Hayv Kahraman’s latest body of work offers an acute and eloquent portrayal of the violence of sound.
Brooke Lynn McGowan visits the artist at her studio and learns how trauma can ignite music, painting
‘The rest is done by outcry’
All leaving contains a betrayal. None more so than that of the refugee, whose exilic longing, a pleasure and a pain, contains the doubling of nostalgia and trauma, wounds where at once place, past and present are all foreign lands. Glendale, California: a suburb merged at the northeastern edge of Los Angeles’ landscape of disappointed promises. Palm trees, strip malls, and gritty sunshine give way to ranch style single family homes, Spanish tiled roofs, and then, suddenly, on the left, an indistinct office park: a small labyrinth of low-level, black fronted, mirrored, sharp-edge structures sat upon the asphalt expanse of a nearly deserted parking lot. Here, like the covert operations headquarters of a military clandestine service, can be found the unmarked studio of the young Iraqi-cum-American artist, Hayv Kahraman, evident only through a single open door. Writing in 1932, Antonin Artaud, the surrealist provocateur and author of the Theater of
Cruelty, penned a letter to his friend André Rolland de Renéville, stating: “Herewith a … drawing in which what is called the subjectile betrayed me.” The subjectile, that support—whether canvas, linen, paper, or none of the above—Jacques Derrida notes, takes “the place of the subject or of the object being neither one nor the other.” For Artaud, this betrayal of the substrate demands punishment, as he continues, elsewhere, “The figures on the page said nothing under my hand. They offered themselves to me … that I could probe … shred, tear up, without the subjectile ever complaining through my father and mother.”
Piercing the page, stabbing or defiling it: Artaud’s violation of the figures on his deceptive substrate, so often understood as succubi—dangerous and deceitful feminine shapes—recalls the punished forms of Kahraman’s own female figures, in a series of canvases prepared for her upcoming solo show at Third Line Gallery, Dubai, entitled Audible Inaudible. They too are probed, pierced, stabbed, and violated. Pale, demure forms, they too are uncomplaining. But if they betray, it is in the portrayal of the psychic trauma of the exilic, exotic feminine subject which marks all of Kahraman’s oeuvre, evolving, in this most recent body work, to the presentation of vicious, open, sonic wounds— wounds that cannot heal. “I want them to be seductive,” the artist says, as we stand in her studio, surrounded on all sides by a reiterated bevy of images of a dark-haired sumptuous female, clad in flat areas of patterned textiles recalling Islamic geometries. Each carefully prepared Belgian linen surface adopts a different pose or persona, each body interrupted by a regular series of angular cuts, slits, violations, and indices of a trauma.
Drawing at turns upon the lavish forms and faint gestures of Italian Renaissance painting, the flat spaces and graphic outlines of Japanese woodblocks, and the delicate narratives of Arabic illuminated manuscripts, Kahraman’s tableaux often challenge the viewer with deeply personal and profoundly traumatic mis-en-scene. While gaining attention in 2006 for a Sumi ink-on-paper series, including Honor Killing, with huab-clad figures hung from the barren branches of a tree, or the split bodies of women, merged at the torso, lynched, each holding the other’s noose, Kahraman’s oeuvre brandishes either condemning displays of terrifying violence—from the horrors of war to female genital mutilation—or, alternately, viscerally charged vignettes of mundane, quotidian proportions that have aptly been classified by curator Bassam El Baroni as gestures of ‘micro-feminism’: the resistance to domination of the colloquial, the lived, and the everyday. Like the 2010 Pins and Needles series, these works betray as they portray a contemporary hieroglyphic lexicon of postures of pain, which contemporary society would prefer to cover over rather than admit. And like the artist’s Marionette series, oil on linen from 2008, the feminine is, pointing back towards Artaud’s masochistic Surrealism just as much as Hans Bellmer’s decomposed dolls, always enacting the subject position of the mutilated, disjointed, and torn apart. The female, again hung, this time by slender puppet strings, then becomes not as much passive as unable to complain, because denied all but the fiction of agency. A refugee as well as the survivor of an abusive marriage, Kahraman comments, “The dismemberment is very personal.” The psychic trauma of the surreal screams her name. Or a name she calls her own; over the past decade the oeuvre of this shipwrecked denizen of the Western sunset has gained considerable subtly, while losing none of its potency nor visceral sociopolitical address. However, even as the artist’s work advances, drawing ever more upon advanced intellectual references, she