Interviews

Meet LA’s Art Community: Hayv Kahraman Is Examining What It Means to Be “Immune”

An interview series spotlighting some of the great work coming out of Los Angeles. Hear directly from artists, curators, and art workers about their current projects and personal quirks.

Hayv Kahraman (2019) (image courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery)

Welcome to the 28th installment of Meet LA’s Art Community. Check out our past interviews here.

This week I interview the artist Hayv Kahraman. Born in Baghdad, Kahraman reflects on her experiences as a refugee and immigrant through her art. When she was 11 years old, her family fled the first Gulf War and settled in Sweden, where she would begin painting. Her art has been described as a way of processing her sense of “difference.” Across her paintings and sculptures, you’ll see many figures of women, sometimes shown alone, other times supporting one another, and even at times disembodied and fragmented. Together these women are meant to represent the collective immigrant experience.” 

In this interview, Kahraman shares the series she is currently working on, called Anti-Body, which explores what it means to be immune. “Is the body a fortress, untouchable, or impenetrable to ‘outside’ germs and enemies?” she asks. In particular, the artist is interested in how the language of epidemiology is “similar to the us-versus-them rhetoric used in discussing refugees and immigration.” The topic has felt particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more about what Kahraman has been thinking about and reading during these past months in her answers below.

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Hayv Kahraman, “Anti-Body #1” (2020), oil, pigment and linen on panel, 50 x 70 inches (image courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman gallery)

Where were you born?

I was born in Baghdad, Iraq.

How long have you been living in Los Angeles?

I moved down from the Bay Area about five years ago and live in west LA.

What’s your first memory of seeing art?

Before fleeing Iraq in the early ’90s I remember driving by Jawad Saleem’s massive wall-relief monument “Nasb al-Hurriyah” (the freedom monument) in Baghdad and being in awe. It functions so well both when seen from afar (read as a linear historical narrative) as well as up close, in which the detailed nuances get revealed.

Do you like to photograph the art you see? If so, what device do you use to photograph?

I rarely photograph art. I feel that it loses its tactility, especially if I photograph it using my phone. I mostly photograph the title or, if at a museum, the wall text.

What was your favorite exhibition in Los Angeles this year?

Betye Saar: Call and Response at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) was such a comprehensive view of her work and thought process. I loved seeing the sketchbooks and behind-the-scenes progression of the work.

What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

I’m currently juggling two books: Immunitary Life -A Biopolitics of Immunity by Nik Brown and An Apartment on Uranus by Paul B. Preciado. The latter is just an incredibly inspiring and revolutionary piece of writing that I feel everybody should read. There are so many linguistic gems in this book! And the book on Immunitray Life is a comprehensive view of the philosophy of immunology and directly relates to the research I’m doing on my current body of work Anti-Body.

Do you prefer to see art alone or with friends?

Alone, but I usually take my six-year-old daughter along which always offers an interesting perspective!

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a new, extended series called Anti-Body examining the biopolitical ideas surrounding the notion of immunity — all the more relevant during COVID-19 — and what it means for our bodies to be immune. Is the body a fortress, untouchable, or impenetrable to “outside” germs and enemies? How can we change the militaristic rhetoric in epidemiology, which is based on building imaginary walls between our bodies and the rest of the world? This language is similar to the us-versus-them rhetoric used in discussing refugees and immigration. Through anchoring this series in the distinct Y-shape of antibodies, I hope to propose a radical shift in coexistence where we acknowledge the porosity of our skin and move towards a symbiotic relationship to difference.

What is one accomplishment that you are particularly proud of?

The most gratifying moments are when I receive personal notes that my work has empowered women and given them hope. In 2009, a collector started a women’s crafts organization in Afghanistan after seeing my work. The organization enabled women to communally make crafts and sell them in order to sustain a living. These are the things that really matter to me.

Where do you turn to for inspiration for your projects?

It’s two fold, I do a lot of academic reading mostly within the field of gender and decolonial studies and I browse random historical imagery on Instagram. I follow a few accounts of craftspeople in Turkey who make these elaborate, traditional Islamic patterns that serve as backgrounds for calligraphic pieces in Arabic. I find it interesting that the calligraphers commission these craftswomen and men to make the backgrounds for their work — that, for me, is more interesting than the actual center piece of calligraphy.

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