Hayv Kahraman: Re-weaving Migrant Inscriptions
Jack Shainman Gallery
26 October - 20 December 2017
Review by Torey Akers
Throughout the 19th century, European painters (the male, moneyed ones, at least) were encouraged to embark on ‘grand tours’ of the Middle East, a supremacist-flavored tradition that spawned Orientalism, the lush, highly fetishized genre oft-championed by Western art historians. Certain tropes reigned, real-life cultural customs notwithstanding – the bustling marketplace, the sultan in repose, and, of course, the harem, typified by languid configurations of naked, nubile beauties lounging in bathhouses. So insatiable proved the imperialist appetite for these images that authenticity became something of a non-starter; Ingres famously completed his most renowned Orientalist work, Une Odalisque, in the comfort of his Naples studio. These tandem colonialist legacies of violence and reductive misrepresentation persist today; Westerners routinely romanticize the other, but punish any perceived “immutable cultural essences”, to borrow Said’s parlance, that might upset our worldview. Counter-narratives continue to be necessary, and Baghdad-born artist Hayv Kahraman’s body of work confronts the Eurocentric gaze with its own thwarted desires, addressing long-entrenched geopolitics through bait-and-switch seduction and personal anecdote.
Kahraman’s excellent solo exhibition at Jack Shainman, entitled Re-weaving Migrant Inscriptions, centres on the Iraqi mahaffa, a hand-held fan woven from palm leaves, one of the few non-essential objects her family brought along on their journey as refugees to Sweden. At once a cultural touchstone and emotional reliquary, this tactile symbol of home in all its kaleidoscopic meaning haunts her subjects - wraith-like women rendered in the style of Persian miniatures. Her material treatment of these characters is important – pale, nude bodies and homogeneous features contextualize them in the annals of visual history, but while their faces look opaque, their bodies, suspended in the negative space of raw linen, feel ghostly, merely outlining the promise of a form. As such, the front room of the gallery greets the viewer with a bang.
‘Mnemonic Artifact 2’ (2017), a large painting depicting thirteen women in portrait proportions, serves as the show’s thematic heartbeat. Each figure boasts the same design, but all remain eerily distinct from one another in a move towards fragile, unexpected subjectivity. Our fantasies of the exotic other, the salacious harem, seem to shatter all at once. Kahraman has woven three horizontal tracts of palm across her subjects’ faces, simultaneously erasing and underscoring their identities. This emphasis on thing-ness, on element, posits the artist’s weaving as a disruption rather than a cumulative act of making. Painter and pillager, oppressor and oppressed, Kahraman seems to court the dichotomous echoes of her practice with relish, lulling her audience into a comfortable drone before hard truths take hold.
‘Strip 1’ (2017), a smaller painting on a perpendicular wall, features the shredded remnants of Kahraman’s signature female icon. This intervention results in a literal abstraction of violence, reducing the image to caricatured memory. Is that her version of the Western gaze? Maybe, but she’s not letting us off that easily. In the next room, the show’s crown jewel, a large piece tellingly entitled ‘Targets’ (2017), depicts five women walking in single file, all peering pensively in different directions. Their patterned shawls barely hide their uniform, nude bodies. An aimless sense of melancholy permeates. Kahraman expertly employs references to Japanese woodcuts of geishas and mythological paintings from the Italian Renaissance, but these stock familiarities only bolster the work’s inescapable weirdness. Even Kahraman’s antiquity-inspired autograph looks more like a smear of fresh blood as it hovers in the painting’s upper right-hand corner. As in every other piece in this collection, Kahraman’s women float, suspended in a timeless vacuum only trauma can beget. They might be silent and decoratively sutured, but their stories scream forth from the canvas. They won’t be mired. Still, something has been lost, and visitors to this exhibition are indirectly implicated in that seizure. It’s heavy stuff, but Kahraman’s elegant hand ushers us tactfully to empathy, subverting Orientalist wonder through a new architecture of awe.
Triumphs like the alarmingly frontal solo portrait ‘Mahaffa I’ (2017) and the dream-like ‘Mnemonic Artifact 2’ (2017) balance out more extraneous additions – two heavily remixed close-ups of lips woven in vellum feel a bit disparate, and a large horizontal pedestal sporting four sheets of the artist’s writing alongside an unraveled mahaffa fall just shy of visual coherence. Regardless, Kahraman’s work is gorgeous and brave, provided a much-needed artistic voice that is far too often tokenized or ignored.