herself, and her work, remains oft confined between the rock and hard place of the discourses of identity politics and voyeuristic pleasure. She has been presented—or pigeonholed—that is, in dozens of gallery and museum exhibitions the world over as an exemplar of the divulged, rent body of the Arabic woman—that flesh so rarely revealed and thus such a coveted object of Western obsession. Thereby does she—and her figures—take “the place of the subject or of the object being neither one nor the other.” Yet, such Orientalist gaze, persisting in the libidinal subconscious of even the most learned and liberal eye or beholder, acts as the very crux of the stated seductive will of her current body of work. For although the artist does in fact use photographs of herself in order to compose the exaggerated lines of her tortured feminine forms, Kahraman’s bodies rest in the uncanny space of the exotic replicant, whose pale limpid limbs, passive in their aggressive gestures, both are and are not the products of self-portraiture. For her own part, the artist understands the compulsively repeated figure presented in her work as not a reflection, but rather a counterpart with whom she is in unceasing
dialogue—an invented other as both fantasy and nightmare—playing out corporal possibilities which both spare and spectacularly reveal. As she noted when speaking to Nina Siegal of the New York Times in 2013, “Having these women violently detaching their limbs, for me, is very reminiscent of the psyche of a refugee… and that sense of detachment you have from your land that you’ve had to leave behind. That’s the idea of the diasporic women, who are fragmented, or cyborgs.” The cyborg: the mechanistic scion of contemporary Western feminism, but also the subject, turned object, ripped limb from limb.
“I would never be able to say I’m an American; Iraqi-American does not feel right; I’m almost
more comfortable saying an Iraqi-Swede but that’s also incorrect at this point in my life. If I say I’m
Iraqi, how Iraqi am I?” Confessing an overtly problematic relationship to the politics of place,
perception, and personhood—Arabic, female, refugee, or otherwise—Kahraman’s identity is
compromised under a quite literal sign of misapprehension: Hayv, in fact, is not even her real name.
“My actual name is Hayf, in Arabic,” she comments, as we discuss her memories of dislocation. Born
in 1981 in Bagdad, Kahraman was a tender pre-teen, ten years later, when she with her father and
mother, both heavily persecuted under Saddam’s Ba’athist regime, fled for their lives, ricocheting from
Yemen to Ethopia through Germany, and finally arriving in a small bathroom outside of Swedish
passport control in Arlanda. “My mom flushed our fake passports down the toilet,” she recalls. Taken
with her sister into a separate room as her mother was questioned, the artist relates “I remember
looking out that one window and it was pitch black outside—which was very strange because it was
only 3pm!” The girls were given an interpreter fluent only in Kurdish, a language without the letter ‘f’.
“Hayv means ‘the moon’ in Kurdish so he just assumed…” Kahraman recounts, dressed now in West
coast cool of blue jeans and black t-shirt. “After that day, I’ve been Hayv.”
Such personal parables of misidentification have informed the breadth of the aritst’s practice,
interrogating the impossible gap of displacement, distancing, and doubling which has marked her
experience of coming of age in Sweden, before being educated in Italy, and eventually emigrating to
California. In a recent exhibition for Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, Hayf-cum-Hayv sought to
mine her memory for tales of the slippage that is cross-cultural misapprehension. Taking on the formal
composition of a 13th century Arabic manuscript illumination, writ-large, Wattania, for example,
portrays an incident from her childhood, and a lesson for the viewer in state education. The subtitle
explains, in Arabic, and then translated in English, In Wattania class in fourth grade the teacher handed out
the test and one of the questions read: Underline the correct answer; is Iraq a democracy or a dictatorship? “I didn’t
understand the words,” the artist confesses to me, over two decades later, “so I circled dictatorship.
Only after having been severely punished did I understand what it meant.” Meanwhile, in the same
series appears Person nummer, portrays one woman sitting astride, as the other, seductively, lifts her
skirt. The title is a reference to the Swedish personal identification code, that, as ‘person’ was
pronounced ‘peshoon’, revealing a semantic gap: the homophonically identical word in Iraqi dialect
means ‘vagina.’ And finally, the idiomatic Sammot la Moot (Silence = no Death) presents to the spectator
a circle of seated female figures under the moniker of a Bagdadi form of local wisdom, enforcing the
necessity of bowing to authority, translating roughly to an edict of submission: only the silent survive.
