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Behind the exhibit Let the Guest be the Master is a dramatic personal and collective history that Hayv Kahraman has narrated in several of her previous artistic works. Kahraman’s personal story takes us through her passion for geometry, space, time and the body. It also takes us through the memories of her ten years living in Iraq, whose destiny has oscillated between the totalitarianism of Saddam Hussein and the tragedy of US imperial intervention. Kahraman’s anguish and her anger are nourished by the suffering of people in Iraq as is expressed through the women in her paintings.

Kahraman’s artistic work is channeled through four trajectories. One is the visual originality of colors and shapes that fill her paintings. Another is her familiarity with Japanese, Persian, Arab and European Renaissance visual imagery. The third is a fascination with Western art history, geometry and medicine. The last trajectory injects her work with a force that transcends the former: her familiarity with non-Western visual cultures and memories inscribed in her own body. Kahraman’s artwork enacts a shift that is at once geo-cultural and body-political.

Her paintings bring the past into the present, the silent into the audible, the invisible into the visible, and by so doing not only is she is reducing Kant’s aesthetic regulations and Botticelli’s paradigmatic Renaissance women to size but also revealing, through them, the regional scope of these Western standards. Both, philosophical aesthetics and Renaissance women are fictional entities regulating taste and projecting regional geniuses to universality. No longer.

Modern Western aesthetics, philosophically (Kant and his postmodern and altermodern aftermath) and visually (Botticelli and the visual legacy of European Renaissance), controls subjectivities and subject formation. Kahraman’s work emanates from the need to start from this point, since it is unavoidable, in order to depart from its limiting and repressive protocols. Her work delinks from modern, postmodern and altermodern aesthetic normativity and from the canonized visual images of white-skinned and blonde/red-haired naked women in Renaissance painting. Her work liberates aesthesis (sensing, perceptions) from the prison house of Western aesthetics.

Kahraman’s work dignifies migrant consciousness and by so doing so empowers the sensibility of millions of colored migrants into white land territories. Delinking is achieved by appropriating Western artistic techniques and technologies and using them as weapon not only as resistance but, above all, as re-existence. [1]

Migrant consciousness feeds Kahraman’s visual and verbal imagery. As a migrant you do not just cross borders: you dwell in the border always. Borders remain in your body all your life. It is up to you to repress and assimilate or to claim the dignity of what you are, as migrant. In the immigrant land, you are a foreigner. In the land from where you migrated, you are no longer like your people. The migrant consciousness that Kahraman’s work embodies is similar to what W.E.B Dubois named ‘double consciousness’: how can one be ‘Black’ and ‘American’ at the same time. ‘Blackness’ did not have the same status as ‘American’.

Dark-skinned people from the Middle East do not have the same status in the modern/colonial fictional imagery as the white-skinned Europeans or Anglo-Americans who invented the fiction. The kind of migrant consciousness that Kahraman embodies is not similar to a German migrant to Benelux or Scandinavian countries. It is neither the same consciousness of a French women migrating to Algeria. It is the consciousness that shapes subjectivities of migrants from the variegated diversity moving from the non-European world to Western Europe and the US: from Iraq to Sweden, Italy and the US.

The body is imprinted sociogenetically [2] with the gaze of racial and gender divides: one’s identity is not something that he carries someplace deep in his person. On the contrary, it emerges from his awareness of being seen, rather than from some inner self. Migrant consciousness emerges from our awareness of being seen as lesser. In Kahraman’s house you are the guest. But you could be native or migrant. Dwelling in the territory or in the border will shape your response to “Let the guest be the master” (a familiar hospitality saying and doing in the Arab world).

Contrary to the explorations of forms, shapes and spaces from artists whose personal histories are embedded in the mono-culture of Western histories, migrants and those migrants who are also refugee, have a double history and memory: one that cannot be erased – the lived memories of education through birth and family, and one that has to be learned – the history that is inscribed in the bodies and territories where we migrate; a history that we learn but we do not embody.


When looking back at the paintings of European masters, Kahraman has said that she concentrates on the techniques and blocks out the meaning. She “steals” and uses what she has learned by observing the materiality of Western painting. By so doing, Kahraman makes visible what Western aesthetics hid, silenced or disavowed.Stealing and using techniques and repurposing them is not new: Greek thinkers translated into Arabic by the 12th and 13th centuries, were “stolen” by Western Christian lettered men for their own purposes.

Technique and technology are weapons in Kahraman’s hands and eyes for rebuilding an identity that she, as migrant, was supposed to despise. The result is visual disobedience. [3] Eurocentric art history is discontinued in Kahraman’s work. There is a shift in the cartography of seeing rather than imitation; there is enactment of the disavowed rather than representation of the “oriental” known; there is unapologetic self-affirmation rather than begging for recognition. Kahraman’s recognition in the art world comes, precisely, from her artistic disobedience – not following the routes that one is expected to follow – rather than for her surrendering to modern, postmodern or altermodern expectations.

