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Without knowing the Arabic language (and, in this case, the particular dialect spoken and written in Iraq), I am afraid we will read the new paintings by Hayv Kahraman from a rather superficial, perhaps only aesthetic and formal, understanding of her rich and nuanced universe of cultural hybridization and displacement. And perhaps that is precisely her point, the hidden intention behind these new paintings. For these paintings are not just a pretty formal arrangement of figures in a series, although they might be “condemned” to have such a life “in silence” or of misunderstanding. We know that much as we approach them, and discover a calligraphic field of designs and patterns as if floating in, or bringing movement to, all of these apparent “pictures of women,” but our ignorance might always throw us back to the figures, if we do not get to know the meaning of what otherwise will be taken, at best, as purely ornamental.

For Kahraman, writing has a larger meaning that is painfully inscribed in the fact that she herself “look[s] at these Arabic letters with estranged eyes.”[1] She hardly had any time to keep them alive, as her own, since she left Iraq for Sweden at age 10 as a refugee (during the first Gulf War), and while she was consumed by learning “and training [her] eyes” to the Roman alphabet. “ 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. ”[2] You could say, then, that she has been—that she is, in these new paintings—seeking to recovering her mother tongue, and therefore, the old self that spoke and wrote fluent Arabic.

Perhaps we should step back for a moment to revisit where she most recently left us, before continuing our approach to this series that she brings us now under the title, How Iraqi Are You? That previous exhibition, Let the Guest Be the Master (November 1913), also at Jack Shainman Gallery, was inspired by her feeling of having lost her childhood, and, most immediately, by the selling of her family home in Baghdad—the loss of her sense of place and belonging, and, particularly, what encapsulated memories that she did not want to lose. In those works, on the one hand, the figures were painted in transparent whites on shaped panels that represented the floor plans or aerial view of her Iraqi home. On the other, the exhibition was also a way to address the architectural structures of Arab houses, which are designed to segregate the sexes (either the patriarchal gaze or the women’s gaze), and to conceal the private from the public. But, ultimately, with the exception of a few paintings on paper, all the figures were rendered like ghosts, hardly recognizable as figures, and belonging nowhere, neither here nor there. And, thus, as a fragmented body, the artist was everywhere and nowhere.

Beyond the complex details and cultural specificities of this previous powerful series, I believe that we could summarize its conceptual frame—the one which brought together the lost house, the ghosts, the discriminated women, and her own biographical displacement and loss—within the categories and experiences of the foreign and the alien, the destitute and the orphan. She had lost and she was lost. Kahraman was keeping faith with a mere mirage. So she turned back to her lost home, and, as the melancholic lover of a vanished space, she idolized a “lost paradise” that she knew she would never be able to recover. And she did not feel at ease: “Having fled Iraq during war. I’m constantly faced with the fact that I am not in the country of my origin, and, while I live a safe and pleasant life in the West, my fellow countrymen and -women suffer from unspeakable wars and injustices.” [3] How could I have abandoned them? —she thought, even though she would come to realize that she had really abandoned herself. For she was a dreamer building a world out of absences.

As expected of most foreign refugees and exiles, she went beyond that: “I did assimilate, I did adapt, and I did try my best to imitate them. Maybe they would see me as one of them if I acted more like them and forgot my old self. And I did forget for a while. But, not much later, I realized that bleaching my skin and hair and perfecting my accent werent going to help. No matter how hard I tried to erase myself, Id always be the other person who carried her native home with her. Id always be the refugee.”[4]

And thus, between the place she had left and the one to which she had come, she was always lost in trying to get close to either here or there, one way as trite as the other, helplessly disfigured in the process, or, as Friedrich Hölderlin wrote, “A sign, such are we, and of no meaning, / Dead to all suffering, and we have almost / Lost our language in a foreign land” (Mnemosyne). Nevertheless, and even though her origins haunted her, Kahraman did not have a choice but to set her hopes elsewhere, on the site where her life somehow holds together, and where her real struggle takes place: her paintings.

In a way, she knows that she cannot get back to her origins, unless she let herself be fastened to them as a forlorn waif consumed by a lost love. And she knows that she will always be “foreign.” But she also understands that she can explore elsewhere, so as to discover ways that would no longer be felt as hostile or condescending, but as a passage to cope with identity as an axis in flux: being from nowhere as you are from everywhere, learning again the traits of your own origins in the relentless mobility of space and time.

