Hayv Kahraman’s Art of Displacement

Besides being an unapologetic art lover, I primarily identify as a traveler–I’m compulsively scouting the best deals to far-off places and dreamily flipping through guidebooks in my (sparse) downtime to plan my next adventure. Like many travelers, I acquire souvenirs along the way in order to make these trips last, in my mind, long after I return. My home is a mishmash of Balinese masks, Masai spears, Turkish coffee pots, and Indian textiles.
Hayv Kahraman, Kawliya 1, 2014, oil on linen, 96 x 48 in., Purchased with funds from the bequest of Fannie and Alan Leslie, by exchange

Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman is a traveler, too, and it is her personal history–particularly her family life and travel memories–that most inform her paintings, which become souvenirs of her own experiences. The NCMA’s Kawliya 1 (a work acquired only recently, in 2014) is a wonderful example of Kahraman’s biographical and literal journey.

Kahraman was born in Bagdad in the early 1980s. Her family fled Iraq in the midst of the upheaval of war in 1992, when the artist was 10 years old. They found refuge in Sweden, where Kahraman spent her formative years before moving to Florence, Italy, to study graphic design. She has been living in the United States since 2006 and currently settles in San Francisco between her international travels.
This worldwide movement and displacement has allowed her to be exposed to different artistic influences, many of which she references in her works: the dark, thick hair of her figure in Kawliya 1 reveals her fascination with the portrayal of women in Japanese scroll painting, and their graceful but unnaturally long necks reflect the Renaissance and mannerist masterpieces that surrounded her while studying in Italy. Her time-consuming mode of working also has a European basis, as she opts to size her stretched linen and canvas works with a thin layer of rabbit-skin glue before applying paint to its unprimed surface, a method she learned from traditionally trained Italian artists and conservators. Lastly, her familiarity with Persian miniatures and Arabic calligraphy–artist languages closely linked to Kahraman’s birthplace–fills in remaining gaps, as do Islamic mosaic work and tessellations, which inspire her textile patterns.

These visual amalgams–artist references collected and combined from around the world–have become synonymous with Kahraman’s thoughts about her own story:

“When I went [back] to Iraq, I felt like a tourist. In Sweden I’m a tourist, and living here [in the USA] I am definitely a tourist.”

And like a tourist, Kahraman provides viewers with a figurative snapshot of the places she’s been, the people she has met, and the art that inspired her along the way, displayed beautifully in her unique, personal paintings.

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