Installation view of HAYV KAHRAMAN’s “Re-weaving Migrant Inscriptions” at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Re-weaving Migrant Inscriptions

Hayv Kahraman

Jack Shainman Gallery
Iraq USA

On a crisp Saturday afternoon at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, a piercing siren roused five women in skin-colored camisoles from their sleep on the floor before they congregated around a rectangular platform to tell a tale of war, escape, fear, refuge, anxiety and subservience. Woven into their anguished narratives were inscriptions and codes that accentuated the paintings in the gallery by Iraqi-born Hayv Kahraman, who is the author and protagonist of the women’s stories.

At age 11, Kahraman fled Iraq to take refuge in Sweden, when life in Iraq was permanently disrupted by the American-led Desert Storm military campaign in 1990. Years later, the artist would develop her distinct visual language; she is known for depictions of alabaster-complexioned dolls and marionettes with coiffed black hair and slanting eyes. But in her solo exhibition “Re-weaving Migrant Inscriptions,” Kahraman’s bevy of naked, Rubenesque figures, hitherto encrypted with signs of rebellion, begin to transform. Their once seductive poses and subservient condition as refugees are fractured by woven surfaces.

The traumatic birth of these mannequins was amplified through the poignant performances of the actors. “She,” or Kahraman’s complex alter ego, was born once her maker had internalized what it meant to be the fetishized other. The novel female embodiment with sumptuous curves of Renaissance figures and vapid doll-like features resembled what the artist was taught to believe—that assimilation came only with the absorption of European ideals and forms. Kahraman’s brown skin and wavy black hair that completely differentiated her from the Europeans in her new hometown disappeared. Instead, her new self metamorphosed into a convoluted amalgamation of East and West. She emerged with a jet-black bouffant, thick dark eyebrows, and pale skin that represented what Kahraman refers to as the “colonized” body. Her painful need to adapt and blend in was evidenced by the scripts in which she wrote, “I wanted to shed my skin and toss it in the trash and never look back again in the hopes that a new skin would eventually grow.”

HAYV KAHRAMAN, Mnemonic Artifact 1, 2017, oil on linen, 177.8 × 137.2 cm. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

The early stages of a new skin’s development are exactly what one sees in a series of works in the exhibition. In Mnemonic Artifact 1 (all works 2017), there is an unmistakable, palpable sisterhood between the two female characters. Yet despite their bond, and the underlying aggression visible from their body language, Kahraman’s ripped surface that cuts through the flesh of both women in the image is emblematic of a dramatic shift in their portrayal. Embedded in this destructive gesture is the stifling need to break away from feeling what the actors described as “engulfed and consumed by Eurocentric aesthetics.” The artist then mends the lacerations by weaving strips of linen taken from previously shredded paintings into the women’s “flesh.”

HAYV KAHRAMAN, Study 1, 2017, oil on linen, 81.3 × 81.3 cm. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

This cathartic operation of slashing and mending the canvases is heightened in Study 1 and 2, where Kahraman’s figures are fragmented and altered. We lose easy accessibility to their well-defined forms, and we must grapple with their entirely woven surfaces made up of strips of what the artist calls “lost paintings.” Yards of shredded works lay in rolls on the wooden platform that the actors unspooled to reveal traces of deformed figures and damaged skin. They related to a journey in which conjoined bodies formed by numerous strips would “transform” each painting.

HAYV KAHRAMAN, Study 2, 2017, oil on linen, 92.7 × 54 cm. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

HAYV KAHRAMAN, (left) T26 and (right) T25, both 2017, oil on velum and linen, 61 × 45.7 cm each. Courtest the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

The notion of “transversed bodies,” as referred to by the performers, came to complete fruition in T25 and T26.  In Kahraman’s smallest works yet, the canvases—about 60 cm in height and 45 cm across—resemble abstract woven paintings which suggest the shape of an open mouth, bringing together years of scars touchingly dramatized as an act of “mourning trauma,” but also as a “form of repair.” The ultimate indication that Kahraman’s images were moving toward complete obliteration before rebirth could be seen in Strip 1. Thin strips from earlier paintings are assembled, with mere traces of formerly “colonized” bodies. Their migrant inscriptions had almost disappeared. As the performers dispersed, one hoped that by enabling these skeletal forms to “breathe,” Kahraman’s unshackled alter ego might find an utterly new and exalted avatar.


HAYV KAHRAMAN, (background) Mahaffa 1, 2017, oil on linen, 88.9 × 63.5 cm; (foreground) Strip 1, 2017, oil on linen, 99.1 × 81.3 cm. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Hayv Kahraman’s “Re-weaving Migrant Inscriptions” is on view at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, until December 20, 2017.

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