For my work, it’s a matter of staying attuned to the nuances of the various ways, languages and images are used to represent conflict.
– Samira Yamin-
April 28, 2015
Samira Yamin is an Iranian/American artist, known for creating sacred geometric cutouts regarding wars in the Middle East. Her art, which she constructs from pages out of Time Magazine, is as beautiful as it is thought provoking. Other artists in the same field have recently recognized her work. I stumbled across her name whilst reading an interview with Nikki Grattan (writer of In The Make), and was instantly drawn to what was being said about Samira and her work. I did a bit of research of my own and quickly realized that everything Samira had to say resonated with me artistically, both on a personal level and sociopolitical level. Samira very much intrigued me; I was compelled to find her, learn more about her background, and dig deeper into the complexities of her art.
Sofie Axelsson (SA): Pursuing a joint BA in both studio arts and sociology makes perfect sense for your subject matter. Was it clear to you, even back then, that this was the path your artwork would take? Also, did you think of yourself as mainly an artist, or a sociologist?
Samira Yamin (SY): I applied to art school from high school, but when I got there, I inherited my parents’ anxiety as to how, exactly, artists sustain themselves. I remembered that during orientation the guide had described sociology as the major for people who want to study everything – it’s part history, part math, part anthropology, part politics – which appealed to me not only as someone who wasn’t drawn to anything specific outside of the arts, but also as someone who had been politicized at a very young age. I don’t remember learning why, for example, my parents had come to this country. Or that my cousin didn’t have a father because he had been a political prisoner in Iran and had been executed. I’ve just always known. Like language.
I should also say that I started college in September 2001. 9/11 happened at an exceptionally formative moment in my life, and I began collecting war photography immediately for no apparent reason other than I felt compelled to do so.
SA: When did you decide to take your art into its current state?
SY: When I finally applied to the sociology department, I wrote in the application that I intended to use sociology in my work, and I did. Those photos I’d been collecting found their way into drawings and paintings, and eventually lead me to write a sociological thesis on war photography in Time Magazine, and its foundation in 19th century Orientalist painting, which then gave me a language with which to talk about the paintings. The two courses of study were very intimately linked throughout my undergraduate years. But, more importantly, it’s that language that has been the most lasting aspect.
SA: Do you feel earning an MFA has helped you as an artist, and in what ways? What was your experience at UC Irvine like?
SY: Going to grad school was the best decision I’ve made for myself. I chose UC Irvine because it’s a political and conceptual program. I didn’t want to have to explain to anyone why I was making the work; I just wanted to learn to do it better. On the other hand, I’m deeply invested in beauty and craft and I knew the faculty at Irvine would allow me, and support me, to develop both aspects of my practice without compromise.
Those mentors have continued to support me, and have in many ways become friends and confidants, since. I was also very fortunate that my class at Irvine was really close, so some of my dearest relationships are from grad school. These are peers who have watched me grow, and who have allowed me to watch them grow, and so we support one another.
This, of course, is not always the case. Many people have contentious relationships with their peers – ego, jealousy, resentment, fighting for resources and attention – but we made a choice early on to prioritize our group dynamic and our working relationships, and we held each other accountable to that promise. I think we all had a better grad school experience because of it, and we’re all better artists and better members of the larger artist community for it as well.
SA: What do you do besides art, and what are your interests outside of it?
SY: Besides making art, I stress about making art.
SA: Your work is stunningly beautiful and very complex, both conceptually and style-wise. What does your work process look like?
SY: Thank you so much for the kind words. I always pick the pages from Time Magazine first, and then pick the pattern somewhat intuitively in response. I’m looking for an aesthetic at this point because most of the conceptual work is already done. I then scale the pattern to fit the image; again it’s mostly intuitive at this point. When it’s time to get to work, I first place the pattern on a light table, and then put the Time Magazine page on top with the pattern centered within the image.
Working on a glass table lit from behind allows me to see the pattern through the page, so I can easily cut away the interior pieces, leaving the rest as a single lacy piece. When one side of the page is cut out, I flip it over and if there is another image on the back of the page, I rescale and re-center the pattern and cut it out again. Whatever pieces fall away are gone, and whatever part of the lace that stays intact is the final work.
SA: As far as the Time Magazine cutouts go, how do you pick your subject matter?
SY: Initially I was looking for “contemporary war photography,” which meant images from Iraq and Afghanistan. In time, I began to see those images as part of a larger “War on Terror” narrative, so then images of George Bush giving a speech to the joint sessions of Congress was just as much a part of the project as images taken in Afghanistan, “on the ground.” More recently, since the “Arab Spring,” the project has expanded again. The language around these conflicts has shifted drastically to ideas of “uprising,” “civil war,” “internal conflict” or “revolution.” The images, in turn, have shifted as well. So now I’m even toying with the idea of going back to iconic pre-2001 images of say the fall of the Berlin Wall or Tiananmen Square.
