Following the first Gulf War, the artist Hayv Kahraman fled Iraq with her family at the age of 11, immigrating to Sweden with her mother and sister and living in a refugee camp by the way of Ethiopia, Yemen and Germany. She then attended the Academy of Art and Design in Florence, studying traditional Renaissance techniques and later pursuing web design at Sweden’s University of Umeå. Upon moving to Arizona in 2006, Kahraman’s childhood memories of growing up during the Iran-Iraq war and the psychological problems of living in a diaspora poured out of her and onto her works on tightened linen. The artist’s oeuvre captures the plight of women’s struggle in the Middle East, focusing specifically on their identity formation that is both internally and externally overburdened within their own culture by a cycle of war and violence. The artist narrates these stories gracefully through her beautifully poetic paintings, with a technique that merges past and present painterly and cultural traditions that harken to Persian and Chinese miniatures, Japanese prints, the Renaissance, Art Nouveau’s symbolism and European surrealism. Channeling this into the presentation of her works, she explores the plasticity of her media media, experimenting with linen, threads, and palm tree fronds among others, in sculptures, painting and performance.
The use of female subjects in her work are oftentimes depicted floating within an empty space in the composition, dislocated and depending on each other to carry themselves, as if they were puppets held up by strings and manipulated by their masters. Taking the main framework of the female body from her own, she poses in various positions in her studio, transposing these this into sketches, and ultimately paintings. These multi-layered, emotionally powerful women uphold a graceful demure, with swanlike bodily features that include milky-white skin tones, elongated black hair and red lips. Using the body as a vehicle to explore difficult, harsh and extremely violent subjects, Kahraman depicts these women’s faces and bodies as themselves erased, dislocated or dismembered, a painful symbol of the loss and displacement she has felt since fleeing Iraq.
Appearance of Control appeared in Kahraman’s first solo exhibition, ‘Pins and Needles’ (2010) at the Third Line Gallery, highlighting the ‘Beauty Myth,’ driven by unrealistic standards of beauty reinforced by media, and as manifested in the depicted ritualized beauty procedures with her signature large-scale paintings and sliding puzzle works. In other works for this series, one striking woman burns her breast with an iron, another, five women are balancing on stilts, drawing with markers on their bodies to prepare for cosmetic surgery. The scene is depicted so innocently as if children are drawing on their faces during recess. In the present lot, four women are communally participating in the process of hair removal, a procedure commonly practiced throughout the world but with a heavy emphasis in the Middle East in order for women to maintain their attractiveness. Whether related, or the same women repeated, the women appear in different positions, changing roles of receiver and performer of the ritual as they self-mutilate different parts of their bodies. Hair is a contested category in both Eastern and Western cultures, entirely dependent on physical the location of the hair on the body. Naturally, women find beauty in their hair, and within society’s standards, long, flowing hair is beautiful, while women without any hair is considered as a loss of one’s feminine identity, as opposed to the hair found on their arms and legs that should be removed. As the artist states: ‘[Hair] is a very prominent thing in my work because of the contrast, formally speaking. My work is very subjective, it’s about my life, my family, people around me, [and] it’s something we talk about within our groups of women, we talk about hair, and how to remove the hair, and in that removal, what are you removing and why are you removing it? For whom are you removing it?’ (Kahraman in conversation with Amid Memarian, Huffington Post, Art in the Territory of Excellence: Hayv Kahraman’s Celebration of Memory, Femininity, and Liberation, 24 December 2017)
Kahraman places this act of hair removal as a communal activity, exposing this normally very isolating and individual experience instead as a time for women to bond, as these four women interweave their bodies and activities together, embracing each other with a sense of liberation. Kahraman is interested in how their constraints and expectations are framed, not only in addressing how they impact women’s lives, but how it formulates the complex relationship women have with their own bodies since childhood.
The four women appear as part of a 23-piece sliding puzzle game, their bodies are dissected by the physical lines of the (dimension) wooden pieces, and should the viewer choose to move the pieces around, as which the artist suggests as part of the work, the work becomes a complex amalgam of hands, arms and faces that are dislocated, added, removed or enhanced by a game, becoming a larger platform to show the endless cycle of reaching an unattainable ideal. Just as the sliding puzzle modifies the women’s body forms, so does today’s consumer culture strive to achieve a modified, malleable body shape made possible by surgical procedures.
As the artist states on her decision to create her puzzle piece works: ‘Games are the first learning tools in a child’s life so inserting this sort of innocence and naivety that is then combined with the notion of the perishable flesh and how frail our bodies are, is the essence of these works. Each one of these paintings has a polarity of the plasticity and transfiguration of the flesh with the pretense and innocence of a child’s toys. The puzzles add another dimension to this all by creating a layer of separation and detachment to our flesh.’ (Honig, Ana, Essay for Exhibition Catalogue, Pins and Needles, Third Line Gallery, Dubai, 2010)
Kahraman examines this notion of beauty by using metaphors in both form and content, within feminist anthropology, inviting viewers in a playful game within a larger discussion on victimization and cultural confinement. As feminist scholars such as Angela Clark and Anne Sexton mention, fairytales help form women’s relationships with reality, invoking a conditioned beauty and behavioral standard for women’ self-evaluation and self-incrimination with society that places biological and cultural factors at opposite ends.