The Pain of Forced Migration Made Physical in Hayv Kahraman’s Paintings


What do you get when you mix the styles of Arabic illuminated manuscripts, Japanese prints, Renaissance figuration and Art Nouveau graphics? In Hayv Kahraman’s diaphanous nudes – where pigment sometimes threatens to bleed, smudge and drip like acid onto the canvas – these traditions come to life to scare you once again.

The protagonists of these paintings, exhibited at London’s Mosaic Rooms in Kahraman’s exhibition Gut feelings, are trapped in a state of limbo. You can read this through a personal story. Kahraman was born in Baghdad in 1981. A decade later, during the Gulf War, her family fled the country as part of the mass exodus of Kurds, traveling on fake passports through Jordan, Ethiopia, Yemen and Germany before settling in Sweden.

This experience of forced dislocation has never faded – the pain present in migrant communities is the leitmotif that winds through Kahraman’s figures, created from dense swirls of black, mauve and ocher on earthy Belgian linen.

The artist’s ethereal women – all with wispy skin, dramatic licks of hair and calligraphic sweeps to mark their foreheads – recur in his work, sometimes appearing to us as dancers, models or a priestess engaged in silent ritual. . This figure, the artist said, first came to her when she was studying graphic design in her twenties in Florence. Kahraman toured the city’s museums, earnestly studying Renaissance masters. Now she makes pictures from those pictures.

“Entanglements with torshi” by Hayv Kahraman (2021) © Photographed by Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias Gallery, London

A couple of naked women entangled and almost concealed by gnarled black ropes

‘Entanglements no 1’ (2021) © Photo by Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias Gallery

One senses the art story in the counterweight to “Entangled” (2021), in which two women with tufts of coral-pink hair strike an exaggerated figure serpentinata, weight twisted towards the center of the painting, a dangling arm raised in balance. The duo – like the group in the ancient Roman sculpture “Laocoön and His Sons” – grapples with menacing knots of jet-black cord in a dangerous push-and-pull game; the viper lines encircle the women, on the verge of swallowing them up.

For this exhibition, Kahraman was inspired by the “second brain”, the neural pathways that cross the intestine. Lately, she’s been experimenting with painting with beetroot pickle juice. In a room, the little sour sticks – torshia staple of Middle Eastern cuisine (and, incidentally, good for your gut) – are kept in rows of mason jars.

On the opposite wall hangs the painting “Entanglements with torshi” (2021): the distinctive purple pigment spreads out in a serpentine in the shape of an intestine. Four women squat – sharp creases marking the folds of their exposed bodies – as they grasp and knead the guts between them. In another scene, a woman lifts a mass of intertwined organs, letting blood drip down her face and chest.

Glass jars filled with a pinkish red substance on a white shelf
The exhibit features jars of red torshi, a pickled vegetable used in Middle Eastern cuisine © Photography: Andy Stagg. Courtesy of Mosaic Rooms

Kahraman’s “neurobusts” series (2021) stirs and destabilizes. In these paintings, ghostly bodies are displayed as fragmented, suffocating effigies leaning on steel columns. The organ-like shapes emerge once again, this time from the mouths of the dismembered busts, slipping out of the swollen lips and gathering around the neck. These broken sculptures are wounded bodies.

Kahraman’s paintings are obsessed with the gaze – ours as viewers, but also the way his subjects, trapped in vulnerable and submissive positions, return the gaze. Art has a way of counter-attacking, of involving the viewer in the drama, these images seem to say. Kahraman described his feeling of dislocation and trauma through violent images: women chained or hanging from a tree. This seems to have given way to a calmer sense of horror. His women stare back at him, their strange, accusing expressions.

A woman's bust, without arms, caught in a gnarled tangle of black rope

“Neurobust no 1” by Kahraman (2021) © Photo: Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias Gallery

The conversation with art history continues. In the past, Kahraman has cut into the canvas itself, weaving strips of older paints to mend wounds. Here, she brings that deconstructive thought to the surface of linen, a material woven from flax threads that have been broken down by bacteria in the soil (a series of plinths, dotted with rolls of canvas and wisps of wispy yarn, detail the process). A nod to these secret microbial worlds, an allegory of foreign bodies, Kahraman set to work on flax fibers. In a set of paintings suspended from the ceiling, the artist projected his hunched over women, black guts flowing from their bellies, through the translucent, tangled strands of linen.

Trauma is everywhere these days, of course, from our bookshelves and cinemas to social media feeds and the heartbreaking images of broadcast news. But what might be the costs, Kahraman asks, of seeing (and valuing) people’s lives through the weight of such pain? On scraps of linen, Kahraman wrote the “trauma portfolio” – miniature diagrams reading “Amputations; physical trauma; for follow-up ; PTSD” — a reference to assessments carried out by NGOs and governments to help people apply for asylum. Violence, emotional and physical, becomes a crude form of currency. Who is worthy?

A series of patterns formed from tangled black strings, becoming more intricate from left to right
‘Trauma Portfolio no 2’ (2021) © Photo: Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias Gallery

The history of art is also a history of wounds and healings. In material terms, think of how a painter might seal his canvas with rabbit skin glue, to prevent the acids in the oil paints from eating away at the fibers (a Renaissance technique that Kahraman also used). The articulation of pain in these paintings, where bodies squeeze, organs pulled, is part of a struggle to heal fractures as well. They seem fragile, but they overwhelm us with feelings.

As of May 29,

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