Conflict is forever contemporary. For my work, it’s a matter of staying attuned to the nuances of the various ways, languages and images used to represent conflict.
SA: Growing up as an Iranian in Southern California, one can see the struggle of identity in your work. How would you say the two different cultures, Iranian vs. American, have shaped you as a person and as an artist?
SY: It’s interesting that you’re reading it as a struggle in the work. I wouldn’t describe identity as a personal “struggle,” but it has, and continues to, produce a lot of frustration, which, in turn, informs the work.
If anything, I learned to live with and appreciate multiplicity. I learned three languages growing up so I could communicate with all the members of my family spread across three continents, which has translated into a desire to have the work operate on multiple levels.
It’s really important to me that the work produce significant, if different, experiences in all viewers. It’s also important that I grew up identifying with, and navigating, two politically contentious cultures. I’m sensitive to the problems of translation, not just of language but of all cultural signifiers (read: basically everything, always), so the work has a lot to do with the nuances of representation, and especially whether there is any sort of (representable) universal truth that precludes mistranslation and misinterpretation.
SA: Seeking to “confront imagery of wartime photojournalism and its relationship to our systems of acquiring and distributing knowledge” (said in an interview with Nikki Grattan), do you feel you have received positive feedback accordingly? Have you encountered any misinterpretations surrounding your work, considering that it deals with a very sensitive topic?
SY: The problem of misinterpretation is an interesting one, especially when there’s a political impetus behind the work. For one thing I talk about the work publicly. I believe it’s important to contribute to the context within which the work is read. It’s unrealistic to think that every interaction between a viewer and the work is a cold read. As a matter of fact that almost never happens. I also choose to pay really close attention to how people approach the work, and make changes to both the work and my language accordingly.
It’s not that there’s a right answer as to what the work means. It’s a matter of directing the viewer toward a specific set of problems, within which, then, there is space for more questions, interpretation and especially abstraction. With all that said, one of the caveats of being a cultural producer (especially in the age of internet and social media) is that when the work leaves the studio, it is no longer yours. Anyone can say anything about it or use it for whatever purpose they so desire, and that’s both a risk and responsibility you have to be willing to take.
SA: You’ve mentioned you feel distrust and dissatisfaction as to how the current wars in the Middle East are being represented in photojournalism. What are some critiques you have?
SY: I have some very specific critiques of how the Middle East is represented in news media, especially in the decade after 9/11. Generally speaking, the Middle East has been represented as a place of perpetual conflict and turmoil, a place of no history, no movement, no change. The photojournalism tends to parallel the language used to enter into formal invasions or wars with Iraq and Afghanistan: self-defense against terrorism (fear/ men) and liberation (pity/ women). Those trends have shifted somewhat in the last few years since the Arab Spring, and I haven’t yet developed an accurate and responsible language with which to discuss it. This is where the work is currently headed.
From there it’s not much of a leap to interrogate photography as a form of representation, and from there the relationship of representation to reality. What really drives the work is the question of whether there is a universal truth. If so, is it knowable? And, if so, is it representable? I think in some ways I’m trying to sever the relationship, or the expectation of a relationship, between representation and reality, and to give photography a different political power altogether.
SA: Studio Break mentioned your recent visit to Iran. It further mentioned you brought back with you stacks of photographs and negatives. Were those all old family material or do you take any photographs yourself? What was the trip like for you emotionally?
SY: My most recent visit to Iran was because my grandmother was dying. She was in a coma and never recovered. I spent the first two weeks there anticipating her death, and the second two weeks mourning, and all the while contemplating and confronting mortality in a way I’d never had to do in the past.
The irony, of course, is that I work with war photography, where death and destruction is always implicitly present. But art and sociology have always also mediated that experience. In this case I looked at photos of my grandmother, then put her body in the ground, then went back to looking at photos. There were suddenly all these spaces between memory and mourning and loss and anger and fear and photography and representation and reality and the vast distance between Los Angeles and Tehran that kept me from knowing certain things about my grandmother and now the infinite expanse between life and death that I still can’t even fathom that flood in and obscure the seemingly simple experience of looking at family photos. I look at photos of her and think, “you are not my grandmother.”
This is all to say that, no, I don’t take photos. I have no interest in making photos. I’m more concerned with the experience of looking at images, the fact of their existence and our expectations of them, rather than the content or specific information contained within the frame. My questions are more on the order of the relationship of representation to reality and the possibility of a knowable, representable, objective or universal truth.
