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Hayv Kahraman: Weaving as Mending

In Los Angeles-based artist Hayv Kahraman’s twelve-foot long painting, Read me from right to left (2017), ten ghostly, almost identical, nude women sit immobile in two rows, arms wrapped around their legs, somberly gazing at the viewer. The exquisitely painted figures, each with iridescent pale skin and inky black circles of abstracted hair, float enigmatically on the triptych’s linen surface, which is bifurcated by massive black slashes of brushed oil paint. Scars composed of interwoven strips of shredded paintings mark some of the women’s bodies, echoing the Islamic geometric patterns on the pale blue shawls draped over two women’s laps.

For Kahraman, these ten female bodies—like the female bodies in her other paintings—represent She: “someone who dwells in the margins, surviving and navigating a life of spatial and temporal displacement…She lives in the now that is tainted by a ghostly yesterday.[1] Kahraman’s paintings tackle themes of violence and involuntary migration as she processes her childhood in war-torn Iraq and her adolescence in Sweden as a refugee. While Kahraman’s work is intertwined with the harrowing histories of the Iran-Iraq and Gulf Wars, it is also invested in the idea of feminine collectivity, identity, belonging, and diasporic cultural memory.

For over a decade, Kahraman has explored painting as protest and reckoning in works that are formally elegant and skillfully painted depictions of the compulsively repeated She. The artist borrows from a multiplicity of styles—including Persian miniatures, Japanese woodcuts, and Italian Renaissance paintings—in the composition of the woman’s poses and appearance, creating a discourse between Eastern “otherness” and Western concepts of beauty. Absorbing Renaissance aesthetic values while simultaneously rejecting hegemonic ideals, Kahraman models the bodies in her paintings on representations of her own body. She photographs herself in poses, assuming multiple personas, that she then sketches in paint onto the brown linen panels. The artist considers this process a performative act that heals by repeatedly reexamining her history.

Each new body of work stems from a mnemonic incident as a catalyst. For example, Read me from right to left originated when a traumatic childhood memory resurfaced at the outset of the 2017 travel ban. Kahraman remembered being forced to remain immobile during her flight from Baghdad in 1992. A visual protest to the ban, the painting contrasts English and Arabic—in Arabic you read from right to left. Kahraman suggests that “reading” the situation differently offers the opportunity to consider anew migrant consciousness and experience. Kahraman’s memories of trauma are embodied in her female figures as “fractured, multisensory pulsations of the past, present, and future.[2]

In earlier series, Kahraman has portrayed women engaging in harmful beauty rituals (the series “Pins and Needles,” 2010), and contorting their bodies into unnatural poses based on U.S. military translation cards (the series “Audible Inaudible,” 2016). While the figure Kahraman repeatedly paints represents herself as a colonized diasporic woman, it also stands in for others caught in the trauma of war and conflict or oppressed due to their gender or race who must relive their own visceral memories of horrific violence.

Echoing the psychic and physical wounds the refugee/migrant experiences over time and geography, the “Audible Inaudible” series of paintings marked the moment Kahraman first began ripping or puncturing her canvases. In more recent work, including Read me from right to left, Kahraman has incorporated a weaving technique drawn from the Iraqi hand-woven fans called mahaffa, one the few family heirlooms she possesses. She cuts into her canvases—her painted body—and then weaves in fragments of other shredded or dismembered paintings, creating newly “mended” representations of female bodies and “healed” memories of past trauma. Through the bodies of these women, the repetitive nature of her work, and the act of shredding and mending, Kahraman grapples with a history of displacement, loss, memory, and trauma.

This publication highlights her artistic process of shredding as undoing and weaving as repairing. It makes Kahraman’s nuanced transtemporal and transcultural perspectives apparent. Kahraman and graphic designer Kimberly Varella engage these complicated threads in an artistic collaboration resulting in Hayv Kahraman, a hybrid artist book and exhibition catalog. Photographs from the artist’s studio are interwoven with intimate texts, literally emulating and evoking the core processes and themes of Kahraman’s works. This book includes the full text of Kahraman’s autobiographical performance script, which elucidates how her often painful experiences and memories merge with her artwork’s evolution towards a more whole tapestry of future possibilities.

Catalog essayist Madina Tlostanova’s prior scholarship eloquently synthesizes the impetus of Kahraman’s works: “the decolonial tempo-localities are often recreated through rituals of remembering and reconstruction, through efforts to extract the spatial memory, through merging with space, through physical and bodily amalgamating in the palimpsest of many contradictory cultural layers, historical events, and natural landscapes.”[3] Tlostanova expands this exploration in her essay in this book, navigating how Kahraman’s work, in processing her trauma, heals both her self and her world anew. Writer, poet, and scholar Sinan Antoon’s two new poems in this volume painfully, yet beautifully, suggest how Kahraman’s work “arrives bearing visible and invisible scars and carrying the weight of history and its injuries and traumas” and becomes “the painful embodiment of memory.[4] By bringing together Kahraman’s mnemonic paintings and her personal writing with Antoon’s English and Arabic poetry and Tlostanova’s incisive analysis of Kahraman’s practice, this volume, in its very existence, echoes Kahraman’s desire for her work and her memories to become “a bridge to the past life and a way to sustain the future.[5]

Rebecca McGrew, Senior Curator
Pomona College Museum of Art

[1] Kahraman, in “The Art of Mending,” Acts of Reparation: Hayv Kahraman (St. Louis, MO: Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, 2017) 15-16, discusses who She is and where she came from, citing a formative time in her early twenties, when, as a student of graphic design in Italy, she spent hours in museums in Florence, Italy, studying renaissance painting. Kahraman ultimately discovered that She was the embodiment of someone who was colonized. 

[2] Hayv Kahraman, email to author, August 23, 2017.

[3] Madina Tlostanova, Postcolonialism & Postsocialism in Fiction and Art: Resistance and Re-existance (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 101.

[4] Sinan Antoon, “Re-membering the Present and Unpacking Memory,” 2017. Essay for Jack Shaiman Gallery exhibition.

[5] Kahraman, email to author, August 23, 2017.