Not Quite Human, a new exhibition of works by the Kurdish-Iraqi female artist Hayv Kahraman, will open tomorrow, September 5, at the prestigious Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. As one of the commercial exhibitions marking the beginning of the art calendar’s new year in New York, Kahraman’s work offers a unique perspective on the topics of gender and refugees—particularly as those concepts pertain to someone from the Middle East. She is also one of the few artists originally from the region to be shown frequently in New York.
Kahraman’s practice has been repeatedly applauded by collectors and critics alike for the wide range of the political and personal themes she tackles in her paintings. She confronts themes both personal to her experience as an Iraqi refugee—born in Baghdad, she was forced to leave Iraq in 1990 during the first Gulf War and came of age as a refugee growing up in Sweden—and as a woman now living in Los Angeles, navigating the assumptions placed on her by others in a post–9/11 world.
The themes she presents in her paintings embody a level of nuance from the experiences she has personally confronted from a young age, yet Kahraman’s artworks are never trite statements on these themes, but rather an assertive refutation of the mistaken ideas imposed on her and others like her.
The motivations behind her recent work include one now prevalent in the art world. “The most fundamental way I can describe it is women are second-class citizens,” she says. “I’m not approaching [my art] as a Middle Eastern woman, which is how Western audiences perceive me and assume that I was an oppressed Iraqi woman. I think it’s more specific than that. We all know that women are shown less and paid less in the art world, and therefore we’re fundamentally categorized as lesser beings.”
The exhibition’s title, Not Quite Human, serves as a double entendre to challenge the notion of “the Other,” a categorization that has been implicitly placed by the West on peoples who do not fall within standard notions of identity. Historically, it has been this act of “othering” individuals and histories that has resulted in the exclusion of personal narratives and histories from academic canons and global conversations.
The exhibition’s title can be read as a sarcastic response to this idea, asserting that, in fact, these subjects are indeed quite human. Kahraman’s work from the inception of her career has confronted this habit by Westerners who attempt to negate the emotional trauma and experiences of refugees, and even local audiences who attempt to deny societal transgressions of gender inequality. Thus, her work serves as both a personal outlet of expression but also as a conduit for highly charged topics that affect a multitude of individual and personal histories.
Not Quite Human showcases both large-scale paintings and small sculptural pieces with the stylized figurative female subject she has come to be known for, contorted into positions like nimble circus performers. In the past, she was forced to self-censor her art in the Middle East, being told she could not show work with naked figures or representations of female genitalia. Over the years, however, she has introduced her figures in positions and degrees of nudity that remain true to her own painterly aesthetic and objective.
The figures’ nudity and the detailed depiction of things such as body hair are not meant to titillate, but rather are honest expressions of the physical form. The subjects are posed into backhand stands, splits and other gymnastic feats. The legs, hands and shoulders of her subjects are contorted in her paintings, provoking a sensation of both great discomfort and wondrous curiosity.
Not Quite Human seems to riff on the notion of voyeuristic indulgence by viewers such as was found during a period of traveling “freak shows” once popular in the West. Today’s voyeurs are thus those who stand apathetically in the face of great crimes.
What is worth noting in Kahraman’s practice is that it constantly evolves. Her work is known for repeating geometric patterns and highly structured compositions of her figures, yet in her newest paintings, these figures have a fluidity and spontaneity unlike any of her previous work. Many of the show’s pieces had their canvases first primed and then repeatedly coated with rabbit-skin glue and then dry pigment, resulting in the incredible visual sensation of ocean water fluidly moving across the canvas. The flatness in the background and movement in the foreground is a contrast not seen before in her work. The figures thus also appear to be dancing in water, like synchronized swimmers.
“I enjoyed painting these,” Kahraman says. “I’m a very controlled artist, every paint stroke I do is completely thought through, but there was a lot of spontaneity in the production of these pieces and not knowing how things will come out.”
The human figure is central to Kahraman’s practice. Her recurring stylized female subject is repeated whole or in parts in almost all of her works. “The body carries the burden of the memory, memories become inscribed on the body—and that is political,” she explains. “How many people have lived through something like that?”
The subject of the paintings—with jet-black hair coiffed into a bouffant, creamy skin with rosy undertones, and pursed rosebud lips—doesn’t represent the artist herself literally, but rather elements of her life story while also being intended to represent all women.
“I don’t expect my audience to feel or think something specific,” Kahraman says. “My work is very personal, but I feel it’s part of a bigger history or collective. They’re intertwined because a lot of the personal is part of a larger history. I know a lot of artists object to inserting the self into the work, but I think the personal is political.
“It’s a Western academic belief that it’s best to not put yourself in the work, but it’s about what the viewer takes away visually from the artwork. For me I can’t separate myself from the work.”
Not Quite Human, a solo exhibition of works by Hayv Kahraman, will be on view from September 5 to October 26 at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York.