On identity, Iraq and individuality
Nada Shabout interviews Hayv Kahraman
There is no doubt that, at best, the notion of identity at large is fraught with various challenges and complications. Yet history has shown us that humanity is not capable of surpassing it because of the need to belong and identify. At the moment, to claim an identity somehow connected to Iraq invites further impediments. To be a woman and artist who identifies with Iraq is a whole other story.
The three artists presented here all identify with Iraq on different levels and in various forms that in essence tell the unfolding story of Iraq over the last four decades. What connects them to Iraq is a fundamental personal, emotional and, at times, political choice. The result is a notion of an Iraqi identity for each that is not only very fluid but also is invoked as points of conversion and engagement. Today, Iraqi artists are mostly in the diaspora, in exile or are refugees. Each practice is an idea of what Iraq or being Iraqi is. All are equally real and imaginary.
The three interviews also outline the different concerns for each artist, based on individual as well as generational experiences. Ultimately, each intersection with Iraq as women artists charted the path of their aesthetic development. The three cannot escape memories of destruction and war that are now the contemporary legacy of Iraq. And each engages with the ensuing ramifications. Stylistically, they are as different as their personal experiences and their understandings of their heritage, as well as how to be a global artist with multiple identities, albeit with a common yearning to what once was and what could have been.
Where do you see yourself in connection to Iraqi art, whatever you perceive that to be?
That’s a good question. I think the first thing that comes to mind is distance. Both emotional and physical distance, for that matter. I left when I was ten, so I was very, very young. So my perceptions of Iraq, and Iraqi art, are very limited. If anything, the knowledge and thought comes from a Western perspective because I was taught from a Western perspective. So in that sense I consider myself very distant from it, which is very problematic for me and almost painful. When I am surrounded by my fellow countrywomen and men, like you, for example, when I hear you speak, there is this yearning I feel for that memory that I don’t have for that place.
Makes sense. You know, Hayv, I was not born in Iraq. I went when I was six years old. But I did graduate from high school there. I lived about 13 years of my life in Iraq. I have to say that my knowledge of Iraq is also partially from a Western perspective. My knowledge of Iraq is also from my research, from meeting and talking to people from Iraq; including my father whose Iraq is completely different from mine.
Yes, exactly! Maybe that is what it is. You have been surrounded and involved in that dialogue. Like you said, you were doing the research.
At the end of the day, it is a choice of how Iraqi one wants to be. Ironically, I have no nostalgia! You say you feel distance, but your work intimately engages with Iraq. For example, “How Iraqi are you?” project, which questions the notion of identity as a migrant in the diaspora with different spaces and different languages, very much references the 13 century Iraqi manuscript, Maqamat al-Hariri. That is in fact something you share with Iraqi modernists!
Let’s talk about you as a woman, who is an artist. What kind of challenges have you personally faced because of your gender?
Honestly, the whole concept of gender and how that interjected into my work came from an extremely personal level. I guess I could take you back to how it all started, because my earlier work, the works on paper, are overtly violent and deal with gender issues. The women are in a hegemonic context. You have works showing female genital mutilation, works showing women hanging themselves, self-immolation — so women setting themselves on fire — extremely violent works. This is how it all started and it started when I first moved here, to the U.S.
Why when you moved to the U.S.?
Actually the figure, HER, her body was born in Italy. So it started in Italy. I spent almost four years there and I was sort of engulfed in the Renaissance and in that era. I went to a lot of the museums and I did a bunch of copies of Old Master paintings. That is where She was born. Where She started developing. And as She started developing, I started reading more and more, and that is how the research was born into the work as well.
But when I moved to the U.S., She transitioned to the works on paper that were intensely violent. At that time, I was going through an abusive marriage. My work for me is very personal. But at that time, I wasn’t really aware of that abuse. I would make these works and put a regional news network on in my studio and listen to the news and hear all these stories of women and feel this intense empathy and relate that to the work, and exclude my history and what I was going through. I would hide it from myself.
There came a point where I would even get calls from my mom and my friends in Sweden, and they would ask me, ‘What is going on, are you okay? Why are these works so violent?’ I would just say that I felt an affinity with these stories that I would hear on the news. And kind of sweep what I was going through under the rug.
When I got out of the abuse, looking back at the trajectory of my work, I would realise, ‘Oh my God, these are little snippets of my personal life and history that snuck their way into the work and in a way were trying to communicate to me.’ Because I was at the time in denial about the whole thing. So that was really interesting and eye-opening for me.
