Artist Hayv Kahraman’s “Gut Feelings” Exhibition Reviewed

28 March, 2022
Hayv Kahra­man, Unti­tled (detail), 2021. Oil on linen. Cour­tesy of the artist and Pilar Cor­rias, Lon­don (pho­to Fredrik Nilsen).


“Gut Feel­ings” is on view at The Mosa­ic Rooms, the non­prof­it art gallery and book­shop in Lon­don, until May 29th, 2022. Hayv Kahra­man will give a free online artist talk from Los Ange­les on April 7, 7 pm UK time. More info/RSVP.


Melissa Chemam


Provoca­tive, sym­bol­ic, heal­ing, fem­i­nist, the work of Iraqi Amer­i­can artist Hayv Kahra­man is pic­to­r­i­al, yet any­thing but ordi­nary. Kahra­man, who iden­ti­fies as Kur­dish, fled the U.S. occu­pa­tion of Iraq, first for Swe­den, then the Unit­ed States. She has called Los Ange­les home for the past 17 years. As The Mosa­ic Rooms cura­tor points out of “Gut Feel­ings,” “the artist delves into sci­en­tif­ic research to sit­u­ate the effects of trau­ma in the body and to inves­ti­gate method­olo­gies of phys­i­cal heal­ing and care.”

Kahra­man her­self explains: “I was clean­ing out my mother’s belong­ings and found a book titled Neu­rosculpt­ing. Did you know that you have the abil­i­ty to phys­i­o­log­i­cal­ly recre­ate new neu­ropath­ways in your brain, to re-sculpt, to unlearn and relearn? Now imag­ine what that means for a refugee.

“I think about my own expe­ri­ences as an Iraqi who fled the war to Swe­den, and can’t help but notice an insid­i­ous regur­gi­ta­tion of pain that cir­cu­lates in the migrant com­mu­ni­ties I belong to.”

“Play Dead” (2021). Oil on linen. 80 x 60 inch­es. Cour­tesy of  Hayv Kahra­man and Pilar Cor­rias (pho­to Fredrik Nilsen).

Her “Gut Feel­ings” series occu­pies three rooms in order to tell us a sto­ry, and to take the view­ers on a jour­ney, a cycle of healing.

In the first room, the main paint­ing rep­re­sents four women try­ing to con­trol or untan­gle mauve ropes linked by knots, in posi­tions that can remind one of a dance, a rit­u­al or even a day at the laun­dry. The ropes vague­ly resem­ble sheets that would have been twist­ed tight­ly and attached togeth­er. The women are depict­ed almost naked, only cov­ered with white-dot­ted black panties, and on their haunch­es, bat­tling with the ropes, which seem to have some ener­gy of their own.

The sym­bol­ism goes deep: Could the ropes be ser­pents? Cords of attach­ment? Neur­al path­ways? Bits of DNA? Intestines? The women’s hair — usu­al­ly paint­ed vivid­ly in deep dark black in most of Kahraman’s pre­vi­ous paint­ings, are here cov­ered in cloth made of the same light pink mate­r­i­al… The piece is titled “Entan­gle­ments with Tor­shi”. On the oppo­site side of the room, glass jars are aligned on three dif­fer­ent raw of shelves, con­tain­ing pick­led veg­eta­bles — tor­shi, in Iran­ian-Iraqi cui­sine – of the same, only brighter, mauve color.

With these ele­ments, Hay Kahra­man said she want­ed to exper­i­ment on the rela­tions between our bod­ies and “oth­er­ness.” This explo­ration takes the form of a depic­tion of female bod­ies inter­act­ing with micro-organ­isms. Whether vital bac­te­ria trav­el­ling through the bod­ies, or hor­mones, for the artist they rep­re­sent the “colonist” nature of micro­bi­ot­ic life, its for­eign­ness to the human body yet its vital neces­si­ty. This allowed her to com­pare virus­es and oth­er bac­te­ria inside of us to the refugees, out­casts and oth­er for­eign­ers in our soci­eties: too often labelled as par­a­sites, aren’t they on the con­trary vital to human survival?

In the sec­ond room, the paint­ings rep­re­sent sim­i­lar women but sur­round­ed by black ropes, resem­bling chains. Most of the women have their hair uncov­ered this time, black but tight­ened up. In one solo por­trait, the lady is dressed, and the ropes are enter­ing her bel­ly via a large cir­cled hole; she seems to be guid­ing the ropes, even more entan­gled that in the pre­vi­ous room. In a series of three paint­ings, women deal with a sim­i­lar rope enter­ing their body through their mouth. In the most strik­ing paint­ing, a woman is crouched again, and pours some of the mauve liq­uid over her head while sur­round­ed by the black entan­gled knots of the rope. 

