Only upon entering the inviting world of Hayv Kahraman’s paintings does one recognize its gruesome reality.
The lyrical grace of Kahraman’s female figures, along with the beautifully rendered textiles and patterns, seduce the viewer. The eye then quickly hones in on the violent gesture: women hanging dead from the branches of a tree in Honor Killing, 2006; three women slicing the throat of a lamb in Collective Cut, 2008; the woman in Migrant 3, 2010, poised and ready to cut off her own tongue with a pair of scissors. What is the source of violence in her work? “It might be my past experiences with war and then being a refugee,” she says. “I think it’s more of an intuitive attraction and less cerebral that people might think. My work is still aesthetically pleasing, which I like. Because of my rigorous training in graphic design, I’m an advocate of symmetry and composition.”
Born in Baghdad in 1981, Kahraman, her mother, and sister fled Iraq at the outbreak of the first Gulf War, in 1991. After brief stays in Ethiopia, Germany, and Yemen, mother and daughters arrived in Sweden on a winter afternoon. “My mom got fake passports from smugglers. When we got to Sweden she asked us to flush them down the toilet. We were put in a refugee camp in the outskirts of Stockholm. I remember we got there at 4pm; it was dark and I was thinking. Where are we?” A year later, after her father joined them, the Kahraman family settled in Hudiksvall, a small town three hours north of Stockholm. Hayv spent her formative years in Sweden, leaving at 22 to study graphic design in Florence. It was in Italy that she met her husband, American artist Anthony Velasquez. In 2006, they moved to Phoenix. Feelings of guilt for moving to the country that virtually destroyed hers sent Kahraman into a depression. “This irrational resentment [of the US] led me to seek refuge in painting, which served as an outlet. The creative juices were overflowing in this melancholic period.” This was the point of departure for her career as a fine artist. Kahraman and Velasquez are now based in Oakland and share their live/work industrial loft space with Mochi, their Persian cat. “She came from Sweden; she has a passport!” Kahraman exclaims. That her first pet is a Persian cat from Sweden named after a Japanese dessert is a wonderful example of her pervasive international perspective where borders and boundaries are continually broken down.
Kahraman’s paintings embody a global viewpoint exemplified by “Marionettes,” a series from her 2009 solo show at The Third Line gallery in Doha, Qatar. In it she seeks to address “the submissive role assigned to women. The marionettes are puppets performing chores like cooking and cleaning.” Kahraman freely borrows from art history to portray these doll-like women. For instance, in Toilette from this same series, the reclining figure is a clear nod to Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque. Yet the disarticulated female form punctuated by marionette strings also looks to the 20th century Surrealism of Dali and De Chirico. The figure’s graceful and emotionless face, with almond shaped eyes and swooping eyebrows, brings to mind Persian miniature painting, while the voluminous hair looks further east to Japanese prints. The flat and richly rendered textiles recall Italian Renaissance painting, and the geometric patterning on the cloth is reminiscent of Islamic tessellation.
In 2011, Kahraman was short listed by the Victoria & Albert Museum for the Jameel Prize, awarded to contemporary artists inspired by the Islamic tradition, and her work is featured in the Jameel Prize exhibition, which is currently traveling through Europe and will move on to the US towards the end of the year. It was Kahraman’s 2010 “Waraq” series–paintings in the form of oversized playing cards that address issues of identities fractured through war and subsequent population displacement–that caught the attention of the prize committee. In them figures are doubled, with certain telling details altered. A pious bearded man with a turban is portrayed as a clown on the card’s other half in Migrant 8. Migrant 1 depicts a woman hanging from a noose, her eyes shut; her mirror image is blindfolded, denying her an identity. Kahraman’s work is often discussed within the context of contemporary Middle Eastern art, which she understands but finds inadequate. “Is my artistic expression defined by my place of birth? The necessity to categorize stems from a need to identify that which is not part of the collective. It’s ‘us’ and the ‘other,’ which automatically places me in the latter. It’s a limited opinion of my work.” Although her work does draw from her birth region’s artistic traditions, as reflected in her choice of subject matter, such as in the Waraq series, and her growing interest in tesselation, its defining characteristic might more accurately be said to be Kahraman’s treatment of the female figure.
In the 2011 “Fragmented States” series, Kahraman uses ink on paper and map pins to portray women adorned with decorative geometric patterns in the shape of different map projections. Such projections represent the surface of the globe in a two-dimensional format, which distort the lines of longitude and latitude, causing them to form geometric patterns. Conformal Dissection shows a woman pulling up her own skin to reveal map pins placed in the shape of a Mercator projection. “I was interested in dissection, and it came naturally to link corporeal and territorial borders. Maps are used to manipulate and control: You form who you are based on the location you’re in. So, when you have these divisions and borders, your identity is fractured.” This series is perhaps Kahraman’s most personal reference to her own fractured upbringing. With Quasi-Corporeal and Nets, she takes this a step further by inserting her own body into the work.
A large-scale wood sculpture measuring over 87 inches high by 80 inches wide, Quasi-Corporeal takes the shape of a dodecahedron perforated by geometric patterns. Geometry has long been a through line in her work, most often as decorative textile patterns in her oil paintings. Science is now an increasingly important source of inspiration in her abstract art, in which “patterns are the focus.” This has led to an interest in the tessellation derived from Islamic architecture and, on a micro level, the atom-sized mosaic patterning of quasicrystals, the subject of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. For Quasi-Corporeal, the artist had her entire body scanned and uploaded into a computer program which sliced the virtual 3-dimensional rendering of her body into one quarter of an inch cross sections. These amounted to 541 slices, which she had made into wood cutouts nested into the 12 pentagons that comprise the dodecahedron. “Conceptually what really draws me in is that it’s so abstract yet it’s extremely figurative. If you were to take all the pieces and stack them in the correct order, you would produce an almost flawless Hayv.” She has literally deconstructed and reconstructed her own body in order to view it from a different perspective. Familiar themes of violence and the female form are present but only the title, Quasi-Corporeal, reveals its figurative characteristic. With the “Nets” series, the focus of her upcoming solo show at The Third Line gallery in Dubai in October, Hayv abandons any recognizable trace of the representational. For this show, she is creating two and three-dimensional works using cow skin with cutouts in the shape of her corporeal cross sections. This new body of work is a marked departure from past series such as “Marionettes” or “Waraq,” which mined art history. “I feel like I gravitate towards contemporary work now, more specifically installation work.” The newfound physicality of her work takes a cue from Mona Hatoum, while her engagement in the geometric abstraction of traditional Islamic art looks to Mounir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian and Gerard Caris.
Over the past several years, Kahraman has progressively pared down her style. A colorful palate and representational style has given way to a monochromatic abstract aesthetic. She now finds color and form distracting. Kahraman has replaced the lyrical female form with the virtual physical matter that makes up a woman, one cross section at a time. Another element she has stripped away is her signature. In Seven Gates, 2009, and “Marionettes,” her signature had a round flourish with Arabic text that read “the inner travels of Hayv”. The circle has since been eliminated and now it’s just her name. “I’m tired of clutter. I want some order in this chaos.”