Hayv Kahraman’s new Dubai exhibition explores health connections between the gut and mind

Hayv Kahraman’s new Dubai exhibition explores health connections between the gut and mind

When entering the solo exhibition of Iraqi-Kurdish artist Hayv Kahraman at the Third Line Gallery at Alserkal Avenue, you are faced with a wall painted in washes of lilac.

Jars of torshi — fermented beetroot — line two shelves on the wall. The lilac wash is not paint but the juice of the torshi. Fermented beetroot is a staple part of Middle Eastern cuisine, and jars of varying types of fermented food, such as the ones Kahraman has on display, are not an uncommon sight in home kitchens across the region.

While this installation may feel like an intimate welcome into the space, it would be wrong to assume Kahraman is making a comment on domestic life. It is, in fact, a reference to the chemical makeup of happiness — serotonin to be specific.

Fermented foods are believed to improve mental well-being through the gut by boosting serotonin levels. “Not only do we store trauma in our gut, but we store healing in our gut,” Kahraman tells The National.

“Bacteria is something that we, in our culture here and in the West, deem as dirty, impure. We want to remove these germs, eradicate them from our space, from our bodies. But there are bacteria that produce 97 per cent of serotonin. Serotonin is the hormone that makes us happy.”

Kahraman’s fifth solo exhibition at the gallery, entitled Gut Feelings: Part II, is the result of her ongoing scientific research and exploration of how trauma affects the physical body, and how the gut can play a significant role in our healing process.

“When I was a kid, we used to make torshi with my mom and I used to dip our brush and paint with it,” she says.

“My mom was very creative… this body of work started when my mom passed away three years ago.”

When Kahraman was going through her mother’s belongings after her death, she came across one of the last books she read. It covered the study of neurosculpting, the science of rewiring neuro pathways to the brain after trauma.

The book sparked Kahraman’s interest in theories of rewiring the brain and healing through the gut. She felt that through the research process, she was “subconsciously and consciously” trying to have a dialogue with her mother who was a naturopath, a practitioner who uses natural remedies to heal the body. She wished she could ask her mother questions such as: “How did they do it in Iraq, Kurdistan? What kind of plants did they pick? How did they heal their bodies? How did they heal their souls?”

Kahraman and her family fled Iraq when she was 10 years old during the Gulf War and sought asylum as refugees in Sweden. Now living in Los Angeles, Kahraman’s practice has more generally been an exploration of the refugee experience alongside themes of gender and trauma.

Her figurative style has gained attention over the years for the appearance of a consistent figure through all of her work, including this new collection on show in Dubai. This central figure is dark-haired, fair-skinned, sombre-eyed and set in strong, delicate poses — she is the amalgamation of what Kahraman says she herself has learned and unlearned.

It is a face and style that we recognise, an influence from Arabic miniature illustrations from the 11th century, particularly the manuscripts of the poet Maqamat al Hariri from Basra, Iraq. Yet her gestures, poses and vacant and inviting gaze are strongly reminiscent of the ways figures were painted in the Renaissance period in Italy.

Kahraman, who studied graphic design in Florence, explains that the figure was born as a result of her being programmed or “engulfed in the western aesthetic” of art and what she once believed constituted great art.

“I was completely indoctrinated into that belief and thinking that [western art] is the best thing, and that’s what I needed to strive for in order to succeed,” she says.

“And that’s where she was born, under that place, under a colonial space.”

Kahraman doesn’t reference the Renaissance period in her work as a homage, but instead, it’s used as a decoy. It becomes a tool to draw in an audience who understands this specific concept of beauty and harmony in art. And once Kahraman has captured their attention, she breaks that spell, through her subtle use of pictorial elements such as the influence of Arabic and Persian miniatures, Arabic calligraphy and Islamic mosaics that speak to dissonance, division and trauma.

It is, on one hand, a sophisticated subversion and, on the other, a unique visual language that defines Kahraman’s aesthetic.

In Gut Feelings: Part II, audiences see Kahraman’s enigmatic female figure in a number of paintings and drawings. Chords, hair-like in some paintings, meat-like in others, come out of open mouths and are intertwined through hair or float. These entanglements connect the figures either to themselves, to each other, or some other omniscient “being”, such as three floating eyes.

These intestine-like elements are inspired by Kahraman’s research of neuroscience, human immunology and the ability to restructure neural pathways in our brain through gut microbiome, but they also illustrate trauma and the process of healing.

Ultimately, this body of work explores a multitude of ideas that are in equal parts beautiful, playful and unnerving, and yet very much connected stylistically and thematically.

“That’s what I found really interesting [during her research], that there’s no distinction between my body and my mind,” she says.

“It’s all connected. I feel like the microbial world offers that connection. So there are no boundaries.”

Hayv Kahraman’s exhibition, Gut Feelings: Part II, runs at The Third Line Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, until March 24. More information is available at thethirdline.com

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