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I remember clinging to my mother in the basement of my uncle’s house in Suleymania in northern Iraq. I remember my relatives curled around candles, waiting for the loud noises outside to stop. Despite my fear, a sense of solidarity prevailed: I was surrounded by my family, and somehow I felt protected as we all sang and played games in the dark. 

When the noises stopped, I went out to play with my friends in the hopes of collecting the most bullet shells or the biggest bullet shell to impress my peers. Somewhat golden in color and quite beautiful, I remember thinking. Then suddenly the loud sirens went off. I learned years later that it was the Thunderbolt 7000, to be precise. It was so loud you had to cover your ears and run.

These howling sounds shook me to the very core, yet they were part of my childhood. Now they serve as a memory that both jolts me to the ground and reminds me of my vulnerable past. A past that I cherish, because I lost it. -Hayv Kahraman, 2015[1]


We all have seen how war inscribes itself on the body. Mediatized images of limbs truncated by explosions, of faces and torsos disfigured by shrapnel, and of rigid corpses whose souls have long departed regularly force us to confront the extreme fragility of flesh and the terrible intensity of wartime violence. We are surrounded by such images; we drown in them.

Less obvious and harder to represent are the invisible wounds that sonic violence inflicts. In wartime, sound is the most expansive vector through which violence is administered: often, a single round is fired, one person falls, but hundreds flinch at its explosive report. Bodies that confront the sonic residue of armed combat are flushed with cortisol and adrenalin, the heart-quickening chemicals of “fight or flight.” Military practices that aim for sensory overload, such as the doctrine of Rapid Dominance (colloquially called “Shock and Awe”) that informed the US-led coalition’s 2003 bombing campaign in Iraq, are based on the knowledge that loud sound, when combined with the spectacle of explosive force, can be used as a weapon to “dominate an adversary’s will both physically and psychologically,” rendering him “impotent and vulnerable.”[2] These sounds are more than sounds: fused with the violent acts that produce them, they become manifestations of violence itself.[3] Daily exposure to the sounds of gunfire, explosions, air-raid sirens, military vehicles, and vocal reactions to violent acts can exhaust, demoralize, and traumatize those who are within earshot. Perversely, in the precarious environment of wartime, even silence can be rendered sinister, causing experienced bystanders to tense up in dreadful anticipation of an explosion that may or may not occur a second from now.

Moreover, the traumatic memory of wartime—an involuntary memory that is one of the most insidious manifestations of wartime violence—can revisit survivors years after the original experience occurred. Such memories cut their way into consciousness, leaving subtle wounds that unexpectedly reopen when sounds (or sights, or smells, or other memories) call them to presence. Decades of armed violence in Iraq have placed these small psychic cuts on generations of Iraqis.

It would seem that the visual arts are uniquely unsuited to dealing with these invisible “sound wounds” and the haunting memories that accompany them. How can the mute genre of painting teach us anything new about sound? In “Audible Inaudible,” Hayv Kahraman somehow accomplishes exactly this. By focusing her incisive artistic practice on the twinned phenomena of sonic and symbolic violence, this exhibition opens up an expansive field upon which to grapple with the complex and cacophonous energies of war and the fragile but tenacious people that withstand them. Remarkably, these mute paintings make us think of sound and violence anew.


The feminine Figure that appears throughout Kahraman’s oeuvre is again present here. Combining the “soft, diaphanous white skin” of the Renaissance nude with the black hair and composed facial expressions of Baghdadi miniatures, the semi-translucent Figure fuses these two aesthetic systems into a hybrid beauty, one that draws strength from both and is marginalized by neither. We know that Kahraman, who paints each image after photographing herself in its pose, identifies with and empathizes with the Figure. (When I visited her in her Los Angeles studio, she told me that she paints the Figures in order to be in dialogue with them. As she paints them, they gaze back at her, teaching her, reflecting her experiences back at her. You and I are, in some sense, only voyeurs on this intimate process.) With her paintings, Kahraman is “obsessively trying to give them agency.” The multiplication of the Figure across the works creates “a collective of women, an army of women” who survive the trials and indignities that beset them, maintaining self-awareness and grace as they do.[4]


But what are these trials? In “Audible Inaudible,” they center around sound. Memory is always a latent theme in Kahraman’s work, and here, the childhood memory of terror in the face of the Baghdad air-raid siren attacks her canvases with surgical precision. The cloverlike field of x-shaped lacerations that marks many of the paintings evokes the outline of the Long-Range Acoustic Device or LRAD, a weaponized speaker system that was used in the recent Iraq War to direct an extremely loud beam of sound at belligerent crowds. This device’s siren-like “deterrent tone” was designed to cause disorientation, nausea, and acute pain, forcing crowds to run for cover. The same device, along with more conventional speakers, was used in psychological operations (PSYOPS) to bombard enemy strongholds with offensive music and taunting utterances, goading fighters into leaving their hiding places and fighting in the open. Of course, like all weapons systems, the LRAD and other sound devices caused collateral damage, leaking into the spaces and assaulting the ears of innocents.

