Glass meets seminal Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman

Ladies in Waiting – Glass meets seminal Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman

THE female figure is an arresting and pronounced feature in the paintings of Hayv Kahraman. Often positioned in pairs or groups, young women sit together conspiring, in conversation, or lending each other a hand of sorts. They are in it together, that much is certain. With their matching black bouffant hairstyles, richly patterned gowns and nearly identical flat features, they are at once of our time and historic; both completely natural and highly stylised.

Kahraman, who was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1981, and now resides in Los Angeles, has described these figures as continuations of herself, and their contrasting physical qualities – which make reference to the female characters in such diverse art forms as Persian miniatures, Renaissance painting and Japanese woodblock prints – could be seen as grappling with the differences between Middle Eastern and Western cultures – a subject the artist has been exploring in her work over the past decade. Perhaps Kahraman’s greatest feat so far has been to formulate such a convincing personal iconography from a myriad of sources.

In 2014 Kahraman was presented with the Excellence in Cultural Creativity prize at the Global Thinkers Forum Awards (a platform which champions women’s empowerment), and her paintings can be found in notable collections around the world including the Saatchi Gallery, London; the Rubell Family Collection, Miami; North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; and the Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE.

Kahraman had a recent solo show at the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, and in 2017 will present new work at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Story picture Shield 2 , 2016 , oil on linen and acoustic foam, 35 x 35 inches Hiyw KahranamShield 2 , 2016, oil on linen and acoustic foam, 35 x 35 inches Hayv Kahraman.
All images courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

When did you start to become interested in art? Do you have memories of an art culture at home, or in the wider sphere of Baghdad, where you grew up?
I remember being attracted to art-making as far back as my memories can take me. I grew up in a secular Baghdad where my parents would hold soirees, gathering musicians and artists. I would sit in the adjacent room with my paper and paintbrush making quick strokes of colour, and every now and then one of those artists would come into the room, give me a mini critique and shower me with praise. I also remember my playroom in our house in Baghdad, where I used all four walls as my canvas and filled them with characters, narratives, concerns, jokes, and discoveries. Those are my memories of Baghdad.

Hayv Kahraman Iraqi Kit , 2016 , oil on panel, 74 x 48 inches, Hayv Kahraman.
All images courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

You were forced to move to Sweden at the age of 12 due to the Gulf War. How did your art education develop in this new context?
It flourished. I had an art teacher during middle school who acted as my mentor. He was this crazy artist (and farmer!) who pushed me to think big and believe in myself. During my early teenage years, and in a context where I was clearly the “other” as literally everyone around me was tall and blonde, it was of tremendous value to feel that I was good at something. And it was more acceptable to be “different” if you were an artist.

Story picture LRAD.1, 2016 , oil on linen and acoustic foam, 64 x 64 inches Hayv Kahraman LRAD.1, 2016, oil on linen and acoustic foam, 64 x 64 inches Hayv Kahraman.
Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Your work to date has in many ways focused on the disconnect between Western and Middle Eastern culture, from your own personal perspective as a person who has experiences of these. When did you become aware of “back home” once you had settled in Sweden?
I think I was aware of this as soon as I landed in Arlanda, Stockholm. We were ushered to a detention room quickly after revealing that we didn’t have passports, and from that moment onwards the concept of being a refugee or foreigner was created. It was as if I had got stamped with that fixed identity, and with it came a multitude of problematic assumptions.

Story picture Nabog, 2014, oil on linen,115 x 55 x 22 inches (each panel) Hiyw KahranamNabog, 2014, oil on linen,115 x 55 x 22 inches (each panel) Nabog, 2014, oil on linen,115 x 55 x 22 inches
(each panel) Hayv Kahraman. All images courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

The female figure has been your vessel for transmitting your narratives and memories of Iraq. How did you come to this symbol, if it can be called that?
My figures are extensions of my own body, which are blended with the aesthetics of the renaissance. “She” actually emerged when I was in Florence, Italy. I went to every single museum. I made copies of Old Master paintings and was engulfed by the technique of that era. “Her” emergence – namely 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 now 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 five million people within the Iraqi diaspora or any diaspora.

