Q+A with Tabban Soleimani
Issue 1 | Emergence
Tabban Soleimani invites you into a conversation with her work. The Toronto-based art director and visual artist creates illustrations and installations that engage the viewer with their vibrancy and vivid colours while pulling you in for further examination. Not everything is going to look as pretty as it seems. Soleimani participated in the 2018 Nuit Blanche with a sprawling immersive installation at Ellesmere Station called AM I OK? The bubblegum pink contrasted against the orangish arms outstretched for help. It’s one of the works Soleimani has been most challenged by, confronting personal traumas to a wider audience. She’s also created mementos from heartbreak, a picture of a hairdryer that, once you read the piece’s statement, devastates you beyond belief.
She’s also the creator of Sticker Ting, an app that allows users to send and receive stickers of Toronto slang – an homage to the city’s heavily Caribbean influenced vernacular.
Soleimani is also a Taurus sun with a Pisces moon, leading me to believe that the emotional vigour and complexity of her work had long been foretold by the stars.
Here, we get to know Soleimani a little more plainly, assuredly. Why did she choose the artistic path she has been on? What excites her about her work? What is she looking forward to in the next decade?
Somewherelse: Can you tell me about your path to design and illustration? Was there a catalyst or specific source of inspiration for you that art would be your vocation?
Tabban Soleimani: I have a very specific memory from childhood. I was at a family friend’s house (he’s a cartoonist) and I was flipping through his drawings. I remember where I was standing and the intense surge of emotions that ran through my little body. It wasn’t until the MySpace/Asian Avenue era that I realized how much I enjoyed creating. But ultimately it was my high-school art teacher that pushed and introduced me to the possibility of this as a vocation.
I love that you once described yourself as a “visual problem solver.” Can you expand a little bit on this and what it means to you?
I collaborate with brands & clients often. This exchange is essentially me offering a visual solution to their needs/asks. This outcome manifests in various forms: T-shirt graphics, moving flyers, an installation, etc. But the process of getting to a final piece is more or less the same no matter how complex or simple the ask: brainstorm, eliminate, refine, and implement. I love that it’s a collision of my world with theirs.
Toronto is so woven tightly into your work. The Sticker Ting app is one such example. Working with the city, the installation for Nuit Blanche. I love the illustration of the 11:11 time stamp win for the Toronto Raptors. What is it about the city that inspires you?
Toronto has been my home since immigrating here at 10. It’s all I know. I think it’s natural that I want to document the events and challenges that I experience living here.
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What has your experience been like as an artist in Toronto when you first began your place in it now? Where have you seen yourself grow? What has changed for you?
Follow-up: Does the city inform your work when you’re abroad?
I’ve grown a lot in terms of output, for sure. The scale and scope have expanded. I started out doing 2D illustrations. Now, I’m taking on installation projects and considering the immersive experience of the audience. [I’m] thinking a lot more about public artworks, too. As far as my experience and place in Toronto…it’s been very interesting. I never really fully fit in anywhere. And, to be very honest, I still feel that way. I’m sure the city does inform my thinking and how I approach image-making. I’ve been exposed to a lot of worldviews living here.
I’m grateful that I’ve been part of a few “firsts” (Nuit Blanche, first-ever Scarborough expansion for instance). One of my favourite things about travelling is mentioning that I’m from Toronto. People are automatically interested in learning more about me & my art.
Your work is so vibrant. A Forbes article listed you as an artist whose work will brighten someone’s day. But sometimes your work tackles difficult topics, showing an emotional honesty that is extraordinary. How do you strike that balance?
It’s a seduction tactic. The vibrancy attracts the viewer, “Hey come look, this is fun…but, since you’re here, let’s talk.” it’s similar to comedy, I think. It’s easier to digest when it’s approachable. It’s a subtle energy that draws you in. You can’t ignore and if you’re ready to go beyond what meets the eye, there’s more to be discovered. #layers
Can you tell me about the projects that have excited or challenged you most as an artist?
Most challenging project to date was Nuit Blanche, for sure, logistically and emotionally. It was the first time I was activating a public space on such a large scale. I felt a huge responsibility to Ellesmere’s dark history. It was also a very emotional process of facing my own traumas. I ran away to New York twice to complete the project. Being at home made it really hard. I was too close to the pain. Looking back though, it was a very healing experience.
The most exciting was last summer. I collaborated with my friend and brilliant Tattoo artist, Brittany for a one-day tattoo-popup experience. I offered 1 of 1 designs at a flat fee, first come first serve. Which she brought to life. I was adamant about creating a space where people had access to affordable original art. It was a really cool day. Lots of familiar and new faces showed up. I think we did a total of 24 tattoos that day.
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What is your selection process when it comes to working with a brand or on a campaign? How do you choose which projects to take on vs. not?
Creative challenge, alignment with my interests/beliefs, turn around time and sometimes budget.
What are you looking forward to in the next decade?
Decade?! Whew! I can only answer for personal growth, even though I’ve learned the hard way that you can never really look too far ahead. I look forward to expanding globally. Excited to share my story through different channels. Maybe I’ll write an illustrated book on my experience with brain health. Maybe create an animated short. Maybe I’ll create my own chair/furniture line. I might even paint more. Or maybe I’ll create a hybrid community space. A space to cry, to laugh. There will definitely be coffee. I’m not sure what any of this actually looks like. But whatever unfolds I hope to be at peace and content with the pace I’m moving at.
What’s your prediction for this year’s Raptors team? I’m betting 55+ wins.
55+ is energetically a great number, let’s shake on that.
Photos and artwork courtesy of Tabban Soleimani.
Interview written and transcribed by Sarah Macdonald.
Photo collage by Marta Ryczko.