Hayv Kahraman is a painter, sculptor, and a performance artist. Her work deals with the way the female body exists in a state of ‘unsafety’ in the world – especially in time of war. Her paintings show women with pale white skin, dark black hair, strong eyebrows, and scarlet lips, that recall the figures in miniature paintings from 12th-century Baghdad. She paints these female figures in peaceful repose or in uncomfortable contortions and views them as extensions of her own body. These are not self-portraits but rather a collective experience of the brown body under the legacy of colonialism.
Kahraman was born in Baghdad, but in 1992 when she was ten years old, she was smuggled out of Iraq during the first Gulf War. Her family – half Kurdish – fled. They immigrated to Sweden where she spent her teenage years and studied at Umea University. In Florence she studied graphic design at the Academy of Art and Design and spent time absorbing classical painting. She also met her husband there, and they moved to Phoenix, Arizona in 2006. She now lives and works in Los Angeles and draws from her own personal history as an Iraqi emigre to Europe.
Kahraman uses her own body as a form of language. To make her paintings, she photographs herself in classical, Renaissance-like poses and then makes drawings from them. Inspired by the works of Renaissance artists, copied by her when she studied in Florence, she poses her own body, nude or draped in fabrics, in graceful configurations. In addition to Renaissance painting, her influences include Persian miniatures, Art Nouveau, and her own experience as a woman in the Iraqi diaspora. She often incorporates mirroring, symmetry, geometry, and abstract patterns into these compositions. The graphic “Y” motif, a recurring pattern in Persian and Art Deco design, appears throughout her “Anti-Body” series.
The disfigurement in her figures shows the struggle of displacement among refugees. The detachment of arms and legs from the bodies of some of the figures serves as a metaphor for the psyche of refugees and their sense of detachment from their homelands.
In her series of oil paintings, “Domestic Marionettes,” women are shown doing a variety of household chores or playing musical instruments. There are thin lines coming up from their hair or their arms as if they are puppets. Even though their hair is long and black and even though they are dressed in traditional Iraqi garb, Kahraman thinks of them as representative of women in the United States and not in Iraq. “In the media, on television, you are just bombarded with the subservient-housewife aspiration.”
She explores issues of political dominance and dangerous global ideologies. In her 2021 “Snakes,” the figure’s moon face has a pout and a unibrow and stares at the viewer. The female figure is dissected and inverted upon herself, grotesque but beautiful. Her double-jointed figures are cradled within the motif of a Y shaped structure, which serves as an anchor throughout the entire series.
She has sliced into her canvases and rewoven them into abstract pasterns as an allegory of the fragmented nature of trauma. She has embedded acoustic foam in the linen to soften the violent sounds she heard during the Gulf War.
Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the Rubell Family Collection, Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah, the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, among others.