Despite the truths embedded in Theodor Adorno’s statement that it’s impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz, it’s equally true that in the face of horrors and traumas of war, lyrical beauty is often the only avenue of catharsis.
When Hayv Kahraman recollects episodes from her childhood in a besieged Iraq, she recovers the human warmth that drove away fears while seeking refuge in anti-aircraft shelters. During temporary cease-fires, children left their hideouts and challenged each other to see who could collect the largest amount of bullet shells. Kahraman took note of the beauty of that golden shrapnel.
Since fleeing to Sweden with her family when she was only 12 years old, the emotional proximity to her land hasn’t diminished despite the physical and temporal distance. The idea of origin, however, has necessarily entered into a mythical realm. Since myth makes no reference to time in history, the artist is allowed to return to the past, again and again, filling out its gaps from a somatic limbo, as a woman and as a refugee.
The stylized refinement of her paintings _based on a singular syncretism between the art of Persian miniatures, ukiyo-e prints and Italian quattrocento_ helps digest uncompromising themes: at first rawer (hanging, sacrifice, female genital mutilation …) and later more intimist.
. Starting from your own body you talk about the collective female body in exile when the refugee condition is internalized and leaves an indelible trace. I like how you relate it to the Moebius strip as used by Elisabeth Grosz to explain the link between the interior and the exterior of identity, as a bonding between physiology and culture. How did you use this metaphor in your work?
I was doing some research about terms that describe an ‘other’ or in-between space, searching for some definition which transcends a dualistic principle. I first came across the Foucauldian heterotopia [put forth by French philosopher Michel Foucault which suggests that there are spaces of ‘otherness’ that are at once physical and mental]. I found it very interesting in terms of relating it to Diasporic cultures, yet it still felt rather distant.
I then started reading texts by Elizabeth Grosz [Australian feminist who has interpreted the work of philosophers, including Foucault] where she mentions the Möbius strip as a structure that is conceived and contingent upon the inside as well as the outside. Within this line of thought, Jacques Lacan coined the term extimité ─ derived from the words ‘exterior’ and ‘intimacy’ ─ which simultaneously describes the distinction between the two words as well as the sum or effect of them. In many ways, the use of skin in that work denotes this very concept of an exteriority or border of the body that is inverted and placed within the context of the inside of the body in the work.
. By invoking sounds (“Audible Inaudible”) or re-enacting postures drawn on the cards that Americans used to communicate with the Iraqis (“Smart cards”) you capture memories of the Gulf conflict. Could we say that the female figure is a healer of psychological sequelae–on one hand as a noise shield, and on the other, with her gestural grammar, softening the aggressiveness of the military?
I haven’t thought about it that way and I’d be a bit skeptical is asserting that the female has a “softer” touch. I think we have to be cautious in assigning female/masculine attributes since they can easily be misconstrued. What I can say is that the figure is based on a self-reflexive frame so the story is very personal and in that way can be a healing process as you mention in your initial text.
. When you denounce the submissive role assigned to women, it seems as if you allude to the West just as much as to the East: in Sacrifice (2008), the lamb as a symbol of innocence and atonement both in the Bible and in the Quran, and in Marionettes (2009), with nods to European paintings and “toilettes”. I would even say that there’s an implicit critique of the way in which the “exotic” woman has been treated in western art. Is that so?
Yes very much and in fact more so. My work confronts those notions of the exotic other seen and perceived in the west. I’m in constant battle to break these fetishizations that I’m personally confronted with every day. And I do so via a reverse logic, by painting what the western eye is so accustomed to seeing, the figure of the Renaissance. They white diaphanous flesh tones, the contropposto and the sfumato. These are all elements that enable me to catch that gaze and once that happens hopefully the many other layers of research start to get uncovered.
. The concept of intimacy in European culture differs from that of your native culture. In your series of houses with inner courtyards, women float and vanish between orthogonal planes. I think of the latticework, which you often use as a place from which the woman observes without being seen. It seems an ambiguous symbol, as empowerment and confinement at once. Would that be right?
Yes absolutely. There is a pseudo power in that position in that the women can observe the rest of the world from “above” as they are usually on the second floor so they have access to the “entire” picture. Yet at the same time, they are confined and hidden behind these screens. Their voices are in actually mute.
. Another geometric figure that appears in your work, is the icosahedron. Buckminster Fuller argues that it’s a structure that rejects notions of North and South. If we apply this to the body, would it be a question of relocating the diaspora outside the “colonial coordinates”?
I’m not sure I see it in binary terms of south and north. Buckminster Fuller projected the world map on an icosahedron and in doing this he questioned the various other map projections we use today like the Mercator map projection that google maps uses where the sizes of particular countries are considerably larger than others. I think my reaction to that and what I was drawn to was more about breaking these systemic structures of power. So positioning my body within the icosahedron was a reflection of that among other things.
. It’s interesting how you adapt your technique and language to individual themes. In Mnemonic Object you evoke the weave of mahaffa fans, and in How Iraqi You Are you emulate the illuminated manuscripts of Al-Hariri. By referring to a cultural legacy of a golden age in Bagdad, prior to the Mongol invasion, can we see here a mythification of a double past–your own and that of your country?
For me the “myth” in the past is constructed both by my own memories and narratives that I’ve been told of that place. I see my body as a carrier of traumatic memories that are embodied in the figures. Memories not in the nostalgic sense of yearning to go back home but more as fractured, multisensory pulsations of the past, present and future. There is some sense of commemorating the past in one way or another when someone becomes a refugee. It’s almost like mourning a death of something. It becomes a bridge to the past life and a way to sustain the future. Memory in migrant consciousness is crucial in surviving the present.
Interviewed by Anna Adell