on Palestinian culture, and on two-way cultural exchanges. We cannot remain silent, as this assault on global connections escalates. We can write the British consulate, at [email protected], to protest their denial of a visa for Mattar. And, until all artists are free to share their gift with the world, we can, and should, boycott complicit artists and institutions, as called for by Palestinian civil society.