Exiled Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman on how real life inspired her newest exhibition

The work of exiled Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman addresses the violence inherent in the sounds of war, and also finds inspiration in the pictorial advice that was given to American troops.
Hayv Kahraman’s artwork Would You Like to Play 1, which is on show at The Third Line gallery. Courtesy The Third Line
Hayv Kahraman’s artwork Would You Like to Play 1, which is on show at The Third Line gallery. Courtesy The Third Line

Hayv Kahraman tells ­stories of a war-scarred childhood that are ­difficult to reconcile with the composed calmness she ­exudes.

Born in 1981 in Baghdad, the early years of her life were marked by instability. Her family moved around Iraq to escape the fighting and destruction, before fleeing to Sweden in 1992 where she lived until she moved to Italy to study art.

Kahraman’s years of displacement provide a useful window through which to view her latest body of work, Audible Inaudible, which is on show at Dubai’s The Third Line gallery.

“I grew up hearing the terrifying sound of the air-raid siren — I have memories of feeling so frightened that my life was ­going to end,” she says.

“It is connected to intense and extreme violence, and I have ­always wanted to do a body of work that deals with this. ­However, how to translate sound into image was always ­going to be a challenge.”

The catalyst came when she discovered a book by ­Martin Daughtry, an ethnomusicologist at NYU Abu Dhabi, called Listening to War: Sound, Music, Trauma and Survival in ­Wartime Iraq. In this scholarly ­publication, Daughtry refers to the body as an organism that can “shield” sounds, and ­Kahraman responds to that by altering the acoustic properties of her ­paintings.

She has taken soft, ­pyramid-shaped foam, of the type often used to soundproof rooms, and inserted it into small, sliced sections of her work. “The sound waves hit the ­surface of the pyramid and it ­dissipates, therefore detaining the sound,” she explains. “It is ­interesting to me to create a painting that will ­physically alter the sound in whatever environment it is hung in.”

The content of Kahraman’s work is deeply intriguing. During her research, she found laminated instruction cards produced by the United States government and given to the ­soldiers on the ground in Iraq. Called Iraq Visual Language Translators, they are ­pictographic pamphlets that were designed to help with ­real-life scenarios, such as searching people for weapons, trading those weapons for ­money and even identifying a suicide bomber. They are bizarre and somewhat farcical, despite the apparent consideration that went into ­creating them.

The ways that Kahraman uses them in her work is ­fascinating. She took the stance of the ­cartoon-like figures in the cards and reproduced them in her paintings, which typically feature finely rendered, female figures who are often nude. Set against minimalist backgrounds, with muted tones, the paintings look beautiful and peaceful, completely belying their violent roots — which is ­exactly what Kahraman is trying to achieve.

“Since I began producing work, it has been a conscious decision to take violent subject matter and use beauty as a decoy for both me and the audience,” she says. “It also has a lot to do with the way I grew up, learning how to adapt and survive in different environments.

“I worked hard to be more ­detached from my memories, and in that way found a way to deal with them and somehow be more connected to them at the same time.”

The final piece in the show is called Would you like to play? 1 and 2, which is made with ­magnet-mounted, hand-­painted wood sections displaying ­visuals that also came from the tactical smart cards. The octagonal pieces of wood have been meticulously illustrated with geometrical patterns, red splashes suggestive of blood, and various symbols and female figures in different positions — the latter two taken directly from the cards. Visitors can rearrange the symbols to their own desires, adding a new interactive level to the work.

• Audible Inaudible runs until October 22 at The Third Line. Visit www.thethirdline.com

aseaman@thenational.ae

Published: September 25, 2016 04:00 AM

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