Tabban Soleimani: On artistic authenticity, losing fear and survival

Tabban Soleimani is an Iranian-Canadian illustrator and multidisciplinary artist working out of Toronto. I had the pleasure of finally invading her home studio (after various late nights of dancing and tipsy conversations at Cold Tea) to pick her brain on everything from overcoming trauma to not belonging and the over-glamourization of the term 'hustling'. 

Tell us about your background

I moved to Canada from Iran with my family when I was ten and have been in Toronto ever since. I guess you could say I adapted pretty quickly. Back home, I grew up knowing about North American culture and was taking English classes so it wasn’t as much of a culture shock. I feel like I don’t really fit anywhere though. I’m not Canadian and I don’t really feel Persian either because I’m not embedded in the culture. Being in the middle has definitely given me a very unique perspective and fluidity.

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There’s a lot of importance given to defining  your ‘brand’ as an artist. What are your thoughts on that?

It’s like you don’t want to surprise people so you produce work that others want to see. It’s sad how much people care about ‘likes’ nowadays. If you don’t get as many as you expected for something that you created you instantly think “Oh shit, I must be doing something wrong”.

I feel like by having so much information at the tip of our fingers, we end up taking it for granted or stop caring about the actual quality of it.

For sure. I’ve become so used to art on Instagram and websites and online articles that when I see a piece in person it blows me away. When the Basquiat exhibition was held here last year I was shocked. He had made those marks years ago and to be looking at it in the flesh was mindblowing.

Do you think art has that power to impact people’s lives to a point of social change?

I think so. But going back to the idea of followers and likes and such… I feel that people have that incredible reach on that platform because they’re being safe. It’s almost as if you need a massive audience to actually make an impact and if it wasn’t for fame you wouldn’t be there.

Why do you think there’s a need to play safe creatively?

There’s a lot of fear. You’re worried about outside expectations and that reflects on the inside. If the majority of the masses are drawing with their right hand and all of a sudden you are part of the few that draw with your left hand, soon enough you’re like ‘Oh shit, I’m different, I’m not like everybody else.' Because you feel like you don’t fit in, you start fearing. And we shouldn’t be worried about that! As a child, you have zero fucks to give. You don’t fear consequences or judgment and you’re just exploring. Ego hasn’t taken over yet. 

Are you left handed?

I’m actually right handed, but don’t tell anybody. (laughs)

How has your art has given you freedom?

So, I was in a really bad car accident in 2012 which turned my life on its head. I almost died. Before the accident, being creative was my time to play, my freedom… but I shut down completely after the accident. I had a concussion, which my brain is still repairing from, and with that repairing comes chemical imbalance and trauma. I was in this downward spiral and there are a lot of physiological, neurological issues that shut me down, resulting in doubt and fear. I feel like I’m always catching up. Trauma is horrible, you’re locked in the basement, you can’t see the light. And I’m not going to lie, nobody wants to agree to it but social media doesn’t help. It’s perfectly curated lives that you’re constantly comparing yourself to.

How have you been overcoming the accident?

After going through something so traumatic, finding a balance that works makes it difficult to hold the life you had and the life you want to have versus what you really have. I was going months without illustrating and I almost wanted to give up being an illustrator. What I find recently is that doing part- time design work on the side actually gives me freedom to come home and stay up as long as I like to work on my own art. Having this bland job helps because when I didn’t have it, there was a lot of pressure to create when I couldn’t and I didn’t feel free. And honestly, you can’t really plan that much into the future. I have goals of who I want to be but I’m looking at super short terms in advance. That’s been very helpful.

It’s a healthier mentality to have as well.

For sure. The other day, I read this article that really put me in my place about the overuse of the term ‘hustling’ in our culture. Our generation glamourizes this hustling, the late nights, the grinding…  Our attention span is much less than it used to be and we’re forgetting to take things for the present time. There’s nothing wrong with accomplishing something and feeling productive, but you have to sleep. You have to take care of yourself.

What role would you say art plays in feminism?

There’s this recent ‘trending’ feminism that’s this tumblr, girl power thing which I don’t think really addresses real issues. I’m not trying to knock this type of feminism down and I don’t think  I have enough knowledge to really critique it but I know it’s not as deep as it could be. I feel like art can do a lot because of the emotion it evokes, so I guess it’s just a matter of really staying true to the core of it and not doing something just because it’s trendy or cool. There are a lot of strong women in the creative industries that are stepping up and setting really good standards. We’re not depending on corporations anymore to build ourselves up, we’re doing it ourselves.

What advice would you give to aspiring creatives?

I came across a quote recently and I think it’s perfect for this: The right time is always right now. It’s cliche, but just do. Be in tune with yourself, with what you like and what you don’t. If you do things that others want to see, you won’t get very far. People can tell when something isn’t authentic. And take care of yourself.  Sleep is important!

You can follow Tabban Soleimani's work on Instagram and her website