Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 1 December 2020

Cruelty in the pursuit of beauty

The artist Hayv Kahraman's exhibition Pins and Needles explores the complicated relationship between women and the tyranny of the ideal.
Appearance of Control(2010). Oil on wooden panels (sliding puzzle).
Appearance of Control(2010). Oil on wooden panels (sliding puzzle).

Hayv Kahraman paints women in the style of Mughal miniatures of the reign of Shah Jehan, cut with the deftness of a Japanese Edo print.

But, while it retains the intricacy of those traditions, her new work is on a bigger scale. Ten beautifully formalised compositions depict what would be the charmed life of the royal court, were it not for the obsession with grooming that tips into the macabre with the startling introduction of crude implements of surgical torture scattered here and there about the boudoirs.

An Iraqi-born American, Kahraman has absorbed a classicist's aesthetic, but brings an experimental modernism to bear, both in her self-referential playfulness, and in the formal reduction of her pictures to a minimalist sparseness.

Her women look like Modiglianis, and have that melancholy serenity about them; plaintive, dreamy-eyed and ethereal in their suffering. They are glimpsed behind closed doors, sumptuously arrayed in harems; exquisite creatures wrapped in fine shawls and lounging on rugs.

Kahraman is a gifted colourist, and the chromatic scheme of her compositions is quite sublime: beiges and khakis, deep umbers and burnt siennas, set against blocks of black and green. But her figures are mostly caked in a haunting, waxen white.

At other times the flesh tones are left unpainted, so that the raw mahogany surface of the work speaks of the colour of the skin, in a move towards abstraction that pares back the technique to reveal its mechanics, so that the paintings become works in progress.

Elsewhere, the scoring of the surface paint with a knife, indenting a groove into the layers of patterned quilts and tapestries, comes as another experimental gesture, and a break with the tradition that imbues her work.

Depicting these beauties in camera, as it were, in their private chambers, these paintings are remarkable for the savage acts of cruelty they reveal. There's a sinister passive complicity among the women which at times can pass for tenderness as they engage in mutual grooming, combing each other's hair, plucking extraneous body follicles, waxing flanks before crossing the fine line into sadism. "It's about the maintenance of the body and the excesses this can lead to," says Kahraman. "We all do it. It's a personal dilemma."

The women languidly subject one another to unspeakable acts of mutual mutilation, compliantly branding and cutting themselves and each other, ostensibly in the name of beauty, or the social structure, or the demands of an overarching patriarchy. And so Kahraman's work becomes a feminist critique.

"I became interested in body alteration though African and Japanese art," she says. "Some of these gruesome practices are still going on, like the irons they use on their daughters in Saharan Africa, to suppress their femininity."

Women are strapped up in girdles and corsets to emphasise their waists, buckled or stuck on stilts so their legs look slim, in a fashion that at its worst, leads to Chinese foot-binding, or the frightening African breast irons the artist paints. And it gets darker still: private mutilations, breast reductions by hot iron and worse, the flesh of their thighs threaded and stitched by needle.

The masterpiece of the set, Appearance of Control, is a huge, sliding puzzle that achieves a kind of postmodernist abstraction by taking the efforts towards experiment one stage further. Its mahogany panels shift to effect a kind of kaleidoscopic displacement of limbs, their tessellating patterns moving in impossible surrealist contortions, like a Martin Escher staircase, but with the figures rendered with the sumptuousness of a Matisse.

"Surrealism started to become a big influence five or six years ago," says Kahraman. "I wanted to apply the background of Islamic art and calligraphy to the traditions of western Europe and the Renaissance, while introducing elements of the uncanny and bizarre. Depictions of games and play were a way of doing this."

Kahraman's pictures become playthings, like her women. But her tone sustains an outrage all the more powerful for its control. Hers is a deliberative observation of women being wronged, and women enlisted as agents to perpetuate these wrongs. These are unflinching depictions of women enslaved to the foibles of the beauty myth.

Counterpointing the sharpness of her detail, Kahraman's political agenda can be blunt, but that only makes the images more arresting. She is a young artist, and it's an exhilarating achievement.


Hayv Kahraman, Pins and Needles, The Third Line Gallery, until December 1.

Updated: November 3, 2010 04:00 AM

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