THE THIRD LINE: How Iraqi are you?

The latest in our partnership with The Third Line, a gallery in Dubai, showcases the work of Hayv Kahraman, an Iraqi-born artist living in California whose work explores the immigrant experience and a yearning to reconnect with her home culture.

Born in Baghdad in 1981, Hayv Kahraman and her family fled to Sweden during the Gulf War of 1990-91. Now based in Los Angeles, the artist uses her ambivalent feelings towards her homeland – both yearning for it and disconnected from it – as fruitful material in her art.

Referencing 12th-century manuscripts depicting daily life in Baghdad, her How Iraqi Are You? series uses a distinctive visual vocabulary – including the characteristic women with sharp features and voluminous hairstyles – to tell real and invented stories of her childhood in Iraq and her family’s escape. 

Like the manuscripts that inspired the work, the art uses text to advance the story – black for narration and red for commentary. The text has a symbolic role, reflecting Kahraman’s desire to rediscover her mother tongue. 

Through words, she conveys a range of thoughts from personal memories to tongue-twisters, aphorisms, idiomatic Iraqi phrases and stories of existing as a refugee in Sweden.

Kahraman’s influences come from various places. The title of the work Test Your Iraqiness, for instance, comes from an online test Kahraman found on social media. Questions asked in the test included “You know you’re Iraqi when someone says the word Baghdad – everyone cries.” The content ranged from funny and sad to political.

The Translator, meanwhile, is inspired from Kahraman’s mother’s experience as a translator between incoming refugees and aid workers in Sweden. In the middle of trying to resolve a conflict, one of the new migrants asked, “Are you with us or with them?” It was a difficult and unsettling question.

Kahraman delights in linguistic parallels. Her Name Is Gun is a play on words: Gun is a weapon in the English language, but in Swedish it is a common name for a woman and in Kurdish it means testicles. Her bleak sense of humour is also visible in Fortune Game, an object that resembles the games children play to tell each other’s fortunes. Under each flap is inscribed the name of a country that is often the destination of immigrants and asylum seekers from the Middle East. Of the countries listed, Sweden and the UAE can be seen written in Arabic.

Kahraman is a graduate of the Academy of Art and Design in Florence, Italy. She has exhibited her work at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, the Frey Norris Gallery in San Francisco and the Sharjah Biennial, among others. Her work is in the collections of the Rubell Family in Miami, the Saatchi Gallery in London, the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah, the American embassy in Baghdad and Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha. 

The Third Line is a Dubai-based art gallery that represents contemporary Middle Eastern artists locally, regionally and internationally. It also hosts non-profit, alternative programmes to increase interest and dialogue in the region.

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