You kind of see how the work shifted into more of a monochromatic tone; I didn’t like colour. I stopped all kinds of colour. It became white and black, more about the line. They were still violent, but not as didactic. I’m talking more specifically about the disembodied series, where the women extracting limbs of their bodies, a process of cleansing myself. Violently extracting my limbs.
That makes so much sense now. I can understand your work in a different way. How was the reception of your work? How did people react to it, particularly when you started exhibiting in the Middle East? I recall seeing your work in 2009 in the Sharjah Biennale.
It was actually pretty positive. I would always, and still do, get these calls from my gallery that would say, ‘Okay Hayv, no nipples, no vagina, please.’ I am always conscious of that while I work and depending on where the work is going. In a way, it is very prohibiting to me because I do not like to set limits for myself. But I also really understand that space. Yet the work is about reaching a larger audience and not necessarily about me trying to defy things; it is more about getting the work in there, in that space. It wouldn’t even get to the gallery if I had a vagina in the work, so why even do it?
The issue is not with the violence but more the nudity?
Yes, the nudity was definitely part of the topic of censorship. The violence in a way has not been, which is a great thing for me because it is kind of covert. The “beauty” of the figure, the ornate pattern, her dress, the drapery, all these things mask the violence so people don’t react to it in that way.
Were you represented by the Third Line gallery from the beginning? Did they take your work to Dubai without saying anything about the violence? I agree, the violence in your work is masked by the beauty of the aesthetic. It’s not raw.
I had a few conversations with some male collectors who perceived “Her” body as sexual, which is very interesting to me; it’s a man’s gaze. And it is also part of what I am doing, I am putting that conceptualised female body in that space, and to see that reaction was really interesting. Another incident that happened, here in Arizona, is when I showed the female mutilation piece — which is four orchids sewn together, based on the four different mutilations — someone actually came up to me in that show (and that was the first group show I was ever in, so really early) andsaid something that sexualised that piece, and that was very disturbing.
Says more about the viewer than the work. There’s something very telling that the men’s gaze does not necessarily differentiate between abuse and sexuality. That is disturbing.
Dubai, where the work is mostly shown, is opening up. I actually did show nipples in 2012. There was a side view of a nude woman so you could see the nipple. And it was bought.
Do you feel that there is a different reception of the work by a woman artist who deals with issues of sexually abused women between the U.S. audience and that of the Middle East?
There is definitely a difference, both in terms of the concept of the work and how they are perceived here versus in the Middle East, but also formally in the body and nudity. Here, it is a different story. Here, I am categorised as this Iraqi female artist who paints nude women. So it’s this coveted flesh that the West never gets to see. I become this Orientalised puppet, right? So completely different conversation that I have to have with people when they come to my studio.
And then, of course, the subject matter does become political here. Obviously, there is a different perception in the Middle East because it is a history that is lived, so people have personally experienced war and that sort of violence and they relate to it. Here there is this distance and it becomes like someone peeking into a window.
I get a kick out of having my body — because the figure is based on my body — that nude body circulating within the art world, being bought, sold, so she becomes this commodity. So within the artwork there is another dialogue, that you can add on top of it. I find that hilarious. These collectors buying my nude body and watching it — similar to Kara Walker’s work, kind of poking at you without you possibility noticing or while you were thinking something else.
Where do you perceive women artists in history now?
Progressing, but not nearly as much as our male counterparts. Look around galleries! I mean how many top female artists are there? You have your tokens. But the majority there are men. There is still a lot of work to be done. Even in terms of auction sales and the market, it is not comparable. I don’t have any numbers, but I am sure that is really easy to look up.
Do you feel that women’s acceptance or recognition in art history or the market is conditional?
Yes, absolutely. Now I am in a show in London in White Cube. It is called Dreamers Awake and it is about surrealist women and from one perspective it is good to have this push of female artists but at the same time we need to go beyond that — putting binary categories female-male, we need to surpass that. We are still pushing but we are not all the way through.
Have we pushed into a category? Do you think the work of women artists is valued less?
It is absolutely valued less. Look up some numbers from auction sales. It is really astonishing the difference in the amount paid for a male artist’s work versus a female artist!
by Nada Shabout
Featured image: Nada Shabout portrait and Hayv Kahraman, 2017, courtesy of the artist and The Third Line.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, A Dialogue Between Generations of Arab Women in Art #42, pages 76-81.