Hayv Kahraman Paints Resistance Against the Classification of Migrants and Refugees

Hayv Kahraman is an Iraqi–born refugee who escaped with her family and became a Swedish citizen. Informed by her experience with migration and assimilation, her solo exhibition “Look Me in the Eyes”—on view at ICA San Francisco through May 19—explores the connection between botanical classification and human subjugation.

In her work—including the painting Loves Me, Loves Me Not (2023), pictured above—Kahraman draws on a personal interest in binomial nomenclature, a naming system for living species started by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century, and its relation to refugees and migrants.

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How did you first incorporate binomial nomenclature into your work?

I grew up learning about Linneaus in Sweden, where he is seen as a heroic national figure. He was on the 100 kroner bill when I was growing up, and has multiple statues across the country. What a lot of people don’t realize about Linneaus, however, is that the sexual system of plants that he created is hierarchically divided. The male stamens came first, with female pistols listed at the end. In his writing, he equates a lot of his thinking on the natural world through a religious lens. The petals of a flower, for example, were described in relation to the bedchamber of a married couple. He also described this sexual system as a marriage between plants.

Another aspect that people might not be aware of is that Linnaeus divided the human species into four categories that he called varieties. The heteronormative European man is first, and as one goes down the list, it describes different races, with African listed on the bottom. Linnaeus created an incredibly problematic system rampant with biological racism and sexism, which has informed modern society and culture.

When the Black Lives Matter movement took off in 2020, it spurred discussions and protests about what has been culturally promoted and upheld. A lot of people think Sweden is this incredibly egalitarian place, but marginal voices often get stomped on very quickly. These were the thoughts that were on my mind when I took a trip to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, which carries many of Linnaeus’s rare books.

How did your experience of those books inform your artwork?

The library had a copy of one of Linneaus’s most notable volumes: Hortus Cliffortianus [1737]. When I opened it, I discovered that the end paper is marbled. Marbling was very prevalent during that time. It prompted me to delve into the history of marbling, which is believed to have started in Japan in the 12th century and then moved to the Ottoman Empire, where it took off. It was not decorative but was also used in legal documents to prevent forgeries, because there is no way to duplicate the marbling due to all the variables that come into play when it’s being made. This is a monoprint that cannot be forged. It asserts itself on whatever surface it’s on. It refuses erasure. That spoke to me so much that I started trying to figure out how to marble.

What was recreating that process like?

I’m very deliberate and systematic in my work—I do sketches, color schemes, and research before even touching paint. I grew up under the European Swedish educational system, and this necessity to classify, to understand everything, to render everything knowledgeable is ingrained in me. Marbling was the complete opposite in that it demanded me to relinquish control and became a way of pushing back against these systems in asserting that, no, you cannot render me knowable.

How does the process of marbling play out in relation to migrants and refugees in your work?

I was a refugee from Iraq to Europe in the early 1990s. My family hired a smuggler and became undocumented asylum seekers in Sweden. I was a refugee who became an immigrant, and now I have Swedish citizenship. As part of this process, my mom made a cassette tape in 1997 and sent it to the immigration office in Sweden because we has been denied residency. The Swedish government denied us on the basis that my mother could not prove who who she said she was. On this tape, which is included in the show, my mother had recorded her pleas to the immigration office. It’s 20 minutes of her saying things like, “If you don’t believe me, take a sample of my DNA and cut my skin.” It’s full of visceral metaphors linked to the idea of dehumanization. Marble surfaces not only have this quality that mirrors tissue under a microscope or a unique fingerprint—it also resists the endured systemization to which refugees are subjected.

Eyes and the act of looking are also a big part of the show.

My mother’s tape prompted me to start thinking, what does it mean to be believable enough to an immigration officer? You’re being scrutinized—the slightest movement you make, the tiniest alteration in your voice pattern, any deviations in your story. It’s so subjective. And then there’s a decision made that will completely alter your entire life.

It seems to speak to efforts to fit people into preexisting systems.

Many refugees end up violently removing their fingerprints by pouring acid, using sandpaper, and cutting—all in an effort to circumvent biometric scanning into what is called Eurodac, a centralized database that tracks asylum seekers and migrants. If one is denied entry into a European country, one is prevented from applying to another. It’s detrimental. So a lot of people end up trying to mutilate the pattern on their fingers, essentially erasing a part of their body in order not to be erased [by the system].

The border police have moved beyond fingerprinting. They are scanning not only your fingerprints but also your iris, your voice, your vocal patterns. They put it in their algorithms. It’s so incredibly invasive. But this is why my figures lack irises. This is a way for me to implement tactics of subversion being used by refugees. It also connects to the concept of classification and surveillance by refusing to be scanned. There is this demand for opacity so as not to be rendered knowable. It’s basically saying, “I get to be what I want to be.”

In Loves Me, Loves Me Not (2023), we see three female figures eating eyes off of a plant. Where did that idea come from?

The figures seem to be not only persistent—there is a kind of anger to them. I was always taught to be an obedient little girl who performed well. Even as an immigrant in school, I had to prove myself worthy and never show anger, never protest. These figures are the complete opposite. They’re channeling resistance.

Source: artnews.com

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