“And here I am, calling myself part of you but I can’t read you. Am I betraying you? How can I love you if I abandon you? I dwell in between the us and them… Naked, with ruby lips and cadmium cheeks, she gives you what you desire because she knows you like it. She’s studied it. I pose for you. I’m your little oriental pussycat. You can pet me if you like” – Jameel Prize 5: Hayv Kahraman, June 2018
Downcast, languid but beautiful. A central female figure recurs again and again throughout Hayv Kahraman’s work. With pale, translucent, almost pure white skin, thick bouffant-like black hair, ruby red lips and a sullen expression, her origins are difficult to place. Often nude, but sometimes wrapped in textiles woven together, this woman – who can be likened to Renaissance ideals of beauty that have been combined with a Japanese influence – transfixes the viewer as she manifests her presence repeatedly across a series of oil paintings. Often accompanied by a string of sisters, each made in her image, these women who are currently on display at the De La Warr Pavilion communicate the complex relationship between migration, assimilation and femininity.
Hayv Kahraman (b. Baghdad, Iraq, 1981, works Los Angeles, USA), spent her early childhood in Baghdad. During the war, she spent a lot of time in the basement of her uncle’s house, playing board games with her relatives by candlelight. One night (in 1992), during the Kurdish mass exodus of the first Gulf War, her family hired a smuggler to take them somewhere safe, eventually arriving in Sweden, resulting in Kahraman becoming a refugee at the age of 11. Kahraman’s experience of displacement, adjustment and her reaction to the way she has been viewed as an Iraqi woman by the West, is the prominent sentiment felt throughout her work. The exhibition at De La Warr – titled Displaced Choreographies – sees her women maneuver shared histories of women affected by migration.
“My language is hazy like the smog in L.A, like the dark winter skies of Sweden, and like the smoke of my burning house in Baghdad. And then I leave on multiple planes with my fake passport I flee, and finally land in Europe.” – Jameel Prize 5: Hayv Kahraman, June 2018
In a single gallery on the seafront of the south of England, Kahraman’s paintings comment on the lasting impact of leaving a home afflicted by war, and how an association with that place affects others’ perception of the self. In many of Kahraman’s paintings the canvas has been cut and weaved back together, so that her nude women are clothed in a neutral and textured grid pattern. This technique of weaving segments of the canvas together, splitting and then re-suturing it, was inspired by the mahaffa, a handheld fan woven from palm fronds. As a result– as in T25 and T26 (oil on linen, 2017) – the women’s bodies become dismembered then put back together again, as a symbol of healing from past trauma, with the scars of the recovery process made visible on the women’s’ skin. This fan was one of the few items that Kahraman’s family took when leaving Baghdad, having been instructed that they could take just one suitcase. Once in a new home, the fan was placed in a corner described by Kahraman as “a memorial and a shrine that carries imaginations of a lost past.”
Perhaps the work on display most overtly directed to the act of migration is Swedish Class (oil on linen, 2014). Part of a larger series of work titled How Iraqi Are You? the painting comments on the process of assimilation and, with the inclusion of Arabic calligraphy, also references the experience of having to relearn how to write Arabic. Stylistically, the painting references a 12th century Baghdadi manuscript called the Al-Hariri Maqmat, which portrays the daily lives of Iraqis in the style of the Baghdad school of miniature painting that was cut short by the Mongol invasion, which also reflects the same sentiment of cultural loss running throughout Kahraman’s oeuvre.
“I know that I’m not part of this place. You’ve made it clear that I’m an other. I carefully observed how you looked at me for years. I can be what you want me to be. I’m your hairy Arab. I serve my body on a plate for you and I wonder, does he know what he’ll be eating.” – Jameel Prize 5: Hayv Kahraman, June 2018
Also in reference to something that has been lost – prompted by the sale of Kahraman’s childhood home in Iraq – is Hussein Pasha (oil on wood, 2013). Shaped to reflect the floor plan of a house in Baghdad, the work comments on the courtyards where male family members receive their guests, while the women of the house are forced to watch from shanasheel (ornate screens) on another floor. “The house is my domain”, writes Kahraman, “When you enter you will resign and obey…through the watching screens I can see everything you do and you won’t even know that I’m watching…I am behind these walls. Tamed and constrained. Yet this is my domain.” In Kahraman’s painting, three women crawl between the walls of the floor plan, grabbing each other’s arms, as though recruiting them to her cause. Crammed into small segments of the painting, they restrict themselves whilst also visibly looking for a means to escape. It is as though they are haunting those that have confined them as the structure of the house is made visible through the transparent-ness of their skin.
In The Kawliya Dance (oil on panel, 2013), Kahraman comments on a minority of gypsies in Iraq of Indian origin, whose women were often abused by figures of authority. Within the work, four women gesture together, with their backs almost doubled over as they dance with expressions of extreme sadness on their faces. The traditional dance is characterized by the tossing of long hair. The women were often invited to dance for such people as Saddam Hussein, whose men would assault them after. In 2004, Kawliya – the town of the same name where many of these gypsies lived – was seized by the Mahdi army, who claimed the area was in need of purification, leading to many Kawliya dying as a result.
“My figures are extensions of my own body blended with the aesthetics of the renaissance… “Her” emergence, her white diaphanous flesh, her contrapposto, was an embodiment of someone who was colonized; someone who was taught to believe that European art history was the ultimate ideal. She became an expression of whom I had become as an assimilated woman. I’m working to give her agency and a voice and as I obsessively repaint her again and again, she becomes part of a collective. I am concerned with the multitude not the self. This is not only my story. It can be the story of more than 5 million people within the Iraqi diaspora or any diaspora.” – Hayv Kahraman, Glass Magazine, 2016
Accompanying the paintings, a number of carpets – Body Carpets (carpet, 2018) in the shape of the human body lie across the gallery space. They look as though they have simply been dropped on the floor, in a heap, with very little care. Created from handmade carpets woven by women in Afghanistan, Iran and Kurdistan, each carpet has been cut to the shape of Kahraman’s own body. The work comments on the fetishisation of the brown woman’s body by the west – including those of both Kahraman, and the carpet makers – to Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “superfluous body”, who proposes that when a person or group is reduced to an image alone, they are perceived as superfluous and can be killed without guilt. It is as though, in their positioning, Kahraman is trying to shed light on how many women are disrespected because of their heritage.
Kahraman’s work comments on the female experience of migration and assimilation, embodying the difficulty of integrating into a new space whilst also remembering what she has left through the prism of the creation of her own female character. Through her paintings, the body becomes object and subject, representing her own personal history of displacement, and also reflecting on shared histories of women affected by migration.
Hayv Kahraman: Displaced Choreographies is on display at De La Warr Pavilion, Marina, Bexhill, East Sussex, TN40 1DP until 2 June 2019