…my work analyses political questions from my country of origin… Sayeh Sarfaraz
Iranian born artist Sayeh Sarfaraz lives and works in Montreal, Canada. In this interview with artBahrain, Sayeh discusses her origins as an artist, the turning point of her artistic career and her art form referencing Populist and Lowbrow art drawn from Iranian and Western culture.
artBahrain: Can you briefly give us a little insight into your background as an artist, and what inspires the artist within you?
Sayeh Sarfaraz: I was raised in a newly formed Islamic regime and in the mist of the Iran-Iraq war. The oppression of women, the bombs and the violence of the Bassijd’s have certainly left a strong impression on me.
In my early twenties, I was determined to leave Iran because my chances to have a successful artistic career and to blossom on a personal level were thin if I stayed in the country. I also was eager to discover other countries, other cultures and to widen my view of the world. Following my instinct I left for France. I lived there for 6 years. During that period, I had the opportunity to learn French and to do university art studies at the École Supérieur des Arts Décoratifs in Strasbourg where I worked with Francisco Ruiz de Infante & Pierre Mercier. I then left France to establish myself in Canada. Leaving Iran permitted me to grow on a personal level and to develop a sense of autonomy that I think would not have been possible if I have stayed there. The culture shock between the different cultures permitted me to discover another point of view of myself and the people that surrounds me while keeping a strong relationship with my country of origin, my past and my culture.
On a personal level I am always very strongly affected by human struggle and suffering – anyone, anywhere. While in France in my early twenties, Pierre Mercier (my professor) told me that I would not be a great artist as long that I was making art for the sake of art. He believed that I needed to address, as an artist, the violence I had suffered in my early life to truly blossom. Those emotions were actually building in me like a volcano. I was finally able to express them during the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 when I went with my husband in Ottawa to vote and while waiting in line, my husband who was reading the news on his blackberry candidly told me that Ahmadinejad was actually officially declared the winner even before we actually had the opportunity to vote. This moment was a turning point in my artistic career – my work became politically engaged.
AB: After having studied and lived in France from 2002 – 2007, why did you choose to reside in Canada?
SF: Canada seemed a great place to grow and develop my artistic career. Montreal, where I live, is a multicultural city where people come from everywhere in the world. I never felt like a stranger – contrary to my experiences in France.
Montreal is actually a city where contemporary art is becoming more and more important. It is still quite nascent, but growing strongly with new galleries popping up every second month and a growing interest from the general public.
AB: Has your move to Montreal challenged or influenced the way you create art?
SF: When I first arrived in Montreal, I missed being overwhelmed by the great quality of art in Europe because in just a couple hours of traveling by train, I could be in London, Berlin or Basel and see great expositions.
Montreal is not to far from New York, but it is still not the same. I am still able to get inspired by other artist work, but more indirectly (via Internet or magazines for example). But more importantly, a lot of my inspiration comes from my daily life experiences – my network of friends and family in Iran, the news, the information available on social-network (Facebook or others), etc. My best work to date was actually made in Montréal.
AB: Your work is very Populist, how long does it take you to create a collection/installation?
SF: I believe my work has two sides that are in opposition at least in regards to the time it takes me to create and the type of manual work I do. I agree that my work is Populist (ie the Lego toys), but also there is probably a Lowbrow inspiration in my drawings and sculptures – not from comics but from more from the images of elves (elves are present in the magical children world of cartoons, books, etc.).
My Populist work brings me to find objects (Lego, toys) and assemble them in an installation. It does not take me much time to get them, I usually buy old toys that have a worn off state and I, sometimes, modify them a bit. On the flip side, I use a lot of them – thousands! So that takes a lot of time to install. I try to overwhelm the spectators with quantity like we are overwhelmed in life when we are in a crowd or from the information that surrounds us that is part of our collective memory. I also try to support that feeling with the quantity of definitions written on the walls, floors and ceilings.
My Lowbrow work is expressed in drawings and sculptures that I do from scratch. In that regard, quantity is not the issue, but quality is and, for me, quality comes from a great level of reflection prior to start my work. It takes me three days to a drawing, but it would have probably required the same amount of work to create it in my head.
All in all, from research, establishing the concept, acquiring and preparing my materials, creating my work and installing a show it takes me about 2 to 4 months in total.
