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Havy Kahraman at Pilar Corrias

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  • Friday dispatch
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Plucked, 2024, by Hayv Kahraman

Plucked, 2024, by Hayv Kahraman, by Pilar Corrias

Pilar Corrias
51 Conduit Street London W1S 2YT

The Kurdish-Iraqi painter, Hayv Kahraman was born in Bagdad during the First Gulf War in 1981. Now a resident of Los Angeles, her work explores her experience as a migrant, first in Sweden and then the US, and in particular her experience of being a woman of colour making her way in Western culture. The trauma she has experienced in the course of this migration is expressed in physical form – the long-lasting effects of conflict, of being forced to flee her home, echo in the body down the years. While in earlier works, she has used viscera – literally guts – as a metaphor for this embodied psychological state, in this new group show of paintings, Kahraman uses the eye as a recurring symbol.

The current exhibition features the athletic, womanly figures that are instantly recognisable from previous bodies of work. Supple and graceful, they are proxies for the artist herself. Presented with dark hair typically painted in swift, wide brushstrokes and their mouths a carmen cupid’s bow, the women wear contemporary-looking bikinis though somehow they evoke the female athletes found on ancient Roman mosaics. Among other sources, Kahraman draws influences from traditional Persian miniature paintings which are notable for the way compositions operate on a single plane, often on a single colour background. A residency in Italy brought an appreciation of Renaissance painting for the artist, and there is something in the clarity and concision of her line that points to Meiji-era Japanese painting.  

In She Has No Name, the artist has introduced a marbling technique to create swirling areas of colour in her compositions. Kahraman talks about the lack of control she has over the way the paint works in this process – contrasting to the strict rhythms of the abstract Islamic patterning in the women’s costumes as well as the backgrounds of the paintings.  
Control, or being controlled are notions that take on particular meaning when crossing borders, especially for migrants.  Biometric scanning is now so prevalent that some migrants have been driven to remove their own fingerprints in order to thwart the authorities.  Iris-scanning technology in surveillance cameras is a relatively new development and Kahraman has created her new avatars with eyes that have no iris or pupil.  The result is disturbing, the women immediately become alien, the physical assurance of their body language becomes slightly threatening.  
In the large canvas, Eye- Dates, 2024, a trio of figures reach up into a tree with powerful arms, to pluck at fruit like stylised human eyeballs. One figure turns her blank gaze to the viewer as she puts one of the “eye-dates” into her mouth.  The effect is both erotic and unsettling.  Dates are talismanic for an emigré Iraqi, being so emblematic of home.  Here they hang plumply, in abundance, the palm is suggested by swirls of marbling, while the upper margins of the painting are blocks of geometric patterning, suggesting architecture.  The painting seems to distil the intense longing for home combined with the painful consciousness of being exiled from it.  

In Plucked, 2024, the eyes have transformed into fern-like plants, complete with resplendent black eyebrows that are distinctly un-plucked – again in contrast to Western notions of hairless beauty. A single figure kneels to pluck one of the ‘eye-leaves’ from this surreal plant. The elegance of the composition only serves to heighten the uncanny quality of this scene.  While living in Sweden, Kahraman was taught reverence for the great 18th-century Swedish naturalist Karl Linnaeus.  All admiration fell away, however, upon later learning about the pernicious colonialist background to Linnaeus’ work.  The lauded system of classification of plants from around the world was a mechanism for entirely erasing the myriad cultural histories that attached such plant specimens to their native environment. Thus, for example, the gula xemgîn which is found widely in Kurdistan, and whose name translates as ‘mourning rose’ for the drops of nectar that drip from its petals, became known by Fritillaria Imperialis. The metaphor for the assault on identity that comes with migration from one culture to another could not be stronger: whether it is the forced registration of the individual through biometric records, or a self-imposed imperative to assimilate. Kahraman’s figures, therefore, embody a fierce sense of defiance and resistance.  

The title of the exhibition, She Has No Name, therefore offers many possible interpretations:  is Kahraman acknowledging a new, hybrid identity as a Kurdish-Iraqi now long resident in the US? Is she resisting classification, or ‘othering’ or, more sombrely, is she expressing a kind of ‘rootlessness’, the feeling of being neither one thing nor another that is so often expressed by people of dual, or multiple heritage?  Perhaps all of these are true. Hayv Kahraman’s paintings offer an entry point into the consideration of all these issues and a vivid sense of how the process of migration manifests physically and psychically in the individual.

Caroline Douglas, Director

Hayv Kahraman, She has no name, 12 April–25 May 2024