What about the form of this figure? What does her (stylistic) consistency represent? And what was your process for creating her aesthetic – the curved black hair, the strong eyebrows, and so on? Also, her clothes – where are these fabrics sourced from?
I think “her” formal emergence was instinctual. It was a synthesis of the art that I was surrounded by at that time – artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo and Caravaggio. In other words, it came from what I was taught was “fine art”, but also it came from my own body, the hairy Arab – big black hair and thick eyebrows. I was also studying graphic design in Italy at the time, so simplicity, solid filled colours and focus on line quality were key elements of whatever I was fabricating. The pattern and tessellated geometry in the fabrics are accents that I add after everything is set in the painting. For me, they form a way to balance the work and create more of a systematic order, but they also bring me back to what I’m familiar with: the aesthetics of the Middle East.

Hayv KahramanDecagram No. 2, 2013, oil on panels , 46x 46 x 2 inches Hayv Kahraman.
All images courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Your first major show in New York – Let the Guest Be the Master – in 2013 incorporated these female characters within wood panel structures that were based on floor plans of houses in Baghdad. How did you choose the houses, and was architecture a literal way of referring to “home”?
The houses were chosen after conversations I had with a few Iraqi architects, as well as further research I had carried out on vernacular Iraqi homes with courtyards. What ignited these works was the selling of our family home in Baghdad; the home that housed that very playroom I mentioned earlier, and the only tangible space I felt that I could physically go back to in order to recover my lost memories. Using the floor plans of various domestic homes – some that were still standing, and some not – enabled me to archive them.

Hayv KahramanConcealed Weapon, 2016, oil on linen and acoustic foam, 79x 46 inches Hayv Kahraman.
All images courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Your next show from 2015, How Iraqi Are You?, was a more direct investigation of your experiences of exile. The show not only presented the question of how identity is judged and defined, but was also your way of preserving your memories of Iraq. What role does remembrance play for you?
I believe that this necessity of archiving my memories is getting more and more urgent in my work. Perhaps this is because the gap relating to what I considered to be my “home” is getting bigger. I live in the United States now, far away from anything I was born into, and the only way to connect to that home is to go back in time. I do think that this is common for refugees, perhaps more so with Iraqi refugees as we have that sense of the glorious Mesopotamian past ingrained in our skin. And when you work so hard to shed that brown skin and black hair in order to fit into a western context, eventually you grow tired. So where do you go after that? You go back to the past.

Hayv KahramanBab on Sheikh, 2013, oil on modular panel, 103 x 176 inches Hayv Kahraman.
All images courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

What is coming up for you? How do you feel that your new work will develop next?
I am very excited about what I am doing right now in the studio. In the previous works, I experimented with altering the linen in different ways (which is the base of the painting) and that has led me to understand the material on a deeper level. I am detaching it, altering it and manipulating it in a way where I am creating something similar to a weave. In short, I would say that I am re-weaving the linen into itself. The idea also came from an object – the “Mahaffa”.

This is a traditional Iraqi handheld fan made out of palm tree fronds. This connects to something previously: as my mother decided to hire a smuggler for us to flee Baghdad and go to Sweden, we were told to only bring one suitcase; to leave everything else behind and to never return again. One of the few objects we decided to bring with us was a small Mahaffa. This object travelled with us and our falsified passports through the Middle East, Africa and finally Europe, where we landed in Stockholm. The Mahaffa has become something of a relic for me, carrying a host of problematic stimuli. It is an object that carries memories of a lost past that is both idealized and imaginary. It carries remnants of a connection to something that was interrupted. Perhaps I am re-weaving the linen in order to re-weave my experiences.

From the Glass Archive

From Glass Magazine Winter 2016 – Issue 28 – Equality

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