Interview by Sarah Sieber
Semra Sevin is a German artist working on subjects of diversity and identity, using photography, reflective or layered surfaces as well as installations. Focusing on in-camera work Sevin produces abstract multi-level images and installations. In addition Sevin is also noted for her curatorial work on large group shows about diversity as well as her fine art printing for photographers such as Julian Wasser and Nick Ut. Sevin founded REglam, a fashion blog promoting body positivity and the inclusion of race, body, LGBT, age & disability. She received a grant from the Berlin Senate Chancellery in 2017 for the 50th anniversary of sister cities Berlin and L.A. to create an interview -and photo series of 40 children of migrants from L.A., Berlin and Paris. Sevin showed at the LA-Berlin festival, the Building Bridges Gallery Art Exchange and the Wende Museum in L.A. 2019, the GFYO in Berlin showed her solo exhibition MOI MOI - MON TOI, which travels to Paris in 2020. As well as she is currently curating CHIMERA for the 30th Germany Unity Day at Kunstquartier Bethanien in Berlin, Germany.
Sarah Sieber: The title of your last solo exhibition at the German French Youth Office in Berlin is MOI MOI - MON TOI. Is there a story behind the title, and is the title referenced in the work?
Semra Sevin: I had a solo show at the German French Youth Office in Berlin this year at their beautiful location in the Alte Münze building. I showed the results of my photo interview series with forty children of migrants in Paris, Berlin and L.A. The GFYO funded the show which gave me the opportunity to create new pieces of artwork.
At the end of my eighteen month photo interview series with children of migrants I noticed something I thought of as a human condition: that our capacity for empathy only revolves around our personal experiences and the people we interact with closely. To a point that we could not care less if “the other” person exists, struggles or obviously is disadvantaged. This includes racially diverse people, gender diverse, poor or less educated people. Therefore the title MOI MOI MON TOI.
This is why getting advice from marginalized groups is so important. They usually survive by understanding not only their own group but also by putting themselves into the place of the dominant group they live in, otherwise they would not survive. Therefore their level of empathy can at times be higher. I noticed this most in my interviews in Paris. Paris is stratified between rich and poor, having very costly real estate within the city, and cheaper prices outside. Less affluent people have no choice but to move out of Paris.
The majority of the kids I interviewed within Paris had a lack of empathy for the demonstrations of the yellow vests at the time, which consists mostly of average people asking for more equality between rich and poor. Whereas all of the kids I interviewed in the outskirts understood. I also spoke with children of mixed color from within Paris. They had empathy for racial issues but not so much for people with financial issues. One child said they would go on the streets for gender issues but not for poor people. I thought that was shocking. This is the generation that will one day lead society.
The international real estate business is stratifying European capitals right now as we speak. Locals are moving out due to the international influx from much more expensive cities like NYC, Moskow, London and Paris. The rising populist governments support big money which contributes to more stratification. I wonder what choices the youth will make when we will have an estimated 200 million environmental refugees worldwide within the next 30 years.
MOI MOI - MON TOI is about the ego of humans. There are well meaning intellectuals, but there needs to be more structural change. Humans don’t naturally like to include disempowered or excluded people into their groups. Therefore we need structures that create diverse communities.
What made you want to be a photographer, and what drew you to expanding your work to installations and 3-dimensional presentations?
As a child I grew up in the midst of opposites. The culture and language of my family was different from the country I was born and grew up in, Germany. My parents spoke Turkish at home but strongly encouraged me to speak German and have German friends. On top, my parents had their differences. Art was an escape for me. Drawing and making images was what I gravitated towards as a personal form of expression, sort of a Nomansland where I could reveal my reality how it felt in the moment, without any judgement repercussions from my family or society.
The way I expanded into installations when I met the head of photography of a famous auction house in Paris. He looked at my work, my process and concepts. He inspired me to go a step further and to expand the concept of multidimensionality within my presentations.
How would you describe your work and the subjects you photograph? What roles do surfaces and reflections play?
When I started out with my series “City Reflexions”, I was looking for an abstract photographic experience that would convey the view of someone like me who is transcultural and an outsider to mainstream society. Reflective and transparent surfaces were metaphorical bouncing boards for me. Often, my subjects are in motion which is a typical experience for someone like me. You are in constant development with your point of view as a transcultural person, as you are learning new skill sets in order to survive in an ever changing environment: growing up, living and working in multiple countries with humans from diverse cultures. The focus of what I work on can shift from migrant children to people in the artworld and how geography and politics can influence their work.
Today the process might bring me to a study of indigenous materials in Mexico, to Raubkunst of the 3rd Reich or to how a blind person perceives the environment, a person who cannot be “blinded” by bias or looks.
Can you describe your creative process when you're approaching a new project?
I consider my relationship to society and the larger world, I think about what issues are important at the moment within the world I live in. I consider areas in which I feel I can bring a unique POV and research those topics academically; Which is the case for an upcoming project on “Raubkunst”, the art stolen by the Nazis where I collaborate with Chris Löhr, an expert on Raubkunst. After that, I secure funding via commercial and governmental sponsors, personal funds and artist residencies which offer free studio space. It can take up to two years to secure funding, as deadlines for public grants are up to 1,5 years long. Funding via commercial sponsors or associations is faster, but considered less prestigious in Germany. Meanwhile I plan on where to show the work, once it is created. In between those steps, I independently work on series of art to have a balance between the creative and academic work. At the moment I am working on a collage series made of photos that I made of my own body. I jumped naked in front of the camera with a self timer. After, I print and cut those photos to glue them into collages. Materials as mirrors, foils, glass, layers of fabric and paper play an important role in my art.
