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Iraqi Artists Face Travel Obstacles to Visit Gulf Wars Exhibition at MoMA PS1

Some of the artists participating in the exhibition were denied travel visas to the US, while others had no chance of attending the exhibition’s opening because of Trump’s travel ban or their asylum status in other countries.

MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, New York (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

This weekend, MoMA PS1 opened the exhibition Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars, 1991–2011, a massive survey of works discussing the American military engagements in Iraq and their consequences. The exhibition first made headlines when Phil Collins, one of the participating artists, pulled his work out of the show to protest the museum’s, and its trustee Larry Fink’s, alleged investments in private prison companies. Today, it was reported that some of the participating artists have been barred entry to the United States when they tried to attend the exhibition’s opening events.

The exhibition, which spans the museum’s entire building in Long Island City, features 250 works by 82 artists, of whom 30 hail from Iraq. Participating artists include Dia al-Azzawi, Thuraya al-Baqsami, Paul Chan, Harun Farocki, Tarek Al-Ghoussein, Guerrilla Girls, Thomas Hirschhorn, Hiwa K, Hanaa Malallah, Monira Al Qadiri, Nuha al-Radi, and Ala Younis, among others.

“A handful of artists faced some sort of obstacle in coming to the US,” Ruba Katrib, one of the exhibition’s curators, told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation. “They were either denied or they knew they couldn’t come.”

Afifa Aleiby’s “Gulf War” (left) and “War Painting” (both from 1991) in Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars, 1991–2011 at MoMA PS1

Dutch-Iraqi painter Afifa Aleiby is one of the artists in the exhibitions who was denied a travel visa to the US. “The US refused to give me the easy online admission available for Dutch citizens, because, as they explained, I have to apply for a visa in view of the fact that I was born in Iraq,” she wrote in an email to Hyperallergic. Aleiby added that a necessary interview at the United States Consulate was canceled because her fingerprints could not be scanned as two of her fingers had been recently injured.

Aleiby, who was born in the city of Basra in southern Iraq, has been away from her country of origin for 35 years due to political reasons. Two of her oil paintings, “Gulf War” and “War Painting” (both made in 1991), are included in the exhibition. Her works are partially influenced by the Soviet tradition of monumental art, which can be attributed to her education at the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow.

Baghdad-based artist Ali Eyal, according to Katrib, couldn’t come to the opening because Iraq is listed on the Trump administration’s travel ban (also known as the “Muslim ban”). Others couldn’t come because they’re in asylum status in other countries, which complicates the possibility of traveling.

“What’s interesting is that a lot of the artists that are from Iraq live elsewhere and have different nationalities,” said Katrib, “but they still face obstacles when traveling, like being held at the airport.” Aleiby, however, is confident that she’ll eventually make it to the exhibition, saying: “My next appointment is on November 19, and I have no doubt I will receive the visa soon after.”

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