Raw energy captured in Gut Feelings, a set of works by contemporary Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman, is guaranteed to stay with you for a while. The artist’s new series of paintings features female figures entangled in large masses of dark forms resembling bowels. These dark forms, which are spilling from the stomachs and mouths of the figures, seem to overpower, strangle or suffocate the women. According to the artist these organic-looking objects can be seen either as intestines or neural pathways.
Kahraman’s artworks stand out due to their idiosyncratic aesthetics. Paintings featured in this exhibition have plain backgrounds with single figures or figurative compositions. The figures are in contorted poses as they struggle with the invading objects. Characteristically for the artist, stylised pale faces of nude or almost nude female figures are contrasted with thick black eyebrows and hair and intensely red lips. Kahraman’s style is influenced partially by the manuscript illuminations of the 12th century Baghdad School. No face is ever the same, they exhibit a variety of emotions.
Kahraman’s artworks are multilayered. In the Untitled (2021) shown below two female figures wearing pink head coverings and pink underwear are trying to free themselves from a tangled net of black shapes. But there is order among the chaos, as the knot arrangements echo the symmetry of geometric designs often encountered in Islamic art.
Displayed nearby is a triptych titled NeuroBust, in which the figures in the form of busts appear to be choked by hostile intruders. There is an element of sexual violence in these works, but they can also also refer to the concept of force-feeding of ideas.
Stumbling upon a book titled ‘Neurosculpting’, which she found among her mother’s belongings, inspired the artist to look at a theory according to which humans can physiologically re-create new neural pathways in their brains. This would allow a person to unlearn and re-learn. It struck Kahraman as an extremely powerful concept for refugees whose lives are affected by trauma.
In the works displayed in this exhibition Kahraman also investigated the benefits of bacteria on our health and well-being, hence the play on words Gut Feelings. Bacteria, commonly seen as something undesirable and ‘foreign’, is essential to our body and our immunity system. Entanglements with torshi (2021) is complemented by an installation of jars of pickled beetroot arranged on shelves. The artist used juice from beetroot pickle (torshi) to achieve the vivid purple colour in this painting.
Trying ‘to learn from the microbes’, the artist also made a series of paintings using flax fibres for her handmade canvases, a new medium for Kahraman. Displayed in low light, mounted on the wall or suspended from the ceiling, these unravelling canvases have a strong presence.
Many of the artist’s works are exploration of what it means to be a woman in the world where patriarchy sets the rules, and what it means to be the ‘Other’, a migrant, a refugee in our seemingly post-colonial world. Themes in Kahraman’s work include gender, identity, trauma and also otherness from the point of view of a refugee like the artist herself. Kahraman was born in Iraq in 1981 but during the war she and her family had to flee to Sweden. She now lives and works in Los Angeles.
Hayv Kahraman. Gut Feelings is on display at the Mosaic Rooms, London from 25 February until 29 May 2022.
Exhibition website: https://mosaicrooms.org/event/hayv-kahraman-gut-feelings/
The artist’s website https://hayvkahraman.com/