Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman’s stylistic works focus on what we do for beauty
Although she’s only 29, artist Hayv Kahraman’s tiny linen canvases are sparking interest because, like all of the best things in life, they’re stunning and substantive. With a clear influence from Japanese and Chinese art in their texture, line and colours, Renaissance art in terms of the figures, and Persian and Middle Eastern art in sentiment, they focus on the lengths women go to in order to beautify themselves.
Tell us about your process. With my linen works, I first coat the linen with rabbit-skin glue. It’s a bit brutal, I know, but it was used by the old masters and it prevents the paint from sinking in. I then do my sketching, which takes a few days if I already have a concept in mind – I do tiny compositional sketches first. Then I decide the colour scheme, whether dark or neutral. Then, finally, I start painting. [She explains that a mid-sized canvas takes a week to paint.]
All of the works focus on female beautification. Are they a critique of this process? It’s not my place to tell people what they’re doing is wrong, but we are all trying to aim for the utopian body. We have a fixation with immortality, which is doomed, because our bodies will age and decay. It’s more of a snapshot of what I see in the world around me.
The paintings feature everything from threading and waxing to mutilation of the body. Are you putting these in the same pot? There’s a polarity here: the aspects of body alteration that are voluntary, such as waxing and Botox, versus the involuntary or forced acts, such as female genital mutilation, which still happens in Northern Iraq [on a canvas showing women’s legs sewn together, right], and breast mutilation [a canvas showing a woman ironing her breast], which is happening as we speak in Cameroon. Women heat rocks on the fire and iron their four- to 12-year-old daughters’ breasts to suppress their femininity and protect them from being raped. For me, putting the toy iron in this canvas reflects how our bodies are like toy objects that we play with.
What do you want people to take from your work? I just want them to question the set gender differences and roles.
What’s next for you? I’m fascinated with toys and games, such as the puzzle canvases (moveable blocks) in this series and the playing cards from my last series. I also like questioning what constitutes gender, so I might play with these together.
Nationality: Iraqi. She spent her teenage years in Sweden, and parts of her adult life in Italy and the United States.
Price range of works: Dhs60,000-Dhs200,000.
She first knew she was an artist when… ‘I’ve always painted; growing up in Baghdad, my mum had a little room for my sister and I where we could fill all the walls with little drawings.’
She describes her work as… ‘A hybridisation of cultures, because that is me, as well as representing the struggle for justice, whether gender equality or anything else.’
Inspirations: ‘The entire world is an inspiration; maybe you just sitting here would be an inspiration. But in terms of genre it would be the Italian Renaissance and the Baroque – that’s where I draw the inspiration for my flesh – and then Islamic art and calligraphy and Persian miniature. In terms of contemporary artists, I love [Iranian visual artist] Shirin Neshat – she’s my icon. I met her last year and was so nervous!’
Aspirations: ‘I’m happy on my path right now. I want my work to be seen, but also to be able to paint all day and all night. The art world can be nasty, so I distance myself from that and try to focus on my work.’