WRITER: Nadine Khalil
Ethereal women dominate Hayv Kahraman’s paintings. With a style that reveals Persian, Japanese and Italian influences, the 33-year-old Iraqi artist creates works that are as beautiful as they are unsettling.
Hayv Kahraman is obsessed with hair. Lots of it. She paints it in dramatic billowing, black clouds. She also depicts its removal.
I am looking at one of her pieces, the ‘Appearance of Control.’ A woman’s head is being shaved by someone behind her while two women sit beside a splayed leg, plucking and waxing with a black strip. In ‘Hold Still’, two women face one another, trying to rip off their barely visible moustaches. Both women sport impressive unibrows and their hair is mounded like a beehive.
I ask Kahraman how she chooses where to place unwanted hair in her paintings. Normally, it is where you expect it to be, flowing voluminously but her nudes, painted in a ghostly glow, are hairless. Why do they not have hair under the arms, for instance?
“I developed this technique to highlight the hair because I wanted to accentuate the feminine aspect,” Kahraman explains. Their faces caked stark white, the wraith-like women in her paintings have a touch of the geisha about them. It is intentional. “The Asian influence comes in a formal sense because I am drawn to the simplicity of Japanese prints, there’s nothing hectic about them,” she continues.
The colourful patterns of the clothing, though, suggest Persian miniatures. “I try my best to stay away from the chaotic,” she adds. “To me, the repetitive patterns are like ordered chaos.”
This concept relates to the control Kahraman both seeks to exercise and the degree to which she abnegates it. Although her early paintings were fixed expanses - depicting marionettes with split hands and knees, for example - her more recent ones are moveable. This is most apparent in ‘Corporeal Mappings’, where women are arranged in intertwining positions on a series of wooden panels that resemble a sliding puzzle. They appear to be performing surgery on themselves, stitching their nipples or abdomens, the pinkish-red of raw flesh striking against the paleness of their skin. The panels can be moved about, scrambling the order of their body parts.
And yet despite the way Kahraman depicts the body and its dimensions, her perspective is always that of a plane. “There’s no background in my work,” she explains. ”It’s flat, with the figures just sort of floating there.”
There’s a definite hint of the Italian Renaissance to her nudes, which she says is probably due to the time she spent in Florence. Dreamy to look at, Kahraman’s paintings also make you uncomfortable.
And it’s not just about that obsession with hair. There’s an undercurrent of violence in her work, part of which she says stems from her personal experience, while part relates to the affinity she feels for women and the cultural codes to which they are subject. In her ‘Migrant’ series, a woman in richly embroidered clothes seems about to cut her tongue out in a reverse mirror image. For ‘Honour Killing’, which resembles a beautiful, macabre Chinese ink painting, women hang from very thin threads, wrapped in black cloaks that swirl like the thick trunk of the Bonzai tree from which they’re suspended.
If you look closer, you may notice that in a single frame, she paints reproductions of the same demure woman, over and over. “That figure just started recurring. I would photograph my body and use the sketches to create her,” she says in her mildly obscure but intriguing manner. “The more I paint her, the more she comes into the work. No matter how many times I cut her up, she solidifies her existence.”
As in her more architectural pieces, where women pose behind the rooms in a building plan, sectioned off and nearly transparent. For these, she drew on homes in Baghdad, the semi-public space of the courtyard, the private rooms and modes of access for women. “They are mostly hidden behind screens, observing the men,” Kahraman explains. “I developed these 2 years ago when we had to sell my childhood home, the only tangible connection I had to go back to and recover memories I’m losing as we speak.”
One of those is her fake name. Kahraman expresses dismay at this, as much to me as to herself. Smuggled out during the first Gulf war with her mother and sister, she was given a fake name and passport, which her mother flushed down the toilet at Stockholm airport, after a month-long journey through Jeddah, Addis Ababa, Sana’a and Frankfurt before turning them all in as refugees.
“They put us in a separate room, so they could interrogate Mum,” she recalls. “It was late September, around 3pm and I remember it was already dark outside. I thought to myself, what a strange place we’re in.” The Kurdish translator misspelled her name Hayf as Hayv, which means ‘moon’ in Kurdish and the new name stuck.
In the refugee camp in northern Sweden, it was hard to forget the place she had left behind. “My parents used to have these musical soirées, when they would invite people to play, like (oud-player) Nasser Shamaa, who wasn’t well-known then. We had a playroom and my parents said we could paint the walls. You can imagine what this meant for a child, it became my little escape. I would do my paintings. They were abstractions, very colourful ones. I filled the walls with stories and characters, as guests popped in and out of our room. I imagined I was this master artist amongst master musicians.”
The propensity for art remained. In Secondary school, she chose to study aesthetics. Worried it wouldn’t lead to a substantial career, she veered towards graphic design at university. During an internship spent in Florence she began to meet artists who were students of Realism, including the man who became her husband.
“I was supposed to stay 6 months but ended up staying 4 years. My ex-husband was American. I never thought I would end up in the US but love takes you places. It was hard psychologically to move to a country that was at war with my own.”
While this feeling of alienation resonates in her work, the traditional techniques behind it originate in Italy. “I learned from people who studied painting at the time of da Vinci. I stretch the unprimed linen myself on bars, sizing it. The rabbit skin glue acts as a sealer so the paint doesn’t seep through. For the mahogany panels, I choose the grain and texture of the plywood, then shellac or sand it to preserve it, so it doesn’t warp or decay quickly.”
Her work soon moved from ink on linen or wood to skin, rawhide in fact. “I found this guy in Texas who delivers it in a box. He skins the cow, dehairs and washes it in lime and water before freezing it.”
Struck by the idea of slaughter and the removal of flesh, her ‘Disembodied’ series extracts a cross-section from the body, such as the breasts, and replaces the wood with skin.
From the plane of the skin, her interest became more geometric and the sculptural. By chance, one of her neighbours had a 3D-scanner he used at archaeological sites in Egypt and Greece. Kahraman asked him to create a 3D scan of her body.
“The scanner is for dead objects that don’t move,” she explains. “So as the device was rotated along the perimeters of my body, I couldn’t breathe. We did 80 scans in different directions. It was like a literal translation of my nudity. You don’t get to see your body like that, from all angles. When you rotate the image on the computer, it’s surreal. I could dissect her horizontally or vertically, so I sliced the image every quarter-inch from head to foot. It amounted to exactly 541 cross-sectional pieces.”
Of course, that ‘her’ is Hayv herself. Second person. So when she tells me that all the women she paints are versions of herself, the pieces fall into place. These ‘versions’ though, are just that. They are detached, somewhat expressionless derivatives compared to her fire and burst of curly hair.
Distracted by the thought of her painting her own phantom, I am forced to re-orient my focus as she becomes increasingly technical and mathematical. “I wanted to see how my anatomical pieces would look in two dimensions. So I first chose 3-dimensional platonic solids that are made up from a combination of triangles, like tetrahedrons or octahedrons, and flattened them onto a 2-dimensional plane. For my distorted octahedron piece, I superimposed the painting of two women onto the different cross-sections of my body, in the triangles. The idea is that the highest form of symmetry of any polyhedra is equiangular and equilateral. I wanted to rethink this idea, why is it the highest?” she asks, questioning 2,500 years of Platonic philosophy. “So I dismantled it and added an extra triangle.”
Whether it’s meditating on alienation, reimagining the appropriation of space or applying mathematical rules, only to break them, Kahraman’s paintings deceive with their simplicity and geometrical exactitudes. Like all the best Minimalism, there’s so much more going on in them than first meets the casual eye.