UK Relents After Blocking Syrian Artist’s Visit by Benjamin Sutton on January 21, 201

After initially preventing him from traveling to the UK, the British government has granted Syrian-born, Sharjah-based artist Thaier Helal‘s second visa application, allowing him to attend the opening of his first solo show in London.

“We had reapplied for Thaier’s UK visa and now it’s been approved,” Minna J. Apostolovic, head of public relations at Ayyam Gallery, told Hyperallergic. “We’re trying to get him on the next available flight to London.”

Thaier Helal (photo via Facebook, used with the artist's permission)

Helal is attempting to travel to the UK in time for the January 22 opening of his exhibition Landmarks at Ayyam Gallery’s space on New Bond Street, even though the Home Office — the ministry that oversees security and immigration — turned down his first visa application. The artist had provided all the requisite documents including bank statements, a letter from the University Of Sharjah (where he lectures), and recommendations, but immigration officials reviewing his first application said they were “not satisfied he [was] genuinely seeking entry to the United Kingdom as a business visitor. In addition [they were] not satisfied that [he] intend to leave the United Kingdom at the end of [his] visit,” according to theIndependent.

“I just don’t understand why I have been refused entry to the UK, I am just an artist who wants to be at the opening of my first solo exhibition in Britain. It means so much to me — it is really a career achievement,” Helal told the Independent. “I truly believe that the only reason preventing me from being allowed into the UK is my Syrian passport, it was my belief that Britain was an open society which embraced creative freedom and the promotion of cultural exchange.”

Ayyam Gallery, which was founded in Damascus and also has exhibition spaces in Dubai, Beirut, and Jeddah, is unfortunately accustomed to having to deal with immigration officials’ inscrutable decisions. Last year Israeli authorities prevented one of the gallery’s artists, Khaled Jarrar, from traveling to New York City for openings of exhibitions in which he was featured at the New Museum and the Whitebox Art Center.

Artists with non-EU passports attempting to travel to the UK and North America have long faced similar difficulties. In 2013, the Algerian artist Sofiane Belaskri was denied a four-day visa to visit the UK for the opening of an exhibition and ensuing workshops at the Free World Centre in London. Last year, the Canadian government denied the Afghan artist Hanifa Alizada a visa to attend a photography symposium in Ottawa.

 Thaier Helal, "Assi River" (2013), mixed media on canvas (courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery)

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