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Angela Carter once told us that “Just because we’re sisters under our skin doesn’t mean we’ve got much in
common.” But skin itself and the struggles that women inflict on themselves to maintain its attractiveness
can be powerful. Definitions of beauty vary among cultures but the pressures women accept to adhere to
their society’s standards are a unifying experience. Fretting over superficial concerns can reveal profound
If women throughout the Middle East were given an opportunity to bond over hair-removal, then enemies
might come to appreciate their underlying connections. Pins and Needles, Hayv Kahraman’s first solo
show with The Third Line, addresses the significance of the “Beauty Myth” in ten mythically charged and
beautiful paintings and two sliding puzzle pieces which share the theme of women’s ritualized grooming
procedures. These works employ the Baghdad-born Iraqi artist’s signature stylish surrealism to address
women’s internal and communal battles with their own bodies.
Kahraman’s captivating aesthetic of original and traditional multi-cultural fairytales enables her to
articulate women’s struggles in the Middle East beyond repressive euphemisms or limited assumptions.
Her metaphoric representations of women’s plights, from the routine drudgery of overwhelming domestic
responsibilities to the extreme inhumanity of war crimes and honor killings, avoid didacticism and cliché.
Instead of trafficking in expected revisionist allusions, she weaves references to classical iconography,
Japanese prints, art nouveau, Persian miniature painting and fashion imagery into enchanting visions of
women grappling with the binding constraints of their various cultures.
Kahraman is interested in how these constraints and expectations are formed, not only how they impact
adult women’s lives. Bodies develop and morph over time. But our relationship with our flesh is often
frozen in molds made in childhood. As Kahraman explains, “Games are the first learning tools in a child’s
life so inserting this sort of innocence and naivety that is then combined with the notion of the perishable
flesh and how frail our bodies really are, is the essence of these works. Each one of these paintings has a
polarity of the plasticity and transfiguration of the flesh with the pretense and innocence of a child’s toys.
The puzzles add another dimension to this all by creating a layer of separation and detachment to our
Responding to these pressures, the characters in Kahraman’s work appear related – or perhaps they are the
same woman multiplied. In Pins and Needles their concentrated attempts to remove parts of their natural
bodies or adorn themselves with artifice seem trivial compared to their innate striking appearances. Their
organic loveliness highlights the destructive futility of their self-mutilation and physical manipulation. One
woman burns her breast with an iron, perhaps to slip into a more androgynous ideal, yet she still has lush
curves and a gentle feminine countenance reminiscent of Ingres’s subjects. On stilts, five graceful identical
young women draw markers for cosmetic surgery on their soft, creamy bodies. Their expressions are calm
but determined. Feminist authors and scholars such as Angela Carter and Anne Sexton contend that
fairytales help form women’s relationships with reality. The qualities that are rewarded and punished in
these surreal stories create clear guidelines for girls’ life-long self-evaluation and self-incrimination. Beauty
standards are a glaringly obvious and ubiquitous element in the genre. Objects and scenes’ appearances can
be deceptive, as gingerbread homes house crematoria and shiny apples hide poison. But individuals’ looks
are infallible indicators of their characters. In these stories, beauty always equates with goodness and
unattractiveness universally signifies evil. Yet unlike these indelible designations, fairytales themselves can
be a flexible genre offering adult artists like Kahraman a canvas in which to examine and re-envision
cultural constraints through metaphor and allusion.