Hayv Kahraman has honed a signature style by repeatedly painting the same figure: a fleshy female body with pale, almost translucent skin, whose face – framed by a mass of black hair often executed with a single, swooping calligraphic gesture – displays an expression of sullen indifference, despite dramatic, bright red lips and thick black eyebrows. An uncanny synthesis of figurative tropes derived from Persian miniatures, Japanese illustrations and Renaissance painting, amongst others, this body declares its otherness while remaining geographically and culturally ambiguous. A proxy for the artist, in past work this figure has appeared alone or repeated in groups, with slight variations and in varying degrees of undress, haunting the floor plans of traditional Baghdadi houses or mimicking intimate vignettes of everyday life derived from 12th-century Arabic illuminated manuscripts. In each series, it serves as a foil for new subject matter or conceptual gambits through which Kahraman can address the tragic recent history of her native Iraq, and the pain of exile and crisis of belonging it has precipitated.
For her third exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery, Kahraman draws inspiration from the mahaffa, a hand-held fan woven out of strips of dried palm fronds commonly found across Iraq and the Persian Gulf. The modest household object was one of the few possessions Kahraman’s family took with them when they fled Baghdad during the first Gulf War; distance and time has transformed it into a poignant relic of a lost homeland, a receptacle for traumatic memories and nostalgic desires. In her latest works, Kahraman transposes the characteristic zigzag of the mahaffa onto the canvas itself, carefully weaving thin strips of shredded paintings into the surgically excised surfaces of others, subtly disrupting both the painted image and its material support.
Mahaffa 1 and 2 (all works 2017) shows the familiar female figure, naked and from the waist up, displaying the fan while defiantly returning the viewer’s gaze. The woven section of both canvases corresponds exactly to the object’s outline, producing an amusing trompe l’oeil effect. However, in Mnemonic Artifact 4, the woven section repeats as a regular array across the centre of the frame, adding another pattern to a composition already rich with ornament, in which each figure bears a wrap featuring a distinct Islamic geometric pattern. In other work from this series, the weave extends into thin vertical or horizontal lines that stretch across and between painted bodies and heads like neat sutures, symbolizing the interminable but necessary task of the migrant, who must weave together fragmented memories of a lost homeland to temper the trauma of displacement. Weaving, however, is reparative but never restorative; though wounds may heal, they always leave visible scars. In Study 1 and 2, the interlacing strips metastasize, expanding to overwhelm not just the body’s contours but even the painting’s frame, emphasizing the ways in which trauma gets imprinted onto the body like a disease.
The surfaces of some paintings also feature cryptic, rectangular seal-like impressions, suggesting traces of one of the many ancient cultures that emerged from Mesopotamia, the so-called ‘cradle of civilization’. Imprinted on the canvas like hazy watermarks, they are made using plastic model kit sheets of American soldiers as stencils. These marks register the lingering effects of decades of US military intervention in Iraq by branding the neutral ground of each painting with an abstracted representation of soldiers’ bodies. Juxtaposed with the painted female figures and the carefully woven lines, these inscriptions demonstrate how war impacts bodies differently based on gender and cultural origin. While one group violently inscribes itself onto the land, the other, displaced from that land, must bear the signs of that violence upon the surface of their skin.
Main image: Hayv Kahraman, Targets, 2017, (detail), oil on linen, 1.9 x 2.4 m. Courtesy: the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York