Interview with Hayv Kahraman

Interview with Hayv Kahraman

A Beautiful Balancing Act

The Iraqi-born artist Hayv Kahraman talks to Ahmad Minkara about finding inspiration and tackling torturous topics in a diasporic space.


Addressing difficult and distressing subjects in art without losing an audience is no easy task. Yet the Iraqi-born artist Hayv Kahraman has found a way of achieving this balance, even when her themes are at the upper end of disturbing.


Her work on female genital mutilation (FGM), which she produced after hearing the horror stories of women living in northern Iraq, is a case in point. Here, the torturous process is depicted graphically, but symbolically, through the use of orchids that are sewn together in stages. “I wanted the work to reflect the pain, yet not deter the public from seeing it,” Kahraman explains.


Kathy Davis, an art historian at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, is adamant that nothing is lost from such depictions; if anything, she notes, Kahraman’s work transcends the aesthetic.


“These representations force us to rethink what it might mean for women to be embodied agents in a world that constantly threatens to disembody them,” she says. As a result, she adds, we are forced to rethink social structures and push boundaries, which, when merged, create “extimacy” or “external intimacy”.


Born in Baghdad into a Kurdish family in 1981, Kahraman, together with her family, fled to Sweden after being displaced during the first Gulf war.



Having discovered her love for art at high school, she moved to Italy to study graphic design at the Accademia d’Arte e Design di Firenze. Later years saw Kahraman move to the US, although she acknowledges that “more often than not” her work deals with memories from her time in Iraq, which produces “a push and pull between the past, the present and somewhere in between”.


Kahraman’s background and experience as an Iraqi abroad, combined with her strong feelings on topical and in some cases taboo issues, have combined to produce a plethora of extraordinary work that today enthralls art lovers worldwide.


She has exhibited extensively, holding solo shows in global hubs that include London, New York, Belgium and Dubai. Today, examples of her work are displayed in some of the world’s most prestigious galleries and universities.


Honor killings, rape, misogyny and female subversion are just some the subjects that she tackles fearlessly in her art. The English art historian Janet Rady describes Kahraman’s art as “timeless”, adding that it “resonates with every observer”. Indeed, while many of the horrors depicted in Kahraman’s art are endemic in war-torn Iraq, they are almost all global issues.


“Flaying the Lamb”, for example, portrays women replacing men as the protagonists for the symbolic Adha sacrificial ritual. “The action of the slitting of the lamb’s throat interested me more than the religious aspect,” she explains. “The violence reminded me of how some women are treated, so I wanted to reverse the roles.”


Equally fascinating is Kahraman’s ability to illustrate various parts of the female anatomy in a tasteful fashion, with nudity and her evocation of orgies neither unsettling nor gratuitous.



Some have put this down to her preference for borrowing from Japanese art in her depiction of the female form. Delicate, porcelain-skinned and often glancing to the side, Kahraman’s female subjects acquire an alternative and unexpected stance. A subtle, muted color code, which takes in burgundy, olive and café au lait, adds to the effect. The style represents a shift for Kahraman from her earlier pieces which are more heavily influenced by the Italian renaissance period.


Kahraman sees her female figures as extensions of her own body, admitting that she photographs herself and then uses the images to produce her subjects. “I feel that I need to validate their presence,” she explains. She puts the practice down to her experience as a refugee where she had to “assimilate a host culture to be able to survive”. “It comes from a diasporic space,” Kahraman concludes.

Today, Hayv lives and works in Los Angeles. She avoids simplistic definitions of eastern or western, preferring to describe herself instead as “someone who lives within borders or margins”.


These feelings are evident throughout her work and have helped her to cultivate a significant fan base. The extent of Kahraman’s popularity was evident last year when all the paintings featured in her New York show, titled “How Iraqi Are You?”, were sold before the opening.


The exhibition was based on the 12th century Arabic illuminated manuscripts, “Maqamat al Hariri”, which narrate the stories of everyday Iraqis within the diaspora. Kahraman acknowledges the parallels between the historical tales and contemporary Baghdad, with themes like overwhelming loss and the desire to start over ripe for exploration.


“In thinking of depicting a scene from an ordinary life of an Iraqi, I needed to focus on the experience of an Iraqi immigrant or refugee,” she explains. “It also becomes a recording of my own disassociation with my culture and perhaps a yearning to reconnect with it. It’s a rebuilding that stems from the margins.”

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