For the artist, these black knots rep­re­sent the beliefs forced­ly fed to peo­ple through civ­i­liza­tion. Titled “Neu­ro­Bust” — a ref­er­ence to the expres­sion “myth bust­ing” —one of the series tries to rep­re­sent the “colo­nial ways of think­ing” that have haunt­ed the Mid­dle East for decades. “Play Dead” alludes to the induced trau­ma linked to con­fine­ment, Kahra­man explained. A few more ele­ments are exhib­it­ed, with notes and sketch­es from the artist, show­ing the process behind this project.

The final room, down­stairs, exhibits the resolv­ing pieces. Paint­ed on flax fibers, cre­at­ed after the artist con­duct­ed some research on bac­te­ria and micro­bio­me, they dis­play her efforts to “learn from the microbes.” She again reflects on the West­ern pop­u­lar cul­ture that sees bac­te­ria and microbes as dirty, for­eign, inva­sive, if not hos­tile, while biol­o­gy actu­al­ly proves that they are key ele­ments of sur­vival and life. Two of the women here appear to be weav­ing their own hair into a black entan­gled rope, becom­ing a giant knot, from which it is mul­ti­ply­ing itself into threads, almost like a spider’s web. Anoth­er female fig­ure does the weav­ing from a rope exit­ing her pierced belly.

“Entan­gle­ments With Tor­shi,” 2021, cour­tesy Hayv Kahra­man and Pilar Cor­rias (pho­to Fredrik Nilsen).

Hayv Kahra­man described this process as a metaphor for deal­ing with dif­fer­ent kinds of trau­ma. She also want­ed to decry the process in which, west­ern human­i­tar­i­an orga­ni­za­tions are using refugees’ expe­ri­ences of trau­ma in order to “com­pile” them as “port­fo­lios to build their case,” to file for asy­lum. “The sys­tem (human­i­tar­i­an, gov­ern­men­tal and social wel­fare agen­cies) requires the dis­play of pain,” she writes. “The more you are known to have suf­fered, the high­er the reward, cre­at­ing a per­ni­cious wound econ­o­my that keeps the refugees feel­ing stuck.”

Her paint­ings have often been filled with Islam­ic geo­met­ric pat­terns, but also styl­is­tic ref­er­ences to Japan­ese and Ara­bic cal­lig­ra­phy, art nou­veau, Per­sian minia­ture and Greek iconography.

The body, and espe­cial­ly the female body, is at the heart of her more recent explo­ration of the afore­men­tioned themes, dig­ging into research around trans-gen­er­a­tional trau­ma and post-colo­nial affects. The body is for her both an object and sub­ject to embody the artist her­self as much as a collective.

I first saw Kahraman’s work in an itin­er­ant show, “Still I Rise,” at Arnolfi­ni in Bris­tol, in Octo­ber 2019.

Her paint­ing “The Kawliya Dance” rep­re­sent­ed women from a Roma her­itage in Iraq, who were swept away in a danc­ing rit­u­al. The rit­u­al­is­tic moves, in their tra­di­tions, are sup­posed to wash away the pain and dis­crim­i­na­tion that their com­mu­ni­ty has been fight­ing for decades, if not cen­turies. The beau­ty of the paint­ing on wood, the live­li­ness of the move­ments, the sym­bol­ic pow­er of female hair in these paint­ing were as evoca­tive as the bod­ies and their microbes in these new ones, expres­sive and lib­er­at­ing for both the depict­ed women and the beholder.

“Gut Feel­ings” takes her approach to the next lev­el, with even greater his­tor­i­cal and polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance — and relata­bil­i­ty — in a world with mil­lions of refugees. The artist’s next explo­ration, “The Touch of Oth­er­ness,” will be exhib­it­ed at The Savan­nah Col­lege of Art and Design (SCAD), Savan­nah (2022) and ICA San Fran­cis­co, San Fran­cis­co (2023).


[Hayv Kahra­man in her Los Ange­les stu­dio, pho­to by Man­delit del Barco/NPR] Hayv Kahra­man was born in Bagh­dad, the Iraqi cap­i­tal, to Kur­dish par­ents, in 1981. Her paint­ings have for long dealt with “nar­ra­tive, mem­o­ry and dynam­ics of non-fix­i­ty found in dias­poric cul­tures” as the essence of her visu­al lan­guage. These are the prod­uct of her expe­ri­ence as an Iraqi refugee/émigré her­self, as she had to flee Iraq to Swe­den with her fam­i­ly dur­ing the Gulf War in 1991. She then stud­ied in Flo­rence, before mov­ing to the US. She now lives and works in Los Ange­les, California.

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