SA: You are currently doing an artist residency at Djerassi Residency Artists Program, in Woodside, California. What are you working on? Is your work still thematically and/or stylistically similar, or have you found it taking on a new direction?
SY: The work is definitely, and necessarily, taking on a different direction. I’m currently doing research, trying to find a way to make space in the work for the nuances of contemporary global conflicts, as things have changed pretty drastically since I started working with war photography in 2004.
SA: You talk about emotion and intellect being equally important in art. I fully agree with you, and this is definitely visible in your work; I feel both moved and challenged by your work. Where do you seek inspiration to your ideas and philosophies?
SY: I chase whims and I wander. One of my favorite places is libraries. I like to go alone and I like to not have anywhere to go after. This way I’m not self-conscious about the books I pull, and half the time I’ll be looking at one thing and thinking about another thing entirely. There’s no schedule and no conversation to interrupt the flow of thoughts, but there’s also constant stimulation to maintain a steady flow of thoughts as well. When I have a few books in mind that I’m looking for, I’ll go to that area of the stacks, but then I’ll look above and below and along the whole shelf as well, maybe even the previous or facing shelves. Sometimes I’ll wander through random areas of the library and look for things to jump out at me. Sometimes I’ll find something amusing, like a book called Toys that Don’t Care, or something jarring, like a scientific journal called Trauma. I even have a few favorite stacks that I can always depend on for things to marvel at. I’m not looking for things to inform, inspire or even relate to the work. I just need to let my mind wander. Some people run. Some people doodle. I walk aimlessly through libraries.
On the other hand, I believe some things are best left unknown. I chase whims for curiosity’s sake, not for information. Because I work with sociological theory or with scientific concepts, it can be easy to get lost in the technical aspects of things, and that can fall quickly into the illustration of concepts, which is perfectly fine, but it’s just not what I do. It’s also not what I care about. I want to marvel; I don’t care to know. It’s like keeping a carrot on the end of a stick, but for yourself. Often I’ll pick up a book of science photography and look only at the pictures and possibly the captions. I have no interest in the text. I’ve never even read any of the Time Magazine articles I’ve used in my work. If I really need to know something later, I can always go back and learn it, but you can’t unlearn something. I prefer to exploit not knowing for as long as possible so I can let my imagination and subconscious work. By then I’ve usually moved on to something else entirely.
SA: Somewhat unrelated question, yet I must ask: have you seen George Bush’s paintings? If so, what do you think of them?
SY: Yes, I have, and I’m not ashamed to say I love them! Ok, fine, I’m a little ashamed. But, honestly, I think they’re pretty incredible. He seems dedicated to, or at the very least invested in, the craft of painting, and is developing his own distinct style. And the fact that he has been making portraits of political figures with whom he had working relationships (that’s a euphemism if there ever was one) fascinates me.
qMore importantly, though, I wonder whether the world would be a different place if George Bush had begun painting before or during his tenure as president. The gaze and with which a painter makes a portrait is an entirely different one than that of a politician strategizing.
SA: How do you support yourself as an artist? Do you mainly use artist’s residencies to fund your projects?
SY: To say I’ve singlehandedly supported myself as an artist would be an outright lie. It has required the support – in the forms of labor, trust and money – of many people and institutions including my family, my friends, mentors, peers, curators, collectors, grants, residencies, etc. And in between I work as a studio assistant or teach or do odd jobs. To put it simply, I alternate between periods of intense, myopic focus on the work, where most everything from my personal health to my social responsibilities fall by the wayside, and periods of recovery where I try to pay bills and beg the forgiveness of those I love.
SA: What is your advice to emerging artists such as myself?
SY: Ironically, I myself am technically an emerging artist as well, and am always looking around for some piece of advice that will free me from my insecurities or spark some revelation in the work. The reason we both want advice is because being an artist is an elusive thing. We have to make some of it up as we go along. But then again, we get to make it up as we go along. There’s a thrill to that.
If I’ve learned anything in the last few years, though, it’s to be patient, but persistent. This goes for the studio as well as the market/career side of things. Every career and every body of work has its own pace and its own trajectory. There are highs followed by lows. And lows followed by highs. Highs into highs, lows into lows. Don’t give up when you’re low, and don’t let up when you’re high. Patience and persistence.
The thing that keeps me going: Every once in a while, take a moment to ask yourself “Why?” And in between, remind yourself why. The thing is, you could work your ass off for the rest of you entire life, and maybe still no one will know your name. That is a risk you absolutely have to be willing to take. Know why.
SA: Where may one be able to see your work next?
SY: For the time being, just online at samirayamin.com. I’m thinking through some new things, so I’m keeping the work under wraps for a while.
To see more of Samira’s work, visit her website www.samirayamin.com