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Identity, a notion that plagues the modern production of non-Western art, is not without
implications in the contemporary art scene. While the complexities of representing
identity are very much in flux in Iraq, the current political situation has introduced two
strong themes into contemporary visual production: trauma and loss. The current
exhibition by Hayv Kahraman, Waraq (Arabic for paper), references paper card games,
in the form of ten card-shaped large paintings on panel (a new medium for the artist) and
in the large hanging sculptural installation, her Project Al Malwiya. Hayv Kahraman
chooses the Abbasid Malwiya as the impetus of her new large project at this point in time
for a variety of reasons.
Unfortunately, little global media attention has been given to the destruction of Iraq’s
heritage, and particularly that of the Islamic period. The country’s Islamic edifices and
monuments are a part of all humanity’s heritage. Of specific national pride, the Malwiya
in Samara has been used as a lookout for U.S. troops and was damaged in a fire exchange
with Iraqi insurgents in 2005. Iconically, the Malwiya symbolizes an important golden
epoch of Iraq’s history. The city of Samarra and its Malwiya (the unique minaret of the
Samarra mosque), stood as testimony to the grandeur of the Caliphate of al-Mutawakil
and the Abbasid Empire of the 9th century. It remained a beloved tourist site in the
modern age, but more importantly for Kahraman, who visited as a child, of Iraqi school
field trips and family outings.
The Malwiya is also a repository of personal memories for Kahraman. It relates directly
to an intricate aspect of her distinctive synthetic aesthetics. Kahraman draws on her own
displacement, her feelings of separation from the culture of her birth, as well as her
instinctive childhood experiences. In this sense, both the Project Al Malwiya and the
paintings that inspired the cards that comprise it (several dozen decks were made and
sewn together with red twine) deal with a form of personal protest at the challenges
implicit in the current Iraqi diaspora. In Al Malwiya, formal references to Islamic
ornamentation and manuscripts, a hallmark of her paintings in this exhibition, are
materialized in a direct historical icon. The inverted Malwiya is a strong primordial form
in itself, as it visually references a vortex or a tornado that uproots all things.
Kahraman’s prior work has addressed issues of general human concern, as pertain to
women particularly, in relation to alienation, marginalization, displacement and social
destruction. She often touches on themes of gender-based empowerment and oppression,
which are most obvious in her stylized female figures. With intricate decorative lines, she
negotiates timely issues, perhaps particularly contentious at the moment in the Middle
East. And using a vibrant and crisp palette, she has portrayed objectified women with
expressionless eyes, ennobling them with a haunting splendor.
Formal qualities are central to Kahraman’s paintings, and they are prevalent in her ten
numbered “Immigrant” paintings for Waraq. In these panels, Kahraman expands upon
her signature polarization of form and content, introducing a dynamic tension, a
commentary on the dualities and contradictions of the beautiful and the repulsive, all in
serenely balanced compositions that can be reversed, hung “upside down” and still make
sense, just like a playing card.
The deck of playing cards introduced into the rhetoric of “liberation” in 2003 by the U.S.
administration, be it the “most-wanted Iraqi” cards or the “archaeology awareness”
playing cards, speaks directly to the invasion and occupation. The artist’s archetypal
women, graceful and elegant, typically float in liminal spaces (of non-being), transformed
by their status as displaced Iraqi refugees. They are both helpless and powerful. Their
marginality resonates with the duality of memories of a country ravished by war and
conflict and currently beyond their reach, and the promise of a new better life in exile,
equally beyond their reach. The men depicted in these immigrant paintings are defaced
of their pride, their education, reduced to menial work and culturally marginalized
contexts wherein their strength and expertise are no longer valued. The mirror imaging
of the figures on the deck of cards, at once self and other, past and future, addresses the
turbulence of dislocation. The dichotomy of their lives is exemplified in Kahraman’s use
of complementary colors and subtle changes in gestures and actions. The two sides of the
cards, however, are linked through the intricacy of the patterning, seemingly of regional
and historical attire. References abound to Sunni, Shia and Kurdish cultural symbols.
Kahraman’s simple and recognizable forms produce a complex discourse of imagery and
significance, and interweave local, regional and global human afflictions and concerns.
Demonstrative of the artist’s exquisite eye for design, the inverted Malwiya serves as a
potent, and much needed, reminder of the dire present state of affairs in Iraq, its
threatened heritage and the perseverance of its people around the world.
Nada Shabout
February 2010