Was there a specific moment or impetus that inspired you to focus on art photography instead of commercial photography?
I worked within the fashion and advertising business for over a decade in Germany & Paris, France as well as internationally. I really loved it. To survive in Paris you need to work hard, because rents are expensive and the fashion business is competitive, especially for someone who arrives with no connections at all. I had the luck to work with highly talented, creative and passionate people. However, I was aware at the time that the emaciated westernized beauty standards within fashion also created statistically proven damage to the younger generations. My parents come from a minority whose culture is based on humanism. They believe in the equal value of every human, no matter what background, race, gender, religion or economic background. My grandfather used to repeat that to me like a mantra, once he had a couple of Rakis at dinner. Fashion is selective about what weight and height, which hair or eye color you should have in order to be valuable. Fashion created income for me, but the anti-humanist ideology affected me deeply. Later on I focussed on art and I created a fashion blog about diversity in race, age, in body, in ability and in gender. During that time, unfortunately, I developed the autoimmune disease called myalgic encephalomyelitis. Often, for as 5 months, I was too weak to hold a camera or to walk down the stairs. It took me five or six years to become better which meant I could only focus on my art.
What is most important to you about the visual experiences you create?
I work with up to three assistants in my reflection photos which is like a performance as every person plays an important part, each holding the surface a specific way or holding the light in a different position. I mostly work with non-professional assistants which makes my photos even more unique. My work interacts with the environment in which the photographs are taken.
In my work, I create layers that are transparent which people can look through, or things that are hanging from the ceiling, turning around and reflecting. And when you walk around those objects they will give you a different visual experience from each point of the room. This to me represents the complexity of a human’s experience within its environment; Like in a kaleidoscope, when every turn creates a new multifaceted world you immerse yourself in. I like to give space to the viewer to form a personal opinion and relation to my work.
Is there a story behind the photograph you took of the Hagia Sophia?
In Istanbul, I photographed from one of the minarets of the blue mosque towards the Hagia Sophia. You have to fax your passport to the manager of all Istanbul mosques, the ‘müftü’, to get approval. Therefore the müftü knew that my parents are from a not so pious minority. I wanted to show my respect by dressing like a practicing religious woman with a long skirt, a coat, a headscarf and also this band that’s on the top of your front that prevents any of your hair from being visible even if your headscarf moves. The müftü became suspicious. But honestly, I don’t know the Turkish culture and I grew up in Germany where I am called Turkish, but I couldn’t be more German or Worldcitizen. The müftü told me there are dead birds and snakes in the minaret since the earthquake and it’s not possible to access it. Afterwards he made a phone call to an employee, filling our entire appointment time: ‘You have somebody who’s not a real believer in your team and perhaps he’s giving away information’. The next appointment, a female TV team, arrived - whispering in astonishment to each other: ‘She’s from Germany and she’s wearing a headscarf!’ I wanted to just vanish in that moment. The müftü said: ‘Aah, today is women’s day! (To me) Here is your paper, you can go to the mosque but not the minaret.’ At the blue mosque I bought a CD with the supervisor’s religious chants for 20 euros and he let me into the minaret, which of course had no dead birds or snakes. An American jewish friend held my mirror on the balcony of the minaret. He had to fax his passport, too. Finally - I was taking photos of the Hagia Sophia. However, the minaret had four huge loudspeakers, each about 6 feet big. My jewish friend had a panic attack and screamed: ‘They know I’m jewish, they are going to turn the speakers on and blow our ears off!!’ In his panic he grabbed my camera and frantically took photos of the beautiful scenery right next to these powerful buildings and the breathtaking Bosphorus with little boats as a backdrop. We somehow finished and walked out of the mosque. My American friend wore a leather jacket with jeans and I still had pious clothing on. A tourist with his camera, circled and photographed us as an example of intercultural understanding, thinking he’s got ‘the shot of his life’. Everyone I met that day projected their paranoia and negative as well as positive prejudices onto me. I felt like I was in a movie. That’s the story of my life, as my non-german looks inspire people in Germany to project their prejudices onto me. But I didn’t expect that in Turkey, where I'm supposed to come from? Spending time in the US or France, I always felt like I blended in. That’s why I love spending time there. All I want to be is a regular schmuck!
What's next for you?
Currently I am in the group exhibition bOObs with renowned German artists such as Eva & Adele or Egle Otto. For next year I received two invitations to artist residencies, one in Mexico City and one in Nairobi, as well as I am working on a book project between Berlin and L.A. My solo show MOI MOI - MON TOI travels to Paris in 2020.
In my quest for diversity, I curate a large group exhibition once a year. I call that series Kaleidoscopic Journey. This year I curate CHIMERA with 30 artists on 30th Germany Unity Day. The art show looks at the stratification of society and the Berlin art scene through the rise of real estate prices. CHIMERA’s patron is the non profit Enter Art Foundation https://www.enterart.com Oh and my websites got hacked so I have to rebuild them again, which gives me the opportunity to make it even better.