The timing couldn’t have been more powerful. As women across the world are speaking up and marching for their rights, the National Portrait Gallery has unveiled a newly commissioned portrait of Malala Yousafzai. And the young activist hopes it will remind people that girls across the world are fighting for change.
The portrait is the first in a series of three commissions given to Iranian-born artist and filmmaker, Shirin Neshat, who is renowned for her work exploring gender relation in Islamic culture. Neshat took a series of photographs of Yousafzai during a sitting in London in March 2018. From this, the artist and the gallery selected two images. The first – a simple portrait on display at the gallery – is overlaid with an inscription with Neshat writing in calligraphy the poem MALALA II: (Malala Yousafzai), by the Pushto poet Rahman Shah Sayel from Peshawar. It was written in 2011 when Malala had become a well-known activist for education.
The second portrait, which features Yousafzai sitting at a school desk with an open book, will be unveiled in 2020 in the Nobel Prize winner’s new adopted city, Birmingham. It will be part of the National Portrait Gallery’s Coming Home initiative, which will see 50 portraits from the National Portrait Gallery’s collection travel to places across the UK they are closely associated with.
Malala Yousafzai said: “I am honored to have my portrait included in the National Portrait Gallery alongside some of Britain’s most influential writers, artists and leaders. I hope it will remind visitors that girls everywhere are fighting for change in their communities and countries — their stories must also be heard.”
In October 2012, Yousafzai was shot in the head in an attack by a Taliban gunman on her school bus. The attack was in retaliation to her writing about life during the Taliban occupation of Swat Valley, and the ban on girls’ education. She recovered in Birmingham where she chose to remain with her family. Undeterred, she has continued to campaign and in 2013, she co-founded the Malala Fund to champion every girl’s right to 12 years of free, safe, quality education. In 2014, Malala became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize with Indian activist Kailash Satyarthi. She is currently studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University.
Neshat said of working with Yousafzai: “I knew of Malala as an extraordinary young woman who had marveled the world by her victory over death; her fierce fight for women’s education and for winning the Nobel Peace Prize, all before she turned 20 years old. It was impossible not to feel intimidated… Yet as she arrived at the studio to be photographed, I was immediately taken aback by her timid, gentle and innocent demeanor. To this day, when I look back on our encounter, I am left with impressions of humility, wisdom and a rare sense of inner beauty.”