Iraqi-born artist Hayv Kahraman has blown away the world with her refined and virtuosic ability to tell a story. But what about her own story?
In a previous interview, you’ve said ‘I will always be a tourist wherever I go.’ That was six years ago – how has that changed now? Do you believe that the older you get, the stronger your affinity for Iraq grows?
That hasn’t changed much and I think that feeling applies to Iraq as well. My relationship with Iraq, “my homeland” is problematic since I left at a young age and so I wasn’t able to establish a strong link to the culture and life at large. My parents on the other hand, have decades of memories to replay and that is something I have always wanted to have. Perhaps the yearning to create a stronger affinity with Iraq is more relevant in my life right now since I am a new mother. My daughter was born in the United States and having her learn her heritage is important to me.
What have been the reactions from Middle-Eastern women to your work? And what have been the reactions from Iraqi people to your work?
It was interesting seeing the different impressions people had during the opening of How Iraqi are you? Many Iraqi’s braved the NY cold to come see the show. They expressed an intimate relationship with the works as we shared the same memories – a collective memory, of war in a distant country that was once our home. They wanted me to add more paintings to the collection as they told me stories and idioms they remembered using back in the day. And there was a glimpse of pride in their voices as they saw their colloquial Arabic written on a canvas in a New York gallery. In terms of feedback from Middle Eastern women, so far they have been positive and many identify with the works.
Being of an Iraqi Kurdish background, you and/or your family must have experienced persecution from the Ba’ath party. In what way has that influenced your work?
Yes that’s correct. My parents were persecuted in many ways. My mom was interrogated once and my father was pressured to teach a certain way (he was a university professor). I only experienced this once in school during our “Wattania” class. This is a class introduced into Iraqi schools in 1978 by Saddam and the Ba’ath party. It taught the politics of Iraq and the region from the perspective of the Ba’ath party. One day the teacher handed out a test. One of the questions read: “circle the correct word; is Iraq a democracy or a dictatorship?” I was 9 or 10 years old then and didn’t know the difference between the words. Ironically I circled dictatorship and was called in after class, given an extensive lecture by the teacher on how I even dared to say that and of course hit with a ruler. I now understand that it wasn’t the teacher’s fault as she was pressured to do/act this way by the government. This memory has manifested into a work part of the series “How Iraqi are you”. (See attached image “Wattania Class”)
I myself have had a similar story to yours. Having fled Baghdad (as a result of Ba’ath persecution) with my family in 1997, I moved to London. Now I’m beginning to learn how to read and write Arabic. For your most recent exhibition, How Iraqi are you? You also had to relearn how to write Arabic yourself. Could you tell us about that?
The texts in the works of How Iraqi are you? are personal memories from growing up in Baghdad as well as tongue twisters, aphorisms, and stories of existing as a refugee in Sweden all in which are written in colloquial Arabic (Iraqi). The works are based on the 13th century Baghdadi illuminated manuscripts or more specifically “Maqamat al Hariri” that narrated the everyday life of an Iraqi at the time. I wanted to use that idea and think of it from the perspective of todays Iraqi immigrant. The process of writing the text in the works became somewhat performative for me and very much part of the work itself since I was actively relearning how to write. The calligraphy in the Maqamat is that of the “Naskh” which is a slightly looser type often written while being narrated and in the Koran. As I drew inspiration from that, I still didn’t want to copy blindly. I took my time to examine the original text in the manuscripts, each letter, the thickness of the stroke, the shape and the angle. I was re-learning how to write my language as well as read and speak my mother tongue. The tongue that I had/have grown to forget and not use anymore. The tongue I regret not have continued to learn. I look at these Arabic letters with estranged eyes now. I was exported and so was my language. But it’s also my fault for not having kept it alive. I was too busy learning the western language and training my eyes to adapt to English letters. I can now see these Arabic letters from the perspective of an American or a Swede and that terrifies me. It makes me want to reiterate them, paint them, write them, re-learn them and re-memorize them: recover them. I am on the search for recapturing my amputated mother tongue. At age 34 I am searching for my 9 year old self that spoke and wrote fluent Arabic.
I’ve shown How Iraqi Are You? to some of my family members who are also living in London. They found it really interesting how you managed to capture some very specific Baghdadi colloquialisms and sayings. Do you remember these sayings from your childhood or did you have to research them?
I’m glad you showed them to your family! I’m always in search for aphorisms and collective memories. This series has become somewhat of an archiving process for me so if you think of anything do share!
Back to your question, yes they are personal. I remember singing them, saying them and living them. Words like “Ummodach” (that translates to a swear word and is accompanied by a hand gesture) that is now appropriated in Swedish schools among kids of diverse ethnicities; this of course due to the large influx of Iraqi refugees in Sweden. Or political sayings that we used to sing as kids in school.
Are there any future projects from you that we can look forward to?
At this point I am still working on this series, collecting aphorisms and stories. I will be showing more works in Dubai in the fall and look forward to engaging with that side of the world.
All images obtained at the courtesy of the artist