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An Artist Reanimates the Sounds and Signs of the Persian Gulf War

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Hayv Kahraman, “Sound Wounds” (2016) (detail) (all images courtesy the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, all photos by Quincy Stamper)

SAN FRANCISCO — Memory has always fascinated Hayv Kahraman, and she looks for ways to explore it in her art. Kahraman, who left Iraq for Sweden with her family in 1991 to escape the Persian Gulf War, believes this question of what’s remembered particularly preoccupies those who have had to flee their homes.

“There’s that need to archive and remember and hold on to something that I feel is slipping through my fingers day by day,” she told Hyperallergic following her one-night performance at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. “It probably stems from being a refugee and having to have left my country.”

Kahraman, now based in Los Angeles, remembers air raid sirens vividly from her childhood in Iraq that provoked terror and the threat that she and her family and friends could be killed. She can still hear that sound.

“I’ve always wanted to do something with that,” she said. “This was kind of the perfect transition to a new body of work.”

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Hayv Kahraman, “Sound Wounds” (2016) (detail)

The result was “Sound Wounds,” performed at the Asian Art Museum late August, in which Kahraman invoked the war through sound and archival imagery. While conducting research for the project, she found a recording of the air raid siren. Although it made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, she listened to it over and over in her studio so that she could access her memories.

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A visitor interacting with Hayv Kahraman’s “Sound Wounds” (2016) at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (click to enlarge)

She also came across Iraqi “smart cards”: laminated pamphlets that were intended for troops to use as communication tools with Iraqis. The cards have little pictographs of, say, a man with bombs strapped to his body, or someone with his hands held over his head. Kahraman notes how odd it is to see violent images in the style of innocent illustrations. After selecting some of these images, she mimicked the figures by striking the same pose, photographed herself, and then created drawings based on the photographs, therefore substituting male figures with female ones.

For her performance at the museum, she brought four-inch wide octagonal magnets, painted with these images as well as geometric designs or images of explosions, and placed them on a board.

“I wanted to create something that was interactive,” she said. “The idea is the audience comes up to the piece and moves the octagons around, creating their own war scene.”

At the performance, after audience members lined up and donned white gloves to rearrange the octagons into a different pattern, five vocalists and a violinist would make the sound of the siren with their voices and instruments. The women, all dressed in black, stood in a circle, or walked to different corners of the room, or stood in a line, interpreting the arrangements on the boards, which were displayed on a projector on the wall. The music would speed up or slow down, become louder or softer, depending on the arrangement.

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The Bay Area’s Middle Eastern Ensemble in Hayv Kahraman’s “Sound Wounds” (2016) at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (click to enlarge)

The women are members of the Bay Area’s Middle Eastern Ensemble, Aswat. Kahraman, who used to sing with them, says many of the members are also refugees from countries like Syria and Lebanon, and they grew up hearing the siren.

“The idea is to have the vocalists transform the terrifying sound of the siren into music, and obviously there’s something very cathartic about that,” Kahraman said. “Really, that’s kind of what I do — I take these sort of visceral, violent scenes, and I transform them into something else.”

Kahraman sees her art as a constant questioning of what she experienced in her childhood and coming to terms with that violence. The women in her paintings represent her, she says, especially since they are based on photographs of her body. But she also sees her work as a collective portrait of other women who have dealt with war and become refugees.

“It’s almost like I’m building an army of women,” she said, laughing. “I love that.”

Hayv Kahraman performed “Sound Wounds” at the Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin St, San Francisco) on August 25. 

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