Iraq has been the site of harrowing violence in the last four decades. From dictatorship to bombing campaigns, economic sanctions, military invasions and occupations, it is a space of ongoing mutilation and destruction. This mutilation and the wounds and remains it has left extend from the bodies and psyches of Iraqis to their geography and the landscape of collective memory. Moreover, even discursive and creative spaces are not spared such that representing and re-imagining all those lost Iraqs becomes a particularly daunting task.
In the diaspora, a displaced artist’s relationship to her (now lost and mutilated) home/land is further complicated by a host of conflicting and, at times, overlapping desires and urgent demands. One has to ably navigate the dire straits of nostalgia (The Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef (1934-), exiled since 1978, called nostalgia “my enemy”). While nostalgia could be a powerful critique of the present, it often becomes a snare to idealize or attempt to restore what never existed in the first place. Another constant sentiment is that of survivor’s guilt. Moreover, one has to also negotiate and locate oneself politically and ethically and respond to the perennial question: how to engage with all this?
An Iraqi artist living and working in the United States (the “co-author” of Iraq’s destruction) in the age of permanent war confronts yet another added layer of contradictions. Her gendered and racialized body and being mark her as a multiple other. She is at once fetishized and feared and her works are subjected to an often reductive and patronizing Euro-centric gaze.
Hayv Kahraman’s (Baghdad, 1981-) works sail through these dangerous straits and arrive before us safely and elegantly, delivering haunting questions interwoven with visceral beauty. Like a refugee (the artists herself was one having left Iraq to Sweden in 1992) this “body” of works arrives bearing visible and invisible scars and carrying the weight of history and its injuries and traumas, but also memories. One way of approaching these works would be to think of them and read them as variations on the painful embodiment of memory.
The few cherished objects refugees and displaced persons choose (if and when they can) to carry across dangerous international borders are invested with immense symbolic and emotional value. And that value increases the greater the distance and the time the object (and its carrier) travel. The displaced object becomes a synecdoche for an actual and an emotional place that was “home.” A fragment and a relic that assumes and performs a range of potential mnemonic and aesthetic functions. This is the status of the mahaffa (the hand-held fan, common in Iraq and the Gulf, and made from the fronds of palm trees) deployed by Kahraman in these works.
At times the mahaffa is whole and intact, held by the familiar figure (the artist’s alter ego). But in a number of the works it takes on a more complicated and tangible function; at once disquieting and powerfully evocative. The interwoven strands and the distinctive pattern they form on the surface of the mahaffa are translocated (another dis-placement) onto the surface of the works themselves. This motif invests the surface (and each work) with material and tangible depth and expands the range of potential meanings, let alone the palpable aesthetic pleasure it induces. This technique is quite productive for the artist’s overall desire to archive and locate individual and collective wounds, losses, and aporias.
These strategically located surfaces perform several potential acts. Like geometric wounds, they gently interrupt the larger material/textural context, and gesture to both the migrant itinerary of the mahaffa as well as its material and metaphorical logic. The body of works and the bodies in them come from elsewhere and arrive bearing scars. The surface highlights the re-weaving at the heart of the artist’s practice and the narratives of these works. Antithetical material and concept are interwoven: strands of temporal and special zones: the past and the present, the here and the there, the imaginary and the real, and what is lost and (never) found. The selftoo is interwoven with its others and its surroundings. In some instances/works, the entire surface of the body becomes that of the mahaffa. Subject and object are fused, materially and conceptually, as are their meanings and itineraries. The refugee/exiled/diasporic body is far outside the frame of its original home/land. Like the mahaffa, it is a fragment, a relic, and a vessel of meaning. Here it becomes both a mnemonic subject and object as the two are fused. The wounded body remembers and, in the process, remembers and sutures itself. Wounds and selves in the process of being sutured punctuate the topography.
Being a central element in this collection, and in Kahraman’s works in general, the body warrants attention to its “language;” poses and gestures. The way the body inhabits its space seems uneasy. A sense of psychological and physical dislocation may be detected. Even in the two works where a mahaffa is held in hand, the body is not within a place of belonging or familiarity. It is within what is almost a non space, or a space where the body (and the self) are suspended and isolated. Perhaps it is still dislocated. Home and (a mutilated) home land can no longer be located geographically, nor can they be simply represented/framed. Home is what is/was not t/here and no longer there or anywhere.
There are no smiles, but a somber sadness on the faces of all the figures. As if they are aware of the dangers of being framed and re framed, objectified, and fetishized. They are apprehensive about being multi-purpose targets (one of the titles). But they are equally aware of their potential and power and desire to resist. The desire and will to deflect and dis-Orient the inescapable gaze. Thus, the figures often return the gaze and look us straight in the eye. What is striking is that their nudity is rendered in such a way that anticipates, problematizes, and resists a hegemonic, phallocentric Orientalizing gaze. The desire to “dis-orient” is crucial to understanding the artist’s works and her attempts to resist (and unlearn) Eurocentric structures and traditions while simultaneously drawing on the Arabo-Islamic tradition, but with a critical and revisionist eye. Female bodies and beings are center stage/frame in a discursive horizon from which they were displaced if not marginalized. A specter that haunts the current moment globally is that of permanent war and the increasing militarization of culture. As I wrote above, it is quite traumatic for an Iraqi artist to live and work in the United States. S/he is akin to a barbarian living in Rome, watching empire eviscerate his or her barbarian homeland and its inhabitant, battling survivor’s guilt, or guilt by association. In an increasingly militarized cultural space, the civilian victims of the war, who are the primary targets of military might, disappear (that is if they ever appeared in the first place) and the soldiers become the war’s victims, rather than its perpetrators. Confronting and engaging with this moment politically, an Iraqi artist has to painfully process a host of conflicting emotions ranging from utter sorrow and guilt to sheer anger. Mourning and melancholy become daily companions. The war and its logic haunt Kahraman’s work and she engages with them in a courageous and compelling way. This is crystallized in the deployment of the fragmented bodies of male soldiers (miniatures used in games) as a backdrop in the works. A reversal of gender and racial power dynamics and configurations is enacted here, but not in a triumphalist manner. The fragmented soldiers are permanently lodged into the body of these works and the bodies in them, like shrapnel, disfiguring them.
The artist performs several crucial “interventions” on material and metaphorical levels in these works: through the type of material used and in the gendered confrontation between male soldiers and female civilians. Her mediation is not neutral. The violence that is carried out on other continents and often from the safe distance of technological superiority is brought home in a subtle way.
Iraqi bodies (and the bodies of others who are the victims of ongoing wars and collateral damage) cannot be framed, viewed, represented, and understood, without considering, acknowledging, and recognizing the violence, structural, and actual, that has disfigured them and the gendered, racialized power dynamics and configurations that frame their being and history.
The “material” genealogy of the works in this collection is obviously crucial. Consider the itinerary of a work that is sent by Kahraman to be shredded. Upon its return the shreds are re-woven. The disfigured body is re-membered and it is incumbent upon us to try to retrace or imagine its painful journey.
In a time of amnesia, apathy, and mutilation, these works re-member.
Written by Sinan Antoon