Hayv Kahraman’s paintings of Kurdish women at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects are exceedingly delicate and subtle — until they’re not. Kahraman, herself a Kurdish refugee from Iraq, paints raven-haired, ruby-lipped, ivory-skinned beauties in a flat, graphic style that draws from Persian miniatures and Japanese woodblock prints. But the beauty of these pictures is undercut by the uncanny recognition that all of the women look alike. Various “slots” cut into the surfaces of the paintings further disrupt the illusion.
The women all look the same because they are all avatars of the artist. In some images, such as “Bodies #1,” they appear as migrants, draped in variously patterned shawls and carrying small black boxes. The loss of their homeland doesn’t seem to bother these women; they all have the same placid expression. They might as well be faceless.
In other images, the women appear beneath golden spotlights, as if on stage. In “The Celebrity,” a trio of women stands behind a large brown box. The box has a slot in it that is actually cut out of the surface of the painting. This opening suggests a donation box, and the spotlights refer to the display of refugee images — often disturbing ones — to spur charitable giving. But these lovely, languid women are hardly pitiable.
In replacing the usual images of suffering refugees with these decorous ladies, Kahraman runs the risk of trivializing refugees’ travails, but she also attempts to short-circuit stereotypical images and question the motives behind our charity.
By replacing objects of pity with pretty ladies, she points to the sexual and Orientalist undertones of charity fundraising. The images reveal assumptions behind our role as Western saviors. We “help” these people not only because they are fellow humans in need, but because we find their stories titillating and because it makes us feel better about ourselves.
If this relationship isn’t obvious in the group pictures, it becomes exceedingly clear in several images of individual women. In “Boob Gold,” a donation slot pierces the canvas between a woman’s breasts. Other, smaller paintings provide close-up views of more “donation slots” in a mouth and in between the legs. These images are unambiguous in their indictment of the relationship between fundraising and sexualized exploitation.
In a similar vein, strewn throughout the galleries are Persian carpets cut into lifesize silhouettes of the artist. They lie folded and crumpled, or leaning against a wall as if discarded. Perhaps even more pointed than the paintings, they capture the tangle of bodies, stereotypes and disrespect roiling beneath the surface of past and current debates over refugees and asylum.