Spotlight: Hayv Kahraman

Her art examines the horrors of war and the Iraqi culture in which she grew up, but most of all, it sheds light on what it means to be a woman. Inspired by Art Nouveau, Japanese prints, Persian miniature painting and fashion iconography, Hayv Kahraman’s paintings are, at once, an exploration of how the artist sees herself and an extension of how her consciousness envelops the collectivity of women she portrays. She is one, but she is all – each woman she renders is a self-portrait.


Hayv Kahraman - Levelled Leisure (2010), oil on linen
Hayv Kahraman – Levelled Leisure (2010), oil on linen

At times, Kahraman’s art turns abruptly violent, like in her drawings depicting honor killings – women hung in trees for having brought shame on their families. Most of the time, however, the oppression she explores is related to the lengths women have to go in order to feel part of society, by embracing the beauty aesthetics dictated by fashion.


Hayv Kahraman - Three Women Hanging (2008), sumi on paper
Hayv Kahraman – Three Women Hanging (2008), sumi on paper

There is a sense of commiseration in these paintings, women bonding over their constant, arduous efforts to conform. It’s another kind of death, just not as graphic, physical and sudden as an honor killing.


Hayv Kahraman - Hold Still (2010), oil on linen
Hayv Kahraman – Hold Still (2010), oil on linen


Hayv Kahraman - Appearance of Control (2010), oil on mobile panels
Hayv Kahraman – Appearance of Control (2010), oil on mobile panels

Prompted by a Facebook quiz she came across one night, her series of paintings How Iraqi are you? depicts women listening and conversing, illustrations accompanying the text of gruesome war anecdotes, which mix despair with dark humor. Perhaps it is a reference to women’s passivity, since they’re never the subject themselves of these anecdotes. Or better yet, it’s a remark on how women are not to blame for wars and endless violence. Nevertheless, this juxtaposition between the women the artist presents and the war-related texts creates a great dissonance that leaves viewers wondering. For this series Kahraman resorted to her childhood memories of growing up during the Iran – Iraq War, but the message she delivers is just as relevant today.

Hayv Kahraman - Curfew (2015), oil on linen
Hayv Kahraman – Curfew (2015), oil on linen

“Curfew” text translation: A man joins the security forces in Iraq. He is given a gun and tasked to enforce a curfew at 11 pm, and to shoot anyone out at that time. At 10 pm, he sees a man and shoots him. His superior asks him why, as it is not yet 11. He replies, ‘oh, I know that man – there’s no way he would have been home in time, anyway’.

You can read more about the creation process and inspiration for How Iraqi are you? in this REORIENT Magazine article.

Artist website:

18 thoughts on “Spotlight: Hayv Kahraman

  1. Wow. Her work is striking. I love the neutral tones and soft colors and patterns. But there’s something so opaque about the activities. It seems so tranquil and ritualistic and also uneasy and stiff. Even the hanging picture. The women in that picture have the same posture, the same gestures, as the other ones. What a wonderful artist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, she achieves some interesting effects. The curvature and fluidity of the lines give the artworks a certain buoyancy and grace which are at odds with the weighty topics being tackled. There is also this constant aggression of the body, in subtler or more dramatic ways.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Thank you, your words mean a lot. I’m often wondering whether I write too formally or … sentimentally. I guess it ultimately depends on finding your right audience, so I’m lucky that way.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I try to think of it in terms of the truth that I see in the words. Do I sound like I believe in what I’m saying? Whether it sounds formal or sentimental is something that is ultimately decided by other people, and so it’s really incidental to whether or not you think you’ve fully expressed yourself in what you’ve said. That’s my feeling on it, anyways.

            Your writing sounds true to me, in the sense that it has a unique, beautiful style that brings the pictures alive for me, helps me see them with fresh eyes, which is what I think good art criticism should do.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Robert, I cannot thank you enough. You’re showering me with praise. To stick to one’s truth and only worry about that… that’s wonderful, sage advice. I sympathize with artists (and all creatives) because they’re putting their most vulnerable selves out there, having no idea how their art is going to be received. It takes a lot of courage to do that.

              I was having a conversation recently about how gigantic some of these artists’ egos are/were… and maybe that’s the flip side of withstanding so much criticism. Your approach sounds way better and healthier and I hope you’ll remember what you wrote here next time you’re in doubt. 😉

              Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful discovery from a country we don’t hear about enough when it comes to art, despite such a strong and unique tradition. Thank you, Gabriela.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love it when artists do that, using old techniques to illustrate modern ideas. She combines so effortlessly and eclectically these various Asian and Western inspirations and in the process achieves a universal appeal.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. How about a different opinion to all this touchy-feely stuff. I just see another artist from another country, another culture coming to the US (California is the place you oughtta be) and producing decorative work on cliche themes. Check out the work of Kathe Kollowitz for a woman artist who truly captures the oppression and terror of her generation and times. For my money, Kahraman is worthy to sharpen Kollowitz’s pencil.


    1. Well, different strokes for different folks. Kollwitz was an amazing artist, her prints are so hauntingly expressive and heartbreaking. I was planning on featuring her at some point.


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