The Qaddafi régime had stifled and starved Libya’s arts, and Libya’s educational system reflected the lack of investment. So in 2012, Mattawa and his wife, Reem Gibriel, started the Arête Foundation, a non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to promoting the creative arts in the new Libya. They named the foundation after the Greek-Libyan philosopher Arête of Cyrene, symbolizing the foundation’s interest in beauty, curiosity, and knowledge.
They set up gallery exhibits, a reading series, and organized an annual video art show — the first of its kind in the country. They staged a production of playwright Henrick Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. But even with bold ideas and good intentions, Arête struggled to get funding and attention in a country where the arts have been ruthlessly neglected.
“Here in America, kids will go into art and design because they want to be in art and design,” Mattawa says. “In Libya, the top 10 percent go to medicine. The next 10 percent go to engineering. Then maybe into the sciences, economics. If you cannot get into any other college, you end up in education or fine arts.
“Now, a lot of people who benefited from the old system don’t want the system to change,” he continues, ”but we’re determined to do something interesting, something new.”