The Many Women of Hayv

Canvas Magazine, June 12, 2017

Hayv Kahraman waxes poetic about the “She” in her paintings

People often ask me who She is. My response: She is someone who dwells in the margins, surviving and navigating a life of spatial and temporal displacement. She lives in the now, which is tainted by a ghostly yesterday. You know, “sfumato” is an Italian word describing a painting technique of thinly layering colours on top of each other to create a blurred, whole surface. Leonardo da Vinci described the technique as blending colours “to evaporate like smoke”, without the use of lines or borders. My figures are extensions of my own body blended with the aesthetics of the Renaissance. They are painted transparently on brown panels, resembling ghosts that are neither here nor there. You see, as an immigrant or refugee, I find that the best method of survival is imitation, and maybe I do it too well, as I sometimes forget my former self.


She first emerged when I was in Florence, Italy. I went to every single museum, made copies of paintings by Old Masters and was engulfed by the techniques of that era. Her emergence, her white diaphanous flesh, her contrapposto, was an embodiment of someone who was colonized, someone who was taught to believe that European art history was the ultimate ideal. She became an expression of who I had become as an assimilated woman.


There are some common threads that appear throughout Her evolution. In a nutshell, Her ecology is that of a border dweller suffering from PTSD. She started violently shedding Her ink on paper. She was asleep at the time and “art”became a refuge or a direct communication line. Honour killing, female genital mutilation and violent works that overtly butcher the female body.


Then there was the domestic, the mundane and the expected. Perhaps it was a phase of resignation. But it quickly turned into the flaying of a lamb and the slitting of its throat. Which then turned into physical disembodiment and fracture where limbs were cut, displaced and extracted; a renewal and a rebirth. And so as I stood there, my nude body being photographed by a man operating a scanning device, I felt a loss of agency. A resignation and submission that made me somehow feel domesticated, comfortable and... familiar. The results of looking at my body through a computer screen were cathartic. She became a surface to dissect and divide and analyse. The coercive and nonchalant aspect of sectioning a body into planes speaks to a similar detachment and separation that occurs in diasporic peoples. But it was also something I needed to do as a woman. And so I needed to cleanse my body with water and scrub it down. I needed to erase my old body, and I needed to restore and rebuild it after waking up. Never will I let myself sleep as my brown skin grows back again.


This period set the precedence for a ghostly meditation on the loss of my childhood home in Baghdad. The figures roamed the rooms in a spectral dance.


Then there was an actual birth; a birth of a child in Northern California and the need to archive a history so ever fleeting. The burning question was: How Iraqi am I?


Silence. I don’t listen to music in my studio. I don’t like loud sounds because it reminds me of the war. Researching sonic violence led me to accept the embodied wounds caused by sound during the war.


Then I remember that moment we packed our suitcase before fleeing the country. That one object that followed us into a new life as refugees in Sweden. The mahaffa. I like the sound of cutting my linen and weaving a new piece of linen through it. It’s an endless process of mending.


From the May/June 2017 issue of Canvas Magazine. A digital copy may be purchased here.