TO NEGOTIATE OTHERNESS INTO THE WORK: A Micro-Interview with Hayv Kahraman
ES: The theme of this issue is of pilgrimage, voyage & return. The elegant and evident mix of influences in your work from Japanese calligraphy, Italian Renaissance painting, and illuminated Arab manuscripts of everyday life suggests a voyage & return in the art making itself. You have modeled this new body of work on miniature Iraqi manuscripts, retaining the gesture of Arabic text, but in large scale. For observers who don’t read Arabic, one feels we are missing something. Is this “missing” what you want us to experience? And, is what we are missing important to fully appreciate the work?
HK: That’s a very good question. Let me start with saying that my process, more so with these works, is rather intimate and solitary at times. So days can go by where I’m in my studio painting without even seeing anyone. This body of work was also very much about the personal and connecting or rather re-connecting with my 10-year-old self who read and wrote fluent Arabic; remembering my childhood and narrating it to myself so I wouldn’t forget. The Arabic text for me was not only about re-learning how to write but also archiving that action of learning as the paintings progressed. Sort of like my own private performance. I hadn’t really given much thought to how it would be perceived until I had a studio visit with someone who didn’t read Arabic. My first visitor felt uncomfortable with the fact that he couldn’t access the work like I could. At first this made me worried but eventually I realized that is exactly how I felt when I fled Baghdad to Sweden and encountered “Swedish” for the first time. I was in a foreign land trying to penetrate the fabric of life.
It was interesting seeing the different impressions people had during the opening as well. Many Iraqi’s braved the New York cold to come see the show. They expressed an intimate relationship with the works as we shared the same memories. A collective memory of war in a distant country that was once our home. They wanted me to add more paintings to the collection as they told me stories and idioms they remembered using back in the day. And there was a glimpse of pride in their voices as they saw their colloquial Arabic written on a canvas in a New York gallery.
ES: It’s been said that a “migrant consciousness” feeds your visual and verbal imagery, the early childhood experience of migrating from Bagdad to Sweden to America, that you dwell in the borders. Would you share with our readers something of how that consciousness informs this new work (shown here) from your recent exhibit, “How Iraqi Are You?”
HK: My experiences have been nomadic. I think being an immigrant or refugee the yearning to “belong” somewhere is important especially for those who left because of war. They are in constant search to solidify their identity in any means possible as that is the only thing that they can have as their own. It makes me think of the many Iraqi refugees in Sweden who dearly hold on to memorabilia from their homelands or the teenagers who back in Iraq never wore a hijab yet now wear one in Sweden as a way to assert their identities. For me the idea of identity is problematic. A part of me seeks to go back to a history that was once my heritage. Another part understands that this is a utopian idea and futile in its endeavors. I think for some, this polemic happens when you “dwell within borders.”
The works in “How Iraqi are you?” are based on the 13th century Baghdadi illuminated manuscripts “Maqamat al Hariri” that narrated the everyday life of an Iraqi at the time. I wanted to use that idea and think of it from the perspective of todays Iraqi immigrant. The texts in the works of “How Iraqi are you?” are personal memories from growing up in Baghdad as well as tongue twisters, aphorisms, and stories of existing as a refugee in Sweden all of which are written in colloquial Arabic. The process of writing the text in the works became somewhat performative and very much part of the work itself since I was actively relearning how to write. I didn’t want to copy blindly. I took my time to examine the original text in the manuscripts, each letter, the thickness of the stroke, the shape and the angle. But I was determined not to force anything. I wanted it to be as natural as possible. I was re-learning how to write my language as well as read and speak my mother tongue. The tongue that I had/have grown to forget and not use anymore. The tongue I regret not to have continued to learn. I look at these Arabic letters with estranged eyes now. I was exported and so was my language. But it’s also my fault for not having kept it alive. I was too busy learning the western language and training my eyes to adapt to English letters. I can now see these Arabic letters from the perspective of an American or a Swede and that terrifies me. It makes me want to reiterate them, paint them, write them, re-learn them and re-memorize them; Recover them. I am on the search for recapturing my amputated mother tongue. At age 34 I am searching for my 9-year-old self that spoke and wrote fluent Arabic.
ES: You have said diasporic women have to give up part of themselves. This may be seen in how you have “whitened” the skin of your women. This tension, somewhere between each of them “passing” as one of the dominant culture she lives in yet retaining the past, her history, in the climate of the settings, the attire, the text. How did you come to making these kinds of choices, choosing what to keep and what to let go?
HK: The quick answer to that is instinctually. I spent four years in Italy surrounded by people who studied realism from the old masters. I went to every single museum and gallery and was engulfed by western renaissance painting. It grew on me. I started copying the old masters and found the figures to be so beautiful. I never “read” the paintings beyond their technique. The experience was purely visual and perhaps I subconsciously chose to not “see” the themes because I knew it would derail from my observation of what I thought was absolute “beauty.” As my work progressed and I started talking and thinking about decoloniality, I realized that the choices I had made in the work were coming from someone who was colonized. Someone who was taught to think that everything white is better and that is what she should aspire to be. One of them; not an “other.”
As you mention the “attire, the setting and text,” these are ways for me to negotiate my otherness into the works.
Hayv Kahraman immigrated with her family to Sweden at age eleven and started painting by age twelve. She studied art in Italy at the Accademia di arte e design di Firenze in 2005 and studied web design in Sweden in 2006.
Her work is included in exhibitions including Echoes: Islamic Art and Contemporary Artists, Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City; The Jameel Prize 2011–Shortlist Exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum, London which traveled to venues including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Cantor Center, Stanford University; Fertile Crescent, Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, Princeton; Newtopia: The State of Human Rights, Kazerne Dossin Museum, Mechelen, Belgium. Her public collections include the American Embassy, Baghdad; The Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah; MATHAF Museum of Modern Art, Doha; and The Rubell Family Collection, Miami.