ARTS & CULTURE

An Exile From Iraq Paints Herself Into Ancient Manuscripts

03/06/2015 09:05 am ET | Updated Mar 17, 2015

Hayv Kahraman was in her fourth grade history class in Baghdad when the question was asked: Is Iraq a democracy or a dictatorship? Not knowing what either word meant, she guessed “dictatorship.” This proved to be the wrong choice, no matter how right the answer was: the next day she was punished with a ruler in front of the other students.

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Wattania, by Hayv Kahraman. cCurtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

In her new series, "How Iraqi Are You?," the Iraqi-born painter explores the title question by mining past experiences like the story above. Modeled after Arabic illuminated manuscripts, the series draws specific inspiration from Maqamat al Hariri, a canonical 12th century text describing the everyday life of Iraqis of the time.

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The word 'Kachakchi' in the Iraqi dialect means smuggler and is used in terms of smuggling goods and people, as for example smuggling them illegally outside their country. Caption reads: They made us fake passports and took us in a group to Sweden. Photo and caption courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Using photographs of herself as the models for all the subjects depicted, Kahraman illustrates vignettes from her actual life, captioned with explanations. This story includes her time in Sweden, where her family eventually fled after leaving Iraq. Here she was given a personnummer, the Swedish identification number assigned to every citizen. This exchange provides the basis for one of Kahraman’s more slapstick images, capitalizing on a bit of accidental wordplay linking the Swedish institution with an Iraqi word for female genitalia.

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"When you arrive to Sweden you are given a personal identity number 'person nummer.' That is pronounced “peshoon nummer.” In the Iraqi dialect peshoon means vagina." Caption and photo courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

The vignettes aren’t wholly funny or sad, serious or casual. They are in a state of limbo, like the immigrant herself.

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"'In Swedish class.' The teacher asked me to describe my home in Baghdad so I wrote 'vihade horor I trädgården.' Horor means prostitutes in the Swedish language while hönor means chickens." Caption and photo courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

In the exhibit literature the curator Octavio Zaya finds meaning in the porcelain skin of Kahraman’s figures, which recall Renaissance paintings and Japanese portraiture. Kahraman paints her characters “without background or specific context, amid a flux of meanings and words, neither here nor there,” Zaya writes. In this way she captures the blurring of self that redefines immigrants. Her women are losing and gaining knowledge, “as if,” Zaya continues:

“in the diaspora, these figures would have reached a moment where they viewed themselves as non-different, as the passersby who do not stand out, who only retain from the past the little, unassuming, perfectly safe secrets and mysteries of the mother tongue, its games and pleasures.”

Hayv Kahraman's work is currently on view at the Armory Show 2015. "How Iraqi Are You?" can be seen at the Jack Shainman Gallery in Manhattan through April 4. For more on the exhibit, visit the gallery’s website.

  • Ummo-doch
    Is a hand gesture indicating whomever its aimed to as ignorant, now commonly used in Swedish schools among children of all ethnicities. Photo and caption courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
  • Broken Teeth
    Bush climbed up a mountain like a pussycat up came Saddam the hero and broke his teeth. Writes Kahraman: "I remember that I used to sing this when I was a child in school." Photo and caption courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
  • I have a Nabog fruit, you have a Nabog fruit. I give you from my Nabog fruit, you give me from your Nabog fruit. If my Nabog fruit is tastier, I give you from my Nabog fruit. If your Nabog fruit is tastier, you give me from your Nabog fruit. Writes Kahraman: "I remember singing this when I was a child in school and we had this Nabog tree in our garden in Baghdad." Photo and caption courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
  • Barboug / Barabeeg
    Barboug “a broken earthenware jar” that never sinks. This is one of the witty aphorisms in the middle and southern parts of Iraq. Barboug is used metaphorically in the collective consciousness as a term to denigrate women. The thirteenth century poet Al-Bahaa Zuhair refers to the word in his line: “No wonder he escaped unharmed as barbougs typically stay afloat.” It generally refers to the woman who is saucy and sharp-tongued or the one who is defiant and stirs up trouble. Photo and caption courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
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