Mummy, mummy why don’t MY dolls have fish tails?

I sat down with the lovely Yasmin Sinai to try and learn more about her, her sculptures and her community action programs. I first came across her papier-mâché sculptures in 2008 and have been mystified since. Her complex relationship with the female form and the questions they raise about what it is like to be an angel, a mermaid or princess turn all these beloved cliches on their head. I love them.

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Her last exhibition was at Seyhoun Gallery in Tehran. A haunting, moving and dreamy experience. Life-size doll brides looked out at the viewers. Silent, still relishing in their one day as a princess. The series was aptly named Berlin Alley, a street in central Tehran, jam-packed with shops selling all things kitsch and wonderful a bride could ever desire. A princess bride’s dream. The sickly sweet result of the fake, doll princess bride dream cult.

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Tell me about yourself. Where did it all begin?

I am Hungarian-Iranian. I grew up in Tehran and come from a family of artists. My mother was an artists and my father a film maker. Even though my father worked in the movie industry, we didn’t own a TV. As a child, I would draw and paint for hours on end. I was exposed to very diverse music and was encouraged to learn languages and other cultures. I think that is where it all began.

What did your journey to artist-hood look like?

I went to university after the revolution. Although working in the arts himself, my father encouraged me to study something which would ensure job security, such as medicine. But I knew I also wanted to work in the arts. Therefore, I ended up studying graphic design. At the time, that seemed like a good compromise between my parents’ wish for stable career prospects and my own artistic aspirations. It also happened to be the hardest subject to get in to. After graduation, I worked as a graphic designer for one year, but I found sitting behind a desk and computer to be the opposite of the cultural goals I was hoping to achieve. So despite working very hard to get into the field, I needed to get out.

I read masses of books as a child and, throughout my adolescent life, I was very drawn to illustration. So after giving up my desk job, I started work as an illustrator. Regrettably, due to various reasons, it was very difficult to get and maintain meaningful work in this field in Iran. The money and the work was always so hard to come by. The stability factor began to show its annoying head.

I came to a crossroads and needed to make some changes. I began teaching at the German School in Tehran. In fact, I loved teaching and have continued to teach ever since.

An important turning point came when I first joined the German school. At this time, I was approached by the pastor at the German Church in Tehran. He came to me on behalf of a European collector of so called nativity scenes. He bought and collected nativity scenes from around the world and was keen to have one with Iranian influences. That was the first time I produced sculptural forms out of papier-mâché. It was before the days of the internet and, as any artist will profess, self teaching a technique is a game of trial and error. The end result was well received but the commissioning collector seemed to have disappeared. The pastor was pleased as he finally had an interesting nativity scene for the church. I then began to make more and exhibiting more, starting small at the school and church and then branching out and working more seriously with a commercial gallery presence.

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When you aren’t making art, what are you doing?

My family is very important to me. I have two children and I try to do for them what my parents did for me. I teach them languages and I try to expose them to as much culture as I can. My days usually start at 5:30 am. Physical fitness and nutrition play an important part in my life. I also try to promote the importance of these issues through my teaching.

I have been writing and am currently working on a book on art for children. In addition, I teach and have been running community initiatives throughout the city for some time. For example, Suitcase Museum, Tehran Art-Walk Workshop and other awareness-raising projects held by the Tehran municipality.

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Tell us about your Suitcase Museum.

When my teaching at the German school in Tehran was coming to an end, I wanted to create a museum and cultural space for children, to exhibit artwork by children and for children and to be a centre for learning.

However, the bureaucratic hurdles proved far too challenging for my original idea, which led me to create the Suitcase Museum: A traveling gathering of people with the intention of bringing art into the lives of children through workshops, presentations and bringing about a space for creative activity.

We have travelled all over Iran with the Suitcase Museum. We have taught and have been taught. It has been a great experience.

Tell us about Tehran Art-Walk Workshop.

The idea behind Tehran Art-Walk Workshop was to bring ordinary people together and collectively create a public installation work. It was wonderful, helping normal people engage with art in this very interactive way. Life in Tehran and in Iran generally can be very intense and I think for many of the people working in this workshop, creating with their hands gave them an inner peace and the sort of calm they were in need of.

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What about the projects you have done for the Tehran Municipality?

Some time ago, I was approached by the municipality to run art workshops in the so called “ladies cultural centres”. Tehran is divided into areas and each area has its own ladies cultural centre.

We began to create with found objects and at the end of my first round of workshops, we created a large monster-type form to raise awareness about waste and its effect on the environment.

In my second round, however, my attention was drawn to how some of the ladies in the more impoverished areas were the sole bread winners and often carried heavy financial burdens. We therefore continued to work with found objects, but with the purpose of creating an exhibition of art that could be sold. It was an eye-opening experience of what creating, art and awareness-raising means to people with different reference points to my own.

Who are the figures in your work?

People often say my sculptures look like me. I don’t work with models or have clear “real life” references. In fact, once I put the different elements together, the sculptures find a life of their own and come alive. This is especially true when I set their eyes and they start to look out at me.

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As an artist producing sculpture, what do you think of 3D printing?

I don’t feel threatened by new technology. I feel that there is always a place in the world for those who know how to create. The medium is only a means to an end.

What is your working method?

In the beginning, it was papier-mâché. Then, I incorporated pulp and paper and now it is more mixed media. I have my secret paste recipe. It is for a paste which is agile but stable enough for me to use on the more intricate part of my sculptures, such as their faces.

You can see more of Yasmin Sinai’s work on her website: yasminsinai.com

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