Visual disobedience is manifested in one of the elements connecting the five large-scale paintings on wood panel based on floor plans of houses in Baghdad and the four paintings identified by the names of geometric figures. The common element is the woman whose body is shaped after Kahraman’s 3D scanning of her own body. That is why we see the body in the painting crossed by spatial geometric shapes that have been flattened. Furthermore, the cross-sections of her body manifest themselves in curved geometric shapes that disobey the regulations of Western geometric tradition: the platonic solid.

Kahraman appropriates modern technology and Western geometric tradition and uses them as weapons against their unintended mono-cultural universalism. Her work is a powerful non-verbal instrument of expression, and why not use it if it can be a catalyst for de-colonial changes legitimizing migrant consciousness? De-colonial changes mean not only denouncing patriarchy in Muslim societies but patriarchy in general, including its Western version, through the experience of Muslim societies. By so doing, Kahraman is suggesting that Western feminism doesn’t have the key to patriarchal critique and, above all, she is denouncing the fictional universalism legitimized by Western feminist standards.

What matters in Kahraman’s work is not what you see but the subject and the subjectivity that informs what you see. That is why Kahraman’s art does not “represent” Middle Eastern culture and people. On the contrary, it is an elegant and angered statement that confronts patriarchal privileges (both Middle Eastern and Western) and hegemonic visual cultures. Botticelli becomes, in Kahraman’s work, one among many (Japanese, Persian, Arabic) visual references. Her work brings together art, disobedient beauty and activism.

If then current conceptions of beauty were shaped by Western education, Kahraman’s work is nothing less than a statement in the global processes of de-Westernizing hegemonic concepts of beauty. Beauty, like many equivalent basic human experiences, cannot be universally regulated. If then Western mainstream and a common sense concept of beauty were projected to regulate non-European colonized societies, then Kahraman’s work is not only de-Westernizing art and aesthetic but it also confronts and delinks from the relentless paws of coloniality. [4]


The power of the shift consists in making explicit the implicit. Female bodies in contemporary Western societies, as well as in economically emerging Eastern societies, are commodities for male consumption. A well-known fact, it is not an issue brought to the open in contemporary art. At the same time, it is well known that art has increasingly become a commodity rather than a valuable cultural object that could be purchased to mark the distinction of the owner, be it a wealthy person or a private or national museum. The value of art is the value of money. Kahraman’s installation is throwing these familiar secrets into your face:

 I’m a commodity. My paintings are a commodity. My figures are a commodity. I pose in the nude and photograph my body to use as outlines for paintings. My figures then are visual transitions of my own body. They are buying my body. The figures are rendered to fit the occidental pleasures. White flesh. Transparent flesh. Posing in compositions directly taken from the Renaissance. Conforming to what they think is ideal. Neglecting everything else. Colonizing my own body to then be displayed gracefully into my rectangular panels. Carnal and visceral palpability. I provide for you in my rectangles. I know you like it. That’s why I paint it.  To catch your gaze. To activate your gaze, I want you to buy me so you can look at me all day long. I’m your little oriental pussycat. You can pet me I don’t bite.[5]

By making explicit that she and her art are commodities, Kahraman puts us, the guests and viewers, in the uncomfortable situation of looking at her and her art for sale, while at the same time understanding that by putting herself and her art for sale, she is denouncing the hypocrisy of empty humanitarian statements recognizing that women and men are equal, and the hypocrisy of thinking that art brings as only beauty and spirituality.

Kahraman reveals the rule of the game that most of us know, but we don’t talk about. The tension she creates between “women as human and art as beauty” and “women as commodity and art as commodity” is a slap on our face. Kahraman’s artistic activism comes through sophisticated visual composition and forceful verbal statement. The political force comes through the technical sophistication rather than a blunt realistic depiction of women oppressions and social injustices.

Kahraman’s brown-skinned nude women blend with the brown of the wood, proudly stamping part of the global imagery that the Renaissance scholars described as the outside regions (today underdeveloped, emerging or rough states), and people that had to be brought into civilization and modernity. With Kahraman’s work we no longer need to be saved, to be civilized or to be brought into the fiction of Western modernity and its aftermaths.

This connection brings to mind Botticelli’s blonde/red-haired and white-skinned nudes stamping the gender imagery of the Italian Renaissance. Botticelli (a European native artist, white-skinned and red-haired himself) has his place in the history of European art and in the global expansion of Europe imperial culture, but now Botticelli and Western art are being reduced to size by the depiction of a dark-skinned and black-haired female created by a migrant female artist.