In Kahraman’s painting, the LRAD-shaped cuts render visible the battlefield sounds that assault the wartime body, leaving small but lasting scars. As such, they invite the image of penetration or scarification, with sound presented as the knife that violates the body. At the same time, these cuts cannot be reduced to the simple equation sound = violence. Why? Because the delicately crosshatched fields are also beautiful. They open up the paintings, letting air flow through them, allowing them to breathe, and to unfold in three dimensions. Their patterning mirrors that of the elegant fabrics that cover the Figure’s form. In some of these paintings, the women are clothed only in sound, and their tranquil visages are proof that they have the agency and strength to transform that which assaults them into a garment, a protective screen, into armor.


If the traumatic memory of wartime sound provides the exhibition with its implicit theme, a small laminated military cheat-sheet gives the figures their choreography. As she was conducting preliminary research for these paintings—a meticulous and time-consuming stage of her artistic practice, by the way—she came across a number of visual aids that were distributed to US military service members during Operation Iraqi Freedom. One, the Iraq Visual Language Translator, is a foldable sheet with twelve rectangular panels per side. The front face provides a map of Iraq, drawings of Iraqi rank insignia, and a number of utterances (“STOP!”, “SURRENDER!” “LIE ON YOUR STOMACH”, “CALM DOWN”) in English and transliterated Arabic, Kurdish, and Farsi. On the obverse face, each panel is devoted to a situation (“IDENTIFICATION”, “TRAVEL”, “IED CONCEALMENT”), with cartoonish illustrations depicting physical attributes, bodily positions, technologies, and actions, presumably so that service members could point to them when dealing with non-English-speaking Iraqis. (The creased linen figures on the gallery floor distill some of the iconography from these cards.) Several of Kahraman’s paintings can be read as translations of these crude illustrations. The queerly hirsute figures of Identification Facial Hair mirror a line of male heads on the “Identification” panel; the arrows and floating bills of Turn In Bombmaker are abstractions of an illustration of how to trade information for money.


While wartime violence is a constant, cryptic presence in these paintings, Kahraman’s work is far richer than the political charge that they hold. The didactic quality of the paintings is complicated, and often defused, by the gracefulness of these images, by the high level of craft with which they are rendered, and by the symbolic ambivalence that circles and eddies unpredictably around them. The overtly political withdraws from these paintings: guns are invisible, blood is scrubbed from bodies, gestures and bodily dispositions are stylized. This stylization allows the works to both partake in and float above the fog of war memories that haunt them.

Take for example Search it is important to know that this painting is, in part, a transduction of the smart card image depicting a soldier subduing a suspect by pushing him onto the ground. At the same time, what the viewer sees is a woman laying hands on another woman, and doing so gently, tenderly. How do tenderness and coercion coexist in this painting? The same way they do in life: complicatedly, palimpsestically, the one oscillating through the other and vice versa.

 In another work, Identification Hair Color, the LRAD pattern is focused on the throat. A close examination of one set of these cuts will reveal the subtle protrusion of a dark material from behind the linen surface. This material is anechoic foam, the sound-absorbing stuff used to line recording studios. Here, the symbolism begins to circle back upon itself: do the cuts point to the mechanized sounds of the LRAD or to the human voice that emanates from that throat? Do they embody sound, or silencing? Is the painting a document of sonic violence or the physical instrument for absorbing and neutralizing that violence? Do these paintings scream their siren song at us, or gently place their hands upon our ears? As the questions proliferate, the work is enriched.


In the end this exhibition is about survival, about the power to persevere. Like the foam that hides within their throats, these women are capable of absorbing the violence that is directed at them. Like the air flowing through the cuts in the canvas, they have learned to breathe through their wounds. With their translucent limbs, some of the figures appear to be on the verge of vanishing: we catch them midway through the process of escaping the frame of the artworks themselves. Perhaps this is the small life-affirming message that emanates from these delicate, scarred bodies: in the midst of the violent audibility of war, and despite the stifling inaudibility of the war’s victims, one can still create a space of quietude, if only in the imagination.

[1] Hayv Kahraman, “Collective Performance: Gendering Memories of Iraq,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 11, no. 1 (2015): 117-23.

[2] Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade, “Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance” (Washington D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1996).

[3] See J. Martin Daughtry, Listening to War: Sound, Music, Trauma, and Survival in Wartime Iraq (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[4] Interview with Hayv Kahraman, August 2016.