Iraqi artists denied entry to Britain for their own exhibition

Visas refused on grounds that applicants could not provide bank statements

It was to be Britain's first comprehensive exhibition of contemporary art from Iraq since the first Gulf War, with a guest list including the Iraqi ambassador, the Foreign Secretary David Miliband MP and five of the war-torn country's most promising artists flown over for the occasion.

So it was dismaying for all parties to learn, less than a month before "Contemporary Art Iraq" was to open at Manchester's Cornerhouse Art Gallery, that the UK Border Agency had denied all five artists entry into the country.

The reason? They could provide no valid bank statements. Proof of financial stability and a bank account in the applicant's home country is a bureaucratic requirement for British visa authorities, but it is also, according to Iraqi experts, a very tall order in an occupied country with no banking infrastructure.

The exhibition, showcasing works by 19 artists from Iraq who have created pieces through the both wars, Saddam Hussein's downfall, the occupation and subsequent upheavals, will still open on Friday 16 April, but organisers are bitter about the absence of the artists – and the taxpayers' money wasted on the effort to bring them here.

Return flights and hotels had been booked and the artists flew to Beirut in an effort to make their passage to obtaining a visa easier. The cost of remaining in Lebanon while they tried to sort out visas added to the £10,000 bill.

For campaigners opposed to the visa restrictions for artists entering Britain on a temporary basis, this is the latest example of a pointlessly bureaucratic and obstructive "points system". A host of headlining artists at the annual WOMAD world music festival have been prevented from performing in past years as well as poets at the Ledbury Poetry Festival.

Manick Govinda, campaigns co-ordinator for the civil liberties group Manifesto Club, who filed a petition to Downing Street against the Home Office's restrictions on invited non-EU visiting artists, said it was another example of the "ludicrously bureaucratic and draconian visa restrictions". The petition's signatories include Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery, Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, the writer Maureen Duffy and Helena Kennedy QC.

The show was co-curated by ArtRole, a British-based arts organisation partly funded by the Arts Council and Foreign Office for the study of Iraq. Its director Adalet Garmiany said the setback could harm British-Iraqi relations.

"Since 2003, Iraqis have been promised democracy but Britain and America have not managed to do what they promised. We tried to use art to rebuild some of that trust. This incident loses that trust ... The artists have been refused visas for not having bank statements; many Iraqis do not have bank accounts. It's an unstable country, usually its citizens are paid in cash," he said.

The artists denied entry include Shaho Abdul Rahman, 36, a designer and painter, Azar Othman Mahmud, 22, an installation artist, Sarwar Mohamed, 37, a filmmaker, all from Sulaymaniyah; Falah Shakarchi, 45, a painter from Baghdad and Julie Adnan, 24, a photojournalist from Kirkuk.

A spokesman for the Home Office could not confirm details of the case.

No entry: Talent refused a visa

*Three musicians in the line-up for the Womad world music festival in 2008 could not obtain visas: Kasai Allstars, a Congolese band; the Pakistani Sufi master, Asif Ali Khan, a protégé of the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; and an Indian troupe, the Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan.

*Russian classical pianist Grigory Sokolov has had two high-profile concerts cancelled in the UK including a show at the Barbican because of the necessity for the new biometric visa. The replacement show at the Royal Festival Hall was also cancelled in April 2009 in a visa wrangle.

*M P Landis, the Brooklyn-based painter, was unable to take up an artist's residency at the Glenfiddich Distillery in Scotland last summer because he was refused a visa through the new points-based system.

*Three internationally renowned poets, Dorothea Rosa Herliany from Indonesia and Hassan Najmi and Widad Benmoussa of Morocco, invited to last July's Ledbury Poetry Festival, were denied entry to the UK.

*Last year the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami experienced difficulties acquiring a visa to travel to Britain for the opening of his exhibition at Purdy Hicks, London, and the inauguration of his production of Cosi fan Tutte at ENO. He spoke of "disgraceful treatment ... by the officials from the British Embassy in Tehran".

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