Ghost-like women are floating. They are undressed but not naked. Body and material construction blend, they become one – the spirit of the house. The prominence of the courtyard, particularly in Five Court Compound underlines its two crucial functions. On the one hand, it is a border space between the outside, the street, and the inside, the house. The compositions invite us – guest – to enter a space that is alien to most of us in New York.

However, on the other hand, it is a place marked by power differentials – the place were gender roles are divided. Males meet in the courtyard and women remain inside the house. In a complex structure of dependent human relations, women are in Kahraman’s art, the house. They can observe, without being observed, the courtyard from behind the Mashrabiya, the screen that divides two rooms in Kahraman’s installation.

The house is my domain. When you enter you will resign and obey. At least that’s what I have to believe if I were to survive. Indeed you can have the rest but these rooms, these kitchens, these balconies, these toilettes are mine. They are an extension of myself. And within the confines of these walls I will do what I please. I will watch you from above. Through the screens I can see everything you do and you won’t even know that I’m watching. I will laugh when you stumble and I will hear your conversations with others. You will not see me because you can’t handle seeing me. I am too seductive. My black hair, my skin. I am behind these walls. Tamed and constrained. Yet this is my domain. [6]

You, being the guest, are now the master but, as master, you are being observed by someone behind the Mashrabiya.

If the floor plans of these Baghdad houses provide the delineation of space, they also provide the geographical and historical locations where memories dwell. The floating women blending into the walls we can see in the four paintings in the smaller galleries. You have access to the room in which two of these paintings hang, however you cannot enter the room that holds the other two paintings. You can only pick at them through the Mashrabiya. You have become a voyeur.

Migrant consciousness has two sides: one determined by the place you arrived and the other by place you have left behind. It is painful and at the same time it provides the creative impetus that links the politics of art, the colonial wound. Kahraman’s work speaks out not only about displacement but also confronting the dominant view about “us” and “them.” Her work is a constant and political interrogation of the puzzle of her life rather than passive representation:

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 countryman and women suffer from unspeakable wars and injustices. As a result I’ve inherited an appetite for rebellion that exclusively takes form in my work. [7]

In this sense, “Let the Guest be the Master” brings forward a potent shift in the cartography of sensing, believing and seeing. Transplanted from everyday life to an artistic enactment cross-culturally political, the master whose dominance allows him to invite, loses his privilege in the new context. The installation sets the stage for a double gaze: the presence of the Mashrabiyas dividing two small rooms, one of them not accessible to the guests, reminds us, guest, we are placed in the situation of the women observing the males in the courtyard.

But at the same time, “Let the Guest be the Master” is Kahraman’s response to racial and patriarchal crossing gazes (the gaze that discriminate and the gaze of the discriminated), in everyday life as well as in art and scholarship. This exhibit continues Kahraman’s explorations of geo-body potentials of the discriminated, reduces the discriminating gaze to size and depletes it from its self-assigned privileges.

The awareness of being seen by the discriminating gaze of migrant consciousness is here at work. We are dislocated; we feel observed by the women and enclosed within the walls: I know you are looking at me, and I am also looking at you. Kahraman’s artwork makes the point through her creative imagination and her skillful mastery of colors, shape and obsession with the female human body.

There is here again a double move that support each other: Kahraman’s undressed and scanned body, which cannot be detached from the walls of the house where she was born and that are imprinted in her skin and her memories, works hand in hand with her “look at me looking at you.”

That is the shift in sensing, knowing and believing I mentioned above. The world looks how you sense it and you sense it through the local history you have been raised and through the place your local history has in the Western invention of “orientalism.” You sense the world rather than you seeing it – which shifts away from the dominant Western world-view. Kahraman is able to achieve this through border-thinking, which can only emerge from migrants dwelling within hierarchical boundaries and borderlands.

[1] The expression comes from Afro-Colombian artists and activist, Adolfo Albán Achinte, artista anc activist from Popayan, Colombia,

[2] The expression comes from Frantz Fanon, Martinican thinker, psychologist and activist, Peau Noire, Masques Blanques, Paris, 1952.

[3] This expression comes from Kency Cornejo, (Ph Student, art historian and activist from Central América) Department of Art History and Visual Culture, Duke University.

[4] Coloniality shall not be confused with colonialism. Colonialism refers to specific colonial historical formations, since the European renaissance. Coloniality is the logic that underlines all Western forms of colonialism since then. Coloniality doesn´t need colonies to work. It works through finances, media, education and cultural formations.

[5] Hayv Kahraman, unpublished ms.

[6] Hayv Kahraman, unpublished ms.

[7] Hayv Kahraman K, from the interview with Ana Finel Honigman).