Hayv Kahraman is an Iraqi artist whose work reflects on issues of gender, looking at the victimization of women during war, and the effects of practices such as honor killings and genital mutilation, as well as alienation, marginalization, and displacement. Kahraman addresses these contemporary issues through paintings which have a classical and timeless feel to them, her delicate and elegant work in tension with the complex issues and painful real-world realities which she often takes as her subject. As the Saatchi Gallery describes her work, “Kahraman tells…tales of horror with a demure grace through her stunningly beautiful paintings.”
Born in Iraq in 1981, Kahraman moved to Sweden while a child, and later moved to Italy, before returning to Sweden in 2006 to study at the University of Umeå, and later moving to the United States. Having taken up oil painting at twelve, she extends her work beyond drawing and painting to sculpture and design, and the stylistic references her works evoke are wide-ranging. Her influences include Persian miniature art, Arabic calligraphy, traditional Japanese prints, art nouveau, and fashion illustrations, and she introduces elements of the uncanny and bizarre as her way of applying “the background of Islamic art and calligraphy to the traditions of western Europe and the Renaissance.” Kahraman’s precise technique and flattened perspective gives her work a minimalist sparseness and a compelling iconic feel, all the more evident in paintings where she employs religious symbolism. In one series, for example she illustrates the scriptural story of the Sacrifice of The Lamb, with the figures recast as women. The title, “Collective Cut,” suggests that the sacrificed lamb “might also be metaphorically understood in relation to the practice of ‘honour’ killings.” In another painting, unambiguously titled “Honor Killings,” she depicts women hanging from a tree, and in another work, she reinterprets matryoshka dolls through an unveiling process.
Kahraman’s characters are often depicted with elongated necks, representing the archetypical image of the swan, emphasized by the way her figures are often caked in a waxen white color, objectified women with expressionless eyes. As one article puts it,
Her women look like Modiglianis, and have that melancholy serenity about them; plaintive, dreamy-eyed and ethereal in their suffering. They are glimpsed behind closed doors, sumptuously arrayed in harems; exquisite creatures wrapped in fine shawls and lounging on rugs.
This description highlights the elements of orientalist imagery blended into Kahraman’s use of fairy-tale and surrealism as codes in her metaphorical representations of women’s struggles, making her work comparable to artists such as Laylah Ali and Shirin Neshat. Kahraman describes the latter as an inspiration and as “a pioneer in her field.” Kahraman goes on to say that “It’s an exciting time for female artists from the Middle East right now. Many are emerging with a powerful visual language and history is being made.”
This raises some of the issues of political agendas, and how artists from the “Middle East” are often brought into the limelight depending on the international interest in certain facets of their subject matter – in Kahraman’s case, her exploration of the “subject of female oppression with particular reference to war in the Middle East and specifically in her home land of Iraq.”
Kahrman’s series Marionettes could be seen as the embodiment of this theme of women as victims, with their passivity literalized through strings controlling their movements. At the same time, however, Kahraman turns her attention to women as either complicit in or agents of their own repression. In this sense, Kahraman’s work is “a deliberative observation of women being wronged, and women enlisted as agents to perpetuate these wrongs.” Many of her works illustrate an obsession with the maintenance of beauty, with voluntary acts of collective grooming verging on the horrific; images of plucking, waxing, and tweezing become extended into acts of physical mutilation, cutting off tongues and branding, to suit the demands of society or tradition, representing “unflinching depictions of women enslaved to the foibles of the beauty myth.”
In her series Pins and Needles, Kahraman takes this further, reflecting on the alteration of personal appearance as a children’s game, where bodies becomes mapped through the outlining of areas of flesh to be surgically adjusted. Kahraman relates this to her interest in body alteration practices ranging from botox injections and needles to girdles and corsets to foot-binding and breast irons. As Kahraman puts it, “It’s about the maintenance of the body and the excesses this can lead to…We all do it. It’s a personal dilemma.” In the sense that “we all do it” Kahraman’s work becomes a broad feminist critique “creating an excessive cycle of endless outreach towards the unattainable ideal” implanted and perpetuated in an unbroken chain.
As Kahraman writes , her work is about the hope of redemption in a world where civilization and degradation are not opposites but often mirror each other. “Born in a land that is ironically the cradle of civilization and presently the ultimate embodiment of human degradation, Iraq, I have of necessity inherited a host of issues that find expression in my work. Female oppression, honor killings and war continue to claim my attention.”
In addition to the host of issues she has inherited, as an uprooted Iraqi, Kahraman’s work exhibits an interest in immigration and the struggles of the Iraqi diaspora. For example in one exhibition titled “Waraq” she focuses on the struggles of assimilation and alienation through paintings which she intended to reproduce as a set of cards. In her project “Malwiya,” she created a hanging installation reproducing an inverted model of the 9th-century spiraling Abbasid Malwiya tower in Iraq. Partially destroyed by war, the tower remains a cultural landmark, and its the 52-meter height is reflected in the project using the deck of 52 cards. In representing it as inverted, tornado-like, Kahraman reflects on the trauma and loss symbolized in the destruction of Iraq’s heritage. The basis of this project goes back to 2007, when Kahraman sent what she referred to as “Archaeology Awareness Playing Cards,” to US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, the deck of cards also refers to the “most-wanted” cards which accompanied the Iraq invasion, juxtaposing the rhetoric of liberation with the dislocation of the migrant figures and the destruction of Iraqi heritage.
In her interview with ArtSlant, Kahraman explicitly embraces this dichotomy of bluntly political messages conveyed through delicate and subtle art, arguing that while admiring the idea of “art for art’s sake”, she is “drawn to injecting meaning in my work,” and quoting Robert Hughes: “If art can’t tell us about the world we live in then there is not much point in having it.” From her archetypal stylized women figures, caught in a liminal space of self-inflicted and perpetual victimhood, to the migrant displaced figures caught between homeland and exile, Kahraman’s simplified imagery condenses and intensify complex issues which interweave local and global human stories.