This Iraqi Artist Should be on Everyone’s Radar

Last month I began my series discussing why it is important to engage with art from other countries — countries that have largely been represented negatively in popular discourse. When you engage with art from another culture, by extension you engage with something new and unfamiliar — a new way of thinking.

Hayv Kahraman is an artist that should be on everyone’s radar. Born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1981, Kahraman grew up under the regime of Saddam Hussein. While in Iraq, she attended the Music and Ballet School in Central Baghdad. Kahraman’s family fled to Sweden during the Gulf War when she was 11 where she spent her teen years and attended university.

Her migration plays a pivotal role in her art today because it was her attempt and struggle with assimilation that introduced her to memories of her past and culture. In an interview with Vice’s Broadly, she states, “I tried to become a Swede. I bleached my hair; I mastered their tongue and allowed myself to be colonized. In this process I lost who I thought I was or could be. Introducing memory allows me to archive those lost histories.”

Assimilation or attempted assimilation did not remove Kahraman’s connection to her past or to Iraqi culture. Instead, it enforced the connection. Her ability to remember and connect with her past became a means of resistance. Her work largely engages with this nostalgia and memory.

In an interview with Glass Magazine Kahraman, who has since migrated to America, speaks of a nostalgia that stems from a difficulty with assimilation: “I live in the US, far away from anything I was born into and the only way to connect to it is to go back in time. I think this is common for refugees — perhaps more so with Iraqi refugees as we have that sense of the glorious Mesopotamian past ingrained in our skin. And when you work so hard to shed that brown skin and black hair in order to fit into a western context, eventually you grow tired. So where do you go after that? Back to the past.”

This return and re-memory confronts an Iraqi past which translates artistically into works that display violent or distorted images. There is glory in the history of Iraq, a time of peace and flourishing, however more recently, the Iraqi experience includes violence and hegemonic influence.

And we see this reflected in Kahraman’s art. Her surrealist paintings play with the distortion of bodies and gender.

Her first solo show, Pins and Needles, exemplifies this as Kahraman examines beauty standards through hair removal. Some of the images depict women engaging in collective hair removal, waxing each other’s mustaches or tweezing one another’s eyebrows. Bodies are woven together as the women are connected to one another. The images display a ritual and beauty standard that is not limited to women in the Middle East. The politics of hair removal is a topic of discourse that is engaged in globally as women grow to defy and resist this painful and ancient beauty ritual.  

Her most recent show, Mnemonic Object, confronts the refugee crisis. A mnemonic object, taken from a mnemonic device, is an item that helps facilitate memory retention. “Mnemonic Object” focuses on the “mahaffa,” an Iraqi fan that Kahraman’s family brought with them as they fled Iraq — something that became representative of their past.

In an essay on the exhibition, heralded Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon states: “The few cherished objects refugees and displaced persons choose (if and when they can) to carry across dangerous international borders are invested with immense symbolic and emotional value. And that value increases the greater the distance and the time the object (and its carrier) travel. The displaced object becomes a synecdoche for an actual and an emotional place that was ‘home.’”

The mahaffa functions to fulfill this role for Kahraman. The object becomes a portal to the past and her memories of Iraq. While the refugee experience heightens the role of Kahraman’s mnemonic object, its idea speaks to memory — repressed or otherwise, about how objects can act as triggers of the past.

Kahraman’s work, while highlighting Iraqi experience and memory, speaks to a universal human experience we can all learn from.

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