Whitehot Magazine

Hayv Kahraman’s The touch of Otherness at Vielmetter Los Angeles

Hayv Kahraman, Helhoola, 2021. Oil on linen, 78 in. x 50 in. Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles. Photo credit: Jeff McLane.

Hayv Kahraman: The touch of Otherness

Vielmetter Los Angeles

March 6 through April 17, 2021 

By LITA BARRIE, March 2021

Hayv Kahraman immediately captivated the art world in 2006 with her hybrid female figure, “She” who appears alone and replicated in armies, to symbolize a feminine collective overcoming a history of trauma and oppression. Her iridescent pale-skin, ruby red lips, cadmium cheeks, thick black eyebrows, swan-like neck and dark-haired bouffant is an amalgam of cross-cultural ideals of feminine beauty : part Geisha, part Harem concubine, part Kurdish resistance fighter and part contortionist. ”She” continues to mesmerize viewers worldwide and has evolved into a super-survivor as a reflection of the artist who says, “ I was a virus before there was a virus.”  

The Los Angeles based, Kurdish artist escaped from Iraq in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when she was 11, and traveled through Iran before finding refuge in Sweden. She later studied graphic design in Florence and Sweden before re-locating to the United States. Kahraman came to art as something of an outsider, steeped in non-Western traditions of decorative art: Persian miniatures, Japanese woodblocks, Arabic geometric design and Maqamat Al-Hariri illuminated manuscripts combined with a deep understanding of Renaissance painting. Her paintings are human sized, which dramatically changes the scale of the miniatures that inspired her and gives them a stronger presence. This play on scale and delicacy, non-western and western traditions makes Kahraman’s  distinctive painting style a contemporary take on historic influences.

The exquisite elegance of Kahraman’s stylized paintings belies their disturbing content and makes them strangely beautiful in an unnerving way. Kahraman uses beauty to lure the viewer into spin-chilling tales of horror in an aesthetic strategy that recalls Italian Renaissance paintings. But her refined paintings are also infused with humor as comic relief from painful content. 

Kahraman depicts a feminine self which is not one but a fragmented “subject” formed from a network of cultural discourses. “She” embodies the weight of history, injuries, invisible scars and traumas female survivors carry around until they can heal and build a bridge from the past into the future. Because Kahraman uses her personal memories of trauma to address collective trauma, her paintings have a universal relevance. Although her mnemonic paintings are disturbing, they are concerned with the art of mending physical and psychic wounds.    

Hayv Kahraman, Bunnies, 2021. Oil on linen, 77 in. x 60 in. Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles. Photo credit: Jeff McLane.

Kahraman’s second exhibition at Vielmetter Los Angeles, The touch of Otherness is a continuation of her exploration of immigrant feminine subjectivity. These paintings were created during the COVID-19 lockdown when Kahraman became obsessed with researching immunology about antibodies while at the same time grieving her mother’s death from cancer.The impetus for this exhibition came from the parallels she recognized between the militaristic language used to describe the “war” against viruses, cancer and migrant people who “invade” the body politic. 

When I spoke with the artist, she explained  “I was struck by how the language riddled in defense mode.” While researching her mother’s cancer she discovered “ there is no way to talk about cancer holistically. It is always in fight mode.” Kahraman began to “ look for a silver lining and the antibody became that: essential workers that translate and bring in white blood cells and then combat.”  She also loved the antibody’s Y-shape because of her history with geometric design, and adopted it as a recurring motif in this new series of paintings. This led to her paintings wittily combining snails, pigeons, bunnies and paper planes as messengers in this Y-shape.

Kahraman addresses the current obsession with immunity, antibodies and foreign invasion by depicting female bodies contorted into the Y-shape,  as a visual reminder that the body can only make this antibody after it is subjected to something “foreign”. As she says, “ antibodies become a bridge between the ‘self’ and the ‘foreign’.”  As an immigrant, the field of epidemiology resonates with Kahraman because it is a study of foreign pathogens and her paintings address the racist overtones in the discussions of viruses. Because antibodies are mediators in our bodies that send messages between white blood cells and a “foreign” pathogen, Kahraman turns the antibody into a Trickster figure that injects dark humor into these paintings.

Hayv Kahraman, Swallowing Antibodies, 2021. Oil on linen, 42 in. x 68 in. Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles. Photo credit: Jeff McLane.

In Swallowing Antibodies, a female figure puts a red Y-shape antibody in her mouth. She is supported by another pair of arms holding an antibody and another leg - suggesting that we are all in this pandemic together. In Binding, a group of acrobatic female figures are balanced on top of each other to form Y-shapes inside a circular composition with protruding heads like the spikes of the COVID-19 cell. The figures are surrounding by carrier pigeons delivering mail and perching on their heads amidst a proliferation of messages.

Kahraman reveals her affinity with her Islamic heritage in her love of geometries and patterns which she says she uses “to create a sense of order.” She carefully plans her paintings beforehand using Photoshop to decide on her carefully nuanced color schemes. Kahraman creates depth in these planar compositions through the intensity of colors, veneers and luxuriant patterning; however she paints by hand to leave space for intuitive aesthetic decisions, like the  quick, loose brushwork in the dramatic swirls of black hair - which  itself is a loaded signifier of femininity and racial identity. These works are painted on linen with oil which gives them a translucent quality. Kahraman use a flattened perspective with no background to accentuate the focus on the female figures. 

There are no men in these paintings. Nor are these female figures objectified, or fetishized, or glamorized for a male gaze. The survival skills women learned from twisting and bending themselves out of shape to conform to male authority are transformed by Kahraman into a powerful form of resistance; these acrobatic balancing acts demonstrate support for one another in a female collective. Kahraman’s earlier paintings explored gruesome violence toward women, hung from trees and tortured, but in her new incarnation, “She” assumes an almost superhuman dimension because she is an alien.

In two shocking paintings the female protagonist is seen with a bomb in her mouth (Say aah) and a bomb in her vagina ( Helhoola), but it is unclear whether she is inserting or expelling the phallic weapon, similar to bombs she saw on the street as a child in war-torn Iraq. Penetration metaphors recur throughout this exhibition, but Kahraman uses the parallels between the sexual invasion of female bodies and the invasion of viruses to upturn the cliche of the female victim; instead her female protagonist has taken control of her identity. 

A key justification of art is that the stories of others enable us to understand our own. Great art also makes us questions the narratives that frame our experience. Rarely have I seen this basic existential function of art realized with such aesthetic finesse as Kahraman has realized it in this breathtakingly beautiful exhibition. WM


Lita Barrie

Lita Barrie is a freelance art critic based in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in Hyperallergic, Riot Material, Apricota Journal, Painter’s Table, ArtnowLA, HuffPost, Painter’s Table, Artweek.L.A, art ltd and Art Agenda. In the 90s Barrie wrote for Artspace, Art Issues, Artweek, Visions andVernacular. She was born in New Zealand where she wrote a weekly newspaper art column for the New Zealand National Business Review and contributed to The Listener, Art New Zealand, AGMANZ, ANTIC, Sites and Landfall. She also conducted live interviews with artists for Radio New Zealand’s Access Radio. Barrie has written numerous essays for art gallery and museum catalogs including: Barbara Kruger (National Art Gallery New Zealand) and Roland Reiss ( Cal State University Fullerton). Barrie taught aesthetic philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, Art Center and Otis School of Art and Design. In New Zealand, Barrie was awarded three Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council grants and a Harkness grant for art criticism. Her feminist interventions are discussed in The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and an archive of her writing is held in The New Zealand National Library, Te Puna Matauranga Aotearoa.

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