Sex Work and Survival in Hayv Kahraman's 'Silence Is Gold'

Sex Work and Survival in Hayv Kahraman's 'Silence Is Gold'

 Detail, “The Audience” 2018, Oil on linen, 73”H x 97”W. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.

Detail, “The Audience” 2018, Oil on linen, 73”H x 97”W. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.

In 1991, Baghdad-born Hayv Kahraman and her family fled Iraq along with countless others fearing violent persecution by Saddam Hussein’s regime. She explores that traumatic event in Silence Is Gold, on view at the Susanne Vielmetter Gallery, reflecting on the role that gender and otherness play in the immigrant experience as a whole, as well as loss and identity. 

Kahraman populates her paintings with identical-looking raven-haired beauties who seem alternately bewildered, vulnerable, bereft, and beguiling. In The Kurds, women gather at a threshold, some of them conversing with each other while others regard the doorway with apprehension. In the center, one of them looks over her shoulder at us. She appears almost sublime. Is she accepting her fate, thus relieving us of any responsibility, or signaling that she knows we did nothing to help? 

Sex as a commodity and a form of oppression is also a factor in Kahraman’s work. In some of the most powerful paintings in Silence Is Gold, her anonymous women proffer their bodies, gazing at us all the while. They’re not trying to seduce us. They’ve simply adapted in order to survive. A strategically placed slot—exactly where you’d think in the series Pussy Donation Box —suggests the transaction meant to take place.

In addition to the paintings, there are also cutout carpet figures strewn here and there on the gallery’s polished concrete floors. Each Body Carpet is reminiscent of a crime-scene chalk outline but far more corporeal due to its color: a deep red that evokes flesh. Or meat. Carnage.

It seems obvious to describe Silence Is Gold as timely, but we’re reminded daily that what is obvious to good and rational people does not necessarily prevail. Kahraman’s work nudges us to question what we see happening all around us. Silence, after all, is not actually an option.

Hayv Kahraman’s Silence is Gold will be on view until October 27, 2018 at the Susanne Vielmetter Gallery.

 Detail, “The Audience” 2018, Oil on linen, 73”H x 97”W. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.

Detail, “The Audience” 2018, Oil on linen, 73”H x 97”W. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.

 Detail, “The Celebrity” 2018, Oil on linen, 100”H x 79”W. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.

Detail, “The Celebrity” 2018, Oil on linen, 100”H x 79”W. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.

 “The Appeal 4” 2018, Oil on linen, 35”H x 35”W. “The Appeal 5” 2018 Oil on linen, 35”H x 35”W. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.

“The Appeal 4” 2018, Oil on linen, 35”H x 35”W. “The Appeal 5” 2018 Oil on linen, 35”H x 35”W. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.

 Installation view, photo by Robert Wedemeyer.

Installation view, photo by Robert Wedemeyer.

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