Hayv Kahraman’s current solo exhibition at Jack Shainman, How Iraqi Are You?, is captivating. A suite of large paintings, produced in 2014 and 2015, show pairs and groups of women in patterned garments interacting with each other in minimal settings. Context is provided by simple architectural forms, and by Arabic script that appears under or alongside the figures. Text from the gallery explains that the works depict “memories from Kahraman’s childhood in Baghdad and as a refugee in Sweden.”
Formally and technically, the work is incredibly satisfying. The scale of the paintings gives the women ample room to inhabit a universe of their own, and the rich colors of the oil paint work beautifully against the dull tan of the unprimed linen. Kahraman’s use of negative space in the patterning of the women’s garments is attractive in the original sense of the word; I found myself moving closer and closer to each painting in order to experience the play between flatness and dimensionality. The brushwork, too, is masterful—though it is applied to slubbed raw linen, each stroke’s edge is surprisingly crisp and sure, even in the delicate lines that form the Arabic script. The artist’s marks are at their most confident at the perimeter of the women’s hair, where the paint is dry-brushed into airy swoops that give the figures a self-assured grace. It’s clear that Kahraman knows her materials and techniques, and she employs them both to marvelous effect.
The figures of the women are suggestive, and point to references as diverse as Persian miniatures, ukiyo-e prints from Japan, and John Singer Sargent’s Madame X. With their bare, rounded shoulders and graceful hands, they seem poised to seduce, and yet they are completely engaged in their own affairs and thus devoid of affectation and coyness. Most don’t acknowledge the viewer—or when they do, the gaze is direct and the expression is indifferent. Arguably, these figures are interchangeable (the artist photographed herself as a reference for each woman, so they all have the same lithe bodies, thick eyebrows, and lambent eyes), but rather than clones, they are like sisters; because their expressions and postures are subtly different, they display an array of distinct personalities, from playful and wily to demure, serious, and fierce. Additionally, their intricately patterned clothing implies that the women are merely ornamental, but this is belied by their total absorption in each other and in the social space that they have created.