How Iraqi Are You? addresses these and many other questions regarding that fragmented memory that never manages or succeeds in recovering or recreating that continuous and fluid past time that haunts any exile or foreigner; expatriation and exile fracture forever any sense of belonging and any hope of ever being complete. And yet, Kahraman painstakingly aims to repeat, once and again, a history—her history—one that she feels she is forgetting; a collection of narratives that not only recover a past that she feels is made up now of tattered and fleeting memories, but that can also reflect a “new sense of coping with forcefully leaving one’s home and tirelessly integrating into a new culture.” [5]

In this case, Kahraman modeled her new series after 12th century Arabic illuminated manuscripts—in particular, Maqamat al Hariri, an important canonical book, where the everyday life of Iraqis was portrayed with detail and care in images and text. Kahraman adds that “the illustrations are elaborate depictions of each story, showing a variety of scenes from indoors, outdoors, villages, land, and sea. The focus, unlike the Persian or Mughal miniatures, is on the expression of the characters, often keeping the background minimal or nonexistent. Sexuality was also prominent in these illustrations, as we see examples of the main character showing his penis as well as a full frontal of a woman giving birth.”[6] The manuscript is, indeed, considered a major example of the Baghdad school of miniature painting that flourished in the 12th century and that was cut short by the Mongol invasion, which destroyed countless historical documents and books, and hence never developed further. It is, then, another instance of a larger loss that seems to be one of the major recurring themes in Kahraman’s oeuvre.

In this case, however, and in contrast to the recent photography of Shirin Neshat—who has taken her inspiration from the classic Persian The Book of Kings to develop an epic photographic narrative referring to the contemporary reality of Iran from a historical context—Kahraman’s paintings use the illuminated manuscripts to recreate a forgotten history from the perspective of an immigrant. Kahraman uses this illuminated format to recall personal memories of her upbringing in Iraq and to learn to write Arabic again.

 All the figures in the paintings are extensions of the artist’s body: she photographed herself and used the images for the productions of the figures. All of these figures are women, all are painted white, and all of them are formally rendered as those we find in some Renaissance paintings, Japanese illustrations and books or Persian miniature paintings. All seem to be engaged with themselves in all sorts of social, recreational, or personal matters, either learning Swedish in a class or recalling rhymes they learned in school. In most cases, there is no background, although some paintings imply some sort of space through simple, mostly ornamental, structures and frames that hardly give us any information regarding place or site. These figures are all floating on the raw linen canvas as if oblivious to their surroundings, even if we find a tree here or there, or the hint of a doorway that seems to lead nowhere.

But it is the writing that Kahraman carefully arranges over her canvases that reveals and unfolds the details behind these remarkable “vignettes” from the diaspora. Indeed, through these writings and notes, most of these figures tell us of experiences Kahraman and her family went through as refugees, and of some incidents that recall words and sayings she remembers from her childhood back in Iraq. Here, again, is that sense of loss and displacement. And that is precisely the reason why Kahraman decided to render all of her characters in white, without background or specific context, amid a flux of meanings and words, neither here nor there. As if, in the diaspora, these figures would have reached a moment were they viewed themselves as non-different, as the passersby who do not stands out, who only retains from the past the little, unassuming, perfectly safe secrets and mysteries of the mother tongue, its games and pleasures.

Instead, these new paintings attest to something quite different. Karahman is facing “the other self,” that she rejected once bleaching her skin and erasing herself in perfecting the accent of her new tongue, while she is losing her boundaries in a field without any other references or context than the one of the language she has forgotten and she is re-learning again to pass it on to her descendants. Between the signs of the works, the imagination of the artist and her material reality, in their disparate functions, Kahraman has found a way to allow for the return of the repressed—that strangeness—, to accept it and to enjoy it, as we enjoy that part of us that can finally articulate the difficulties we have in relating ourselves to the other, and still continue our way in that identification and dissolution process that is the very possibility for emancipation. [7]

Thus, as Derrida suggested, decentering knowledge, Kahraman helps her otherness to breathe, and enables the excluded and the erased to come back to life within a world of growing systemic interdependencies. It is not an option anymore; it is a necessity.

Octavio Zaya


[1] Private correspondence with the author. [2] Ibid. [3] Hayv Kahraman, from an interview with Ana Finel Honigman, ArtSlant, November 2009. Retrieved 8 February 2015. [4] Hayv Kahraman, Collective Performance: Gendering Memories of Iraq, Journal of Middle East Womens Studies, March 2015, p. [5] Ibid [6] Private correspondence with the author. [7] For a more psychological insight into these issues, check Julia Kristeva, Stranger to Ourselves, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991