I first saw Hayv Kahraman’s paintings at Art Dubai in 2009 and happened to meet her that same day at the art fair’s opening reception. It wasn’t until a few days later that I realized this young Iraqi woman was the one creating these haunting pieces which had so profoundly struck me. We’ve been in touch ever since and I’ve written several articles on her, most recently a feature for the April issue of Modern Painters. Her extraordinary life experiences infuse her work with such maturity that it’s easy to forget she’s in her early 30s. Born in Baghdad, she and her family fled to Sweden in 1991 at the outbreak of the first Gulf War. After ten formative years in Sweden, she studied graphic design in Italy before moving to the US with her husband, painter Anthony Velasquez. Now based in the Bay Area, Hayv is a burgeoning art star, but largely outside of the US. This is most likely due to her not having had much exposure stateside: she hasn’t been in many gallery shows or exhibitions. Hopefully, her international success will help her get a break in the US. In 2011, she was short listed by the Victoria and Albert Museum for the Jameel Prize, an international award for contemporary art inspired by Islamic tradition. Her work is in Doha’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, the Rubell Collection and the Saatchi Collection. Her gallery shows in Dubai and Doha have sold out and she can barely keep up with demand. In her figurative work, she weaves together diverse historical sources such as the Italian Renaissance, Persian miniatures, Arab geometry and 19th century European graphic art to create beautiful work dealing with violent subject matters like genital mutilation and honor killings. This desire to create beautiful work comes from her experience in graphic design, where symmetry and aesthetics are of utmost importance. Witnessing her country torn apart by war and violence, especially again women, has informed the subject matter in her work. Now, after six years of working in figuration, Hayv is pushing her practice and creating a new abstract and conceptual series.
Yasmine Mohseni: Tell me about your upcoming exhibition(s)
Hayv Kahraman: At the moment, I am preparing for my second solo show in October 2012 at The Third Line gallery in Dubai, where I’m exploring themes of the body as a cultural construct and how our bodies occupy space. Right now, I’m working on a piece that involves a detailed scan of my own body that will then be cross sectioned into 542 horizontal slices and nested into 12 pentagonal frames, creating an unfolded dodecahedron. It will be made of cow skin, or rather rawhide, which is essentially the step before making leather when the skin has only been cleaned and soaked in lime. It’s proving to be a very interesting material to work with both conceptually as well as physically!
Describe your style
This is a hard question for me right now as I find myself shifting into different stylistic realms. While the underlying questions of diaspora and gender are still catalysts in my work, stylistically my work has shifted towards a more abstract translation of patterns. In earlier work, these patterns were manifested through a fusion of Arabic calligraphy, Persian miniatures, the Italian Renaissance and Japanese prints. Recently, I’ve been fascinated with geometry and symmetrical systems of solids and tessellations. I’m attracted to the idea of symmetry as a representation of the sublime in a Kantian sense, and how these systems of patterns can be a reflection of the infinite.
Why did you become an artist?
Ah the clichéd answer would be because it serves as the perfect gateway to question the world around me, which is utterly true! But, it’s also the only thing I know how to do.
Which single artwork in art history has inspired you the most?
Wow! Tough one! I’m not sure I have one single work I can refer to especially since my periodic obsessions are all very strong. Right now, I’m obsessed with grid patterns. A few years ago I was obsessed with Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes” and the Fayum portraits.
Which artists (living or dead) do you find most inspiring?
Living, Shirin Neshat and Mona Hatoum have inspired me a great deal. Dead, I would have to say Bihzad, Kurosawa and Raphael.
Work from Hayv Kahraman’s new series will be on view at The Third Line booth at Art Dubai, opening on March 21.