Hayv Kahraman’s Provocative New Paintings Express Trauma and Healing

Rawaa Talass
Mar 17, 2023 7:22PM

Portrait of Hayv Kahraman. Courtesy of the artist.

The Iraqi American artist Hayv Kahraman doesn’t have many vivid memories of her childhood, but there is one that stands out. Growing up in Baghdad during the Iran–Iraq War and the Gulf War, she remembers how her parents allowed her and her younger sister to freely paint the doors, ceiling, and walls of what they called the “play room” in their house.

“Saying to a nine-year-old that you can paint anywhere in this entire room, it was just everything,” she told Artsy from Los Angeles, where she is based. “Imagine living in a space where you can’t just be you. You have to be aware of everything around you, because if you’re not you can actually be killed. So to have that kind of freedom in that context was emancipatory. It meant a lot and I think that was the first push towards where I wanted to go.”

Installation view of Hayv Kahraman, “Gut Feelings: Part II,” at The Third Line, Dubai, 2023. Courtesy of The Third Line, Dubai.


She also recalls how she and her mother would dip their paint brushes into the colored and salty liquid of torshi (fermented pickled vegetables) and paint away on paper. That personal memory has been recreated on a larger scale as an installation on a wall, as part of her latest exhibition, “Gut Feelings: Part II,” at The Third Line in Dubai, now on view through March 24th (part one was held at The Mosaic Rooms, London, in 2022). The artist presents a selection of provocative paintings and drawings that tap into trauma and healing, expressed through figures literally grappling with the gut, an important organ that affects the human psyche.

In essence, the show was inspired by Kahraman’s late mother, who was a naturopath, studying natural ways of healing. “She had her own trauma. She was actively trying to heal,” said the artist.

In 2020, after her mother passed away in Sweden, where the family took refuge in 1992, Kahraman was clearing out her mother’s personal belongings when she found a book on a term she’d never heard of before: Neurosculpting. “It’s a science in which you can rewire the neural pathways in your brain,” explained Kahraman. “You actually have the ability to unlearn traumatic patterns or any difficulties you have endured, and then resculpt them.”

Kahraman found herself researching this eye-opening topic, leading to the gut, which is often dubbed as the “second brain.” The brain is connected to the gut, which is full of millions of neurons and its internal bacteria—though undesirable to most—“regulates the hormones that control our feelings,” according to exhibitions’s press release.

The artist said that she has found “an ally with germs,” tying them to the notions of difference and otherness, which have been part of her life experience. And so the gut became a central and symbolic motif in Kahraman’s new body of figurative paintings, depicted as entanglements—long, twisted lengths of intestines. Some are painted in black, whereas others are rendered using pale pink torshi liquid.

Working on this series for the past three years has been a cathartic experience for the artist, who herself has dealt with trauma, displacement, and violence from the age of 10 onwards. For Kahraman, picking up the paintbrush is a form of therapy and release, a way to work through what she had endured.

Fleeing Iraq at a young age, Kahraman and her family were refugees, who made their way to Sweden, thanks to fake passports provided by a smuggler. She tried to fit in in Swedish society, including bleaching her hair. Later, she found herself in the midst of an abusive marriage. “You carry that abuse silently in your body, but it came out in the work,” she said of her earlier pieces. “I could not see it at the time. I had some people come up to me and say, ‘Are you okay?’”

“Painting is the way that I speak,” Kahraman said. “This whole body of work started out to somehow, maybe naively, find some sort of utopian way to reach healing. But as I started making them, I started realizing it’s not about the endpoint, it’s really about the process of painting.…Finding joy in the process versus wanting to reach an end goal—that’s what I learned.…If there was any big lesson for me it was probably being present in these entanglements and being okay with that pain.”

In the paintings of “Gut Feelings: Part II,” displayed on The Third Line’s two floors, the viewer comes across a familiar female protagonist that has long been present in Kahraman’s oeuvre. She has black hair, sometimes a thick unibrow or a mustache, dressed in attire with delicate geometric patterns, a nod to the artist’s heritage. “I think it’s a way for me to be closer to home, but I do find that it brings structure to the painting,” she said. “In the recent work, a lot of the patterns are mostly inspired by Kurdish rugs that are woven by nomadic women. Each symbol has a meaning. A lot of the symbols that I’ve taken mean fertility, life, womanhood, love.”

Her work has also been inspired by illuminated manuscripts, Renaissance, and Persian miniature painting, as well as the Baghdad School of Miniature Paintings, stretching back to the 12th century.

The entanglements are created in a surreal manner, where they float atop the protagonist’s head (as seen in Brain wash, 2022) and come out of the mouth, as if to get it out of one’s system. Elsewhere, three women are pulling the entanglements from looming eyes, and octopus tentacles emerge from a woman’s breasts.

Installation view of Hayv Kahraman, “Gut Feelings: Part II,” at The Third Line, Dubai, 2023. Courtesy of The Third Line, Dubai.

“I don’t want to shock people. The objective is to communicate something,” Kahraman said. “Surreal is a good word to use, because now I feel like where I’m veering towards is trying to let more of whatever my hand is willing to produce.”

Separate from the paintings, a full wall is painted with torshi, filled with pink drippings, accompanied by glass jars of fermented beetroot. The display taps into how fermented foods are full of good bacteria that the gut requires. It is perhaps the most intimate part of the show.

“We wanted a space where entering into this show is entering into the inside of the body somehow. We wanted it to feel like a safe place,” Kahraman said. “We painted the entire wall and that was very cathartic and therapeutic. That’s a nice little circle: Starting out as a child in Baghdad painting with torshi with my mom. So, maybe it’s an homage to my mom.”

Rawaa Talass