At the opening of Neighbours, a new exhibition at Istanbul Modern, we asked Iraqi artists Furat al Jamil and Hayv Kahraman to talk about experiences that affected their work.

FaJ: Where did everything start? How did you come to be painting on wood?

HK: My first works were on brown paper. The tone of the background is the most important for me, I often use brown paper, brown wood and brown canvases. I have always painted. Even when we were growing up in Baghdad, my sister and I had a room where we painted on all four walls. My parents were very open to the idea of us being artists. Professionally, it started in 2005 mostly out of a sense of displacement, and longing for something beyond my context. I was in my apartment in Italy, and had a sense of longing to a place, which is my country.
I think there is an interesting dynamic between us in that while you chose to stay in Iraq, I had to leave when I was ten. For me Iraq is more of a utopia, a longing for the past that I probably created. I don’t know if you feel the same way. What age were you when you left – or when you came back?

Hayv Kahraman, Carrying on shoulder from the Sacrifice series, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.

Furat al Jamil, Honey Pot, 2005-2013. Exhibited at the Ruya Foundation’s Welcome to Iraq exhibiton at the 55th Venice Biennale.

FaJ: Well I never really left. I was born in Germany but we were always coming and going. Of course it was strange at the beginning, but a human being adapts so easily. I wouldn’t say it’s a utopia but in your memory it’s a utopia.

HK: Absolutely. It’s the memories. Are memories in your work important?

FaJ: In a way. However, my work is more a reaction to my experience of the present. Something affects me now and I have to express it immediately in my work or writings. Everyday life in Baghdad is filled with such experiences that would each make a wonderful art work, if I had the time. You know you could come back to Baghdad any time.

Still from Baghdad Night, 2013, Courtesy of the artist

Still from Baghdad Night, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

HK: I actually wanted to go there. I remember when I was a child in 1991, it was in the midst of all the bombings. Our school took us to the Amiriyah shelter. Were you there?

FaJ: I was there directly after the bombing of the shelter. They have then turned it to a museum that hardly presents the real horror of the bombing. At the time, I had to express my feelings in a small clay statue called “Jinan” both referring to “Jinan” my friend who lived in Amiriyah and escaped death at the shelter by pure luck and “Jinan” in Arabic meaning “Heaven”.

HK: It was an eye opening experience and it left a lot of memories. I want to visit it again as an adult to see how I react to it.

FaJ: The impression that you have as a child is always different. My memory of Istanbul which I visited aged 7 is so wonderful, and I wouldn’t want my new, adult experience of the city to destroy that. The same is for me with many other places or events that I remember from my childhood. I do not like to go back to the past. Always keep my eyes ahead and my heart open for new experiences or adventures. I very much like the contact with young people and works of fantasy and science fiction. Therefore I have chosen animation as one of the mediums of my art work.
The style of your paintings reminds me of the Renaissance period and of Japanese prints.

Hayv Kahraman, Mevlevi Sema, Sumi on paper, 2007. Courtesy of the artist.

HK: That’s interesting, I spent four years in Italy where I developed the technical aspect of the works. Stylistically and informally, of course the renaissance is a huge inspiration. I wanted to uphold that sense of durability. I’ve never been to Japan but I love the sense of harmony and simplicity.

The figures are usually taken from photographs that I take of myself. My body becomes a reference to, then sketch the figures and all the women you see on the panels are the extension of one woman.
But also more importantly, all the elements that I draw from that era serve for me as a decoy to speak a recognisable, Western language.It becomes a vehicle to manoeuvre the thoughts that I want to explore. So people will relate to the work, and then dig deeper, and hopefully realise things.

FaJ: It also reminded me of miniatures and Omar Al Khayyam paintings.

HK: I mostly take the colours from miniatures. It is all a big melting pot just like Istanbul.

FaJ: What is your next project?

HK: I’m working on a few lecture performances right now, in March at the Duke University and Nelson Atkins museum. I will also be going to Art Dubai and pursuing earlier work.
What about you?

FaJ: I’m working on an installation with date palm fronds, fine cotton fabric, bullets and a video.

Neighbours runs until May 14 at Istanbul Modern