Hayv Kahraman: An Iraqi American Artist Of Refugees, Migrants And Women Repeating female images, geometric 3D wood cutouts and acts of violence: They're the semi-autobiographical signatures of a refugee, a survivor of war and domestic violence, and a busy artist.
NPR logo Iraqi American Artist Hayv Kahraman Is 'Building An Army Of Fierce Women'

Iraqi American Artist Hayv Kahraman Is 'Building An Army Of Fierce Women'

Hayv Kahraman in her Los Angeles studio. Mandalit del Barco/NPR hide caption

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Mandalit del Barco/NPR

Hayv Kahraman in her Los Angeles studio.

Mandalit del Barco/NPR

Hayv Kahraman's art was shaped by the many worlds in which she's lived and traumas she's endured.

She was born in Baghdad 38 years ago, the daughter of a university English professor and a librarian for the United Nations. She was a child during the Iran-Iraq War and the first Gulf War.

"I would look out my bedroom window and see a rain of air-raid bombs," she says. "They looked like fireworks." The air-raid sirens terrified her: "They are so loud and when they happen, you know that you might actually die any minute. It shakes you to the core."

When she was 11, Kahraman and her family smuggled themselves out of Iraq with false passports. They became refugees in Sweden. "I was clearly very different from everybody else," she says. "I was the only kid who had black hair in my class. I was the brownest kid in my class. And I was treated differently because of this ... Sweden is a very small country, so it's very insular. And so as a brown person walking around there, you stand out."

Kahraman also spent four years in Florence, Italy, studying graphic design. She met her American now-ex-husband there, and they moved to Arizona — "this weird foreign place where I'd go to Walmart to buy my cheese, which I'm so not used to." After four years in Oakland, Calif., she moved to Los Angeles, where she works out of a warehouse studio space.

She says her artwork is semi-autobiographical: large-scale paintings and sculptures focused on women, migrants and refugees, with references to the Italian Renaissance, Iraqi architectural design and Japanese woodcuts. Most of her work uses repeating images of women.

"I see them as a collective of women," she says. "I feel almost like I'm building an army of fierce women."

Hayv Kahraman's work has been shown in Dubai art galleries, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the American Embassy in Baghdad. This fall, her work is exhibited at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, ICA Boston and the Johnson Museum at Cornell University.

"Migrant 3" (2010). Hayv Kahraman/Courtesy of the artist; Jack Shainman Gallery, New York; Velmetter, Los Angeles; The Third Line, Dubai hide caption

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Hayv Kahraman/Courtesy of the artist; Jack Shainman Gallery, New York; Velmetter, Los Angeles; The Third Line, Dubai

"Migrant 3" (2010).

Hayv Kahraman/Courtesy of the artist; Jack Shainman Gallery, New York; Velmetter, Los Angeles; The Third Line, Dubai

Kahraman says she survived a physically abusive relationship, and that informed some of her work.

"If you look at my early work, you'll notice the women are performing these very overtly violent acts," Kahraman says. "I remember I had people come to me and say, 'Why are you painting this violence? What's going on? Are you OK?' And I would say, 'Yeah, of course, I'm fine.' But it was not until years later where I started looking back and finally realizing and admitting to myself that I was in an abusive relationship at the time, and this was an outlet for me to speak out."

"It's very chilling and still very new to me, but it's not something that I can hide," she says. "It's affected [my] work, and it's affected who I am and how I think about things, and this is why I need to create agency for her. This is why she's repeated over and over again, because she needs a voice."

"Three Women Hanging" (2008). Hayv Kahraman/Courtesy of the artist; Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, Velmetter, Los Angeles; The Third Line, Dubai hide caption

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Hayv Kahraman/Courtesy of the artist; Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, Velmetter, Los Angeles; The Third Line, Dubai

"Three Women Hanging" (2008).

Hayv Kahraman/Courtesy of the artist; Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, Velmetter, Los Angeles; The Third Line, Dubai

Kahraman painted images of women self-immolating or hanging themselves or having been hanged. She says they form a small series titled Honor Killings: "Women being killed in the name of honor, either by their brother or their father, because they were raped and got pregnant," she says.

"The way I worked at the time was: I'd put on the news and listen to these various really violent stories and I'd be inspired and feel an affinity," she says. "That would be translated into these paintings. So this was about women in Kurdistan, in the Kurdish region in Northern Iraq, setting themselves on fire because they could not stand their existence."

"Icosahedral Body" (2013). Hayv Kahraman/Courtesy of the artist; Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, Velmetter, Los Angeles; The Third Line, Dubai hide caption

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Hayv Kahraman/Courtesy of the artist; Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, Velmetter, Los Angeles; The Third Line, Dubai

Kahraman says when she and her ex-husband split, she began to make wooden 3D sculptures of her own body parts. "At the time I was really interested in anatomical dissections of bodies," she says. "I started thinking it's interesting to look at my body from the inside and the outside."

She says one of her neighbors in Oakland, another artist, used to make high-definition 3D scans of inanimate objects in Greece and Egypt. She asked him to scan her entire body. She remembers having to stand very still inside the scanner.

"It's very, very accurate," she says. "Every time the scan would start, a red light would run through from the top of my head to the bottom. ... It was an intensive process of about eight hours of two sessions. But it was interesting in itself, being in a place of submissiveness. But at the end, I had a 3D scan of my body with a 0.3 mm accuracy that I could rotate, cut, dissect, play with in any way I wanted to on the computer."

Using the MRI-type scan and 3D modeling software, she got images of 542 slices of cross sections of her body. She used them as blueprints to make wood cutouts shaped like triangles, pentagons and decahedrons. "It was about dismantling something and a rebirth of sorts," she says.

"Not Quite Human 2" (2019). Hayv Kahraman/Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York hide caption

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Hayv Kahraman/Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

"Not Quite Human 2" (2019).

Hayv Kahraman/Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Her current work is titled Not Quite Human: paintings of women contorting themselves, bending backwards and staring at the viewer.

"It's crazy if you Google 'contortionist' online, the majority of images are women," she says. "And most of them are pornographic as well. They're essentially bending backwards ... it's a very submissive act. It's very violent... but there is a power there. She's returning the gaze. She knows that is what you want her to be. And she's giving it to you. ... There's a subversion there within the gaze."

Kahraman says the women in her paintings are numb to the pain of being placed in the role of the "other." She says they are minorities or refugees, denigrated to second-class citizenship.

"If you're stripped from all of your juridical rights, if you are not allowed any voice to speak, if you're not considered human enough, what do you have left?" she says. "Your body. Your body is the only thing that you have control over, and that could be a site of resistance. Your body can become a voice to speak against these systemic structures of power that hold you down. And I think this is the core of what I'm trying to do here."

For one exhibition of this collection, Kahraman worked with 12 dancers from California Institute for the Arts, who performed around the paintings. She has her own memories of ballet school in Baghdad when she was young.

"We'd have lessons in the morning, and then in the afternoon we'd have three or four hours of rigorous training in ballet choreography form, and it was no joke," she says. "Because of this, I was able and still am able to dislocate my shoulder and my thigh bone. I remember I used to perform this to my friends and family, and they would look away in disgust.

"But I found it really interesting how a deformity became a spectacle, how something becomes othered. So I'm really interested in that moment where you're supposedly normal, but then you become abnormal, or you're not human enough, or you're othered."