AB: You seem to like creating environments, spaces and situations in different media that includes the architectural or institutional setting into which the works are placed. How important is it for you to make works that have physical and bodily effects?
SF: I like to work with the space I was given and use this environment to add to the emotions a spectator can get from viewing my work and hence my overall creation. One of the most interesting spaces I was given was in the collective exposition Mapping the World (U.S.A.) at the Flux Factory in Queens (http://www.sayehsarfaraz.com/en_works/fluxfactory/sayeh-sarfaraz-01.html). The space was actually a neglected old factory and they offered me to do my installation around a conveyor belt. This space added to the gloomy ambience of my work, but also, the conveyor belt permitted me to express a feeling that things for which a society fight against are continuously repeating themselves, going around and around. After all, events always occur in a certain setting/in a specific area and for me that space where my work is presented is a bit like that.
AB: Can you talk a little about your art making process? How long does it take to complete this sort of artwork? Do you start creation from an idea or from the material?
SF: I archive over time articles, text and my ideas in a notebook. Before an exposition, I reconstruct the links between them in light of the subject of the exposition. All the pieces that I archive along my path. This constant and regular work is part of my artistic approach of archiving and hence to do a cartography of an event or a subject. I try to select objects that are marked by a past and the passage of time – like all human beings.
Through cartography I analyse the events step by step and understand the context in which I live. This technique permits me to express my ideas with texts, images and Lego mini-figs while connecting the subjects between them to guide the spectator in light of my thoughts for each subject. The objective of this technique is to make a complete and accurate overview of a situation where spectators can focus on a specific subject or take a step back and see the whole project on the first or second level.
AB: The theatrical effect or quality of your work demands that the viewer take it seriously, what have been the most surprising responses you’ve received in relation to these works?
SF: It probably comes (strangely enough) from children coming to the exhibition with their parents. At first, the children run toward the toys that are all over the place – a bit like if they were in a playground. But, after a while, maybe five minutes or so, a process takes place when they start to see that something is not normal with the toys and they turn to their parents to ask questions like: why does all the Lego mini-figs are facing the soldiers? Why is that toy lying on the ground with blood around him? Who is that person up there with the big beard and the big hat? And then the parents start to explain what freedom vs. dictatorship is or that some people fight for things they believe in. I always felt that in the end, it’s the children that understand my work better and I am always amazed by that.
AB: How do you choose your objects, are they the iconography of our times? How do you look at your work? Are you critical of it?
SF: Lego mini-figs and war toys permits me to create a childish universe where everyone, young and old and every nationality can relate to. These toys were specifically present in about everybody’s past. I guess we can say that they are part of the iconography of our time or a least our collective memory of our childhood. Using those type of toys let me pass a message that won’t be censured and where spectators are not prone to create mental barriers. This universe has the power to create and construct new forms in repetition.
At each exposition I take a step back to question myself in regards to the work I did. I try to highlight in my head the good and the bad parts. I also like to take the time to speak to the spectators about my work. I am very hard on myself.
AB: How much of your work is about craft and composing the environment of the work?
SF: Going back to the fifth question, the space where I present my work is very important to me, but I take it as is. I compose with the environment I have, I don’t try to compose one… like in real life.
AB: How do you view your position in the world of contemporary art in Canada?
SF: I am an Iranian artist living in exile in Canada. I hope to share the exposition with as many people as possible. It is important for me that all the spectators understand that my work analyses political questions from my country of origin in light of the information I gather from Iran and also from the society in which I currently live. My work is done with the perspective of an Iranian living in another country. I hope to have the chance one day to show my work in Iran, but in the current context of the Islamic regime ruling Iran, it will be impossible – or more to the point, in contradiction with my message.
As an Iranian artist, I believe, that I have a unique style that passes a strong political message.
AB: Finally, as an emerging artist who is strongly rising in the art world, where do you see your work leading towards?
SF: I am very happy to work with galerie antoine ertaskiran because he dedicates his time to the advancement of my career and he has very good ideas in regards to my work. Furthermore, most galleries (in Montreal anyways) are afraid to present political work and I am always proud and honoured when someone in the art world takes the risk to present and talk about engaged work.
I hope to have the opportunity to show my work around the world with a focus on NY, London, Berlin and the Middle East countries. For that, I would like to have the opportunity to be represented internationally.
Artistically, my objective is to work more with drawings and videos on political subjects maybe outside Iran.
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