The present exhibition, Audible Inaudible, finds its inspiration (and its title) in the work of New
York University musicologist and audio-anthropologist J Martin Daughtry, in his Listening to War:
Sound, Music, Trauma, and Survival in Wartime Iraq, whilst also drawing upon the graphic military
iconography employed in US Army issued cultural ‘Smart Cards’—contemporary and culturally risible
guides for dominant-submissive interactions between soldier and citizen as provided to US service
personnel in Iraq, currently in use. In the former case, Daughtry describes the ‘belliphonic’
soundscape of war, marked by a state of auditory dissonance, so constant and pervasive that the
listener no longer hears it: “Distant gunfire became part of what I suggest we call the audible inaudible:
a conceptual space that housed sounds so … ubiquitous that they ceased to draw the attention of the
experienced auditor,” states Daughtry. “To locate a sound in the audible inaudible is to say that it was
no longer fully ‘there.’” Survivors on the field of battle must necessarily enact a ‘redistribution of the
sensible’, where the cacophony of violence is no longer listened to, but subconsciously naturalized:
peace becomes a state of exception.
For Daughtry as for Kahraman, what remains within realm of hearing in a state of constant
war is both silence and the scream. As a child reared on listening to the violent din of the first Gulf
War offensive, for the artist, it is the air raid siren which retains the masochistic force of the psychic,
sonic wound, as well as providing the cathartic impetuous for Kahraman’s regular and ritualized
penetrations, violations of her own canvases, traversing the absent presence of her female figures.
“When you google ‘sound’ and ‘violence’” she says, placing a corrugated sheet of grey foam on her
studio table, “this is the first thing you find: soundproofing insulation.” Attempting at first to present
her images with a literal background texture of these tamping sheets, the artist latter resolved to push
the foam forms through representative cuts in the surface, support, or subjectile, of the image itself. No
longer inert, the paintings become capable of altering the soundscape of the spaces they inhabit.
The idea is one of protection as much as penetration. “She was attracted a particular passage,”
suggested Daughtry, in the cloistered confines of a Soho café, over crepes, avocados and worn
floorboards, as we discussed the connections between Kahraman’s work and his own. “It is the story
of an old woman, who upon watching the terror of the children in Iraq who heard the air sirens,
wrapped her arms arms about the kids, in order to shield them from the psychic and physical sounds
of the war,” the professor intoned. And softly: “The paintings are meant to be her arms, Hayv’s
arms.” Shielding. Safeguarding. Yet these feminine forms, clothed in sound, are at once protected
from and subjected to overwhelming sonic violence; for the ceremonial slits, ritually cut into
Kahraman’s canvases are arranged in a distinctive pattern. At first glance, this design seems to only be
a simple square, but in upon examination, is revealed to trace the flowering form of the recognizable
outline of the scandalous L-RAD. This literal sound weapon, possibility the most reprehensible object
in the US arsenal, is capable of extraordinary destruction upon the civilian and combatant population
alike, not limited to, if employed, deafness, brain damage, and death.
The betrayal remains, on the level of both art and artist. Commenting on her ever conflicted
relationship with her country of residence and move to the US, Kahraman says, “It was difficult to be
in a place at war with my own country… There were feelings of guilt, of betraying my people.” This
is the betrayal of the exile, profoundly and perversely complicated by the war-mongering mentality of
her new home. However, the nostalgic trauma for Kahraman is doubled by an artistically, if not
intellectually, or philosophically necessary seduction. This second level of deceit presents itself on that
of the image, as the longed for Oriental and Orientalised body contorts itself into alluring forms,
which are revealed, upon closer inspection, to be not more than the interrogation positions pictured
on these US Army cultural ‘Smart Cards’—images of Iraqi submission, search, and seizure: the gentle
poses of terror. One recalls the words of fellow artist Helen Marten, writing for a recent group
exhibition, including on Kahraman’s work: “Some forms offer postures of pain as a set of encrypted
butchering instructions… the ghostly effluvium of limbs and larynxes which flower all around have
gone pale all over.” Arms raised, or held behind her back, lain prostrate on the ground, or in the guise
of the perpetrator, holding the behind of the adjacent figure: each female portrait presents another
seduction of sublimated violence as a visual exchange, the serial sonic wounds of the canvas immuring,
assaulting the very victims—caught from all sides, and at every turn—that they might have hoped to
defend. If victim is also the self and also the other.
“The question is,” Daughtry enlivens, “what can the medium of painting and the plastic arts
tell us about the psychic devastation of the sounds of war?” As it turns out, he says in his own
indictment, at least in the case of Kahraman’s evocative oeuvre, “more than music ever has.”
Audible Inaudible opens on 18 September at The Third Line in Alserkal Avenue. thethirdline.com