Kyiv-based artist Tanya Spasi Sohrani is temporarily living in Portugal and working on a series of masks of fictional characters, each of which will later have a separate story and a whimsical name. She started a little over two years ago with object photography — she could sit for hours creating compositions for the photo and rearranging objects to create the perfect picture.
Now Tanya has a book, Blue Horse, a compilation of her 100 best photographs, with a photo of her mother on the cover. The book was published by the British publisher Snap Collective, whose representatives found the artist themselves and offered to collaborate.
DTF Magazine talked to Tanya about the universe of her work
I’ve been photographing for two and a half years. It coincided with the beginning of the quarantine — I was no longer working at the time, I had quit my job at an advertising agency and was searching for myself. And I was so nervous that I couldn’t find myself, it made me very angry.
By the way, a year before the quarantine began, my friends told me: «Go to Bali, you will find yourself there». I went to Bali, didn’t find myself there, and came back upset. But it’s all logical — if you had nothing to do here, then the same thing will happen there.
When the quarantine started and no one was allowed out of the houses except for walks with the dog, I came across a profile of a photographer shooting still life. One of the pictures showed an egg, with some other stuff on top of it, and it all looked cool. Then I took three peppers out of the fridge and photographed them — it turned out really well.
That’s how I took my first photo, and that’s how my passion for photography, primarily object photography, began. Gradually, this developed into my hooly gooly project, which later became a commercial project: I started creating photo projects and stories for brands and companies.
I was very afraid to work with people because I’m shy and I was scared that I would just waste someone’s time. Also, I always want to get weird pictures and people want beautiful pictures. Plus you need a makeup artist, clothes, some hairstyle for the photo. And I didn’t really want to write to someone and invite them to collaborate at first because of shyness and not wanting to waste someone else’s time. It was easier for me to do everything myself.
So I decided that if you put a mask on your head, you don’t need your hair and makeup, and if you wrap a cloth around your body, you basically don’t need a stylist. That’s how my cross-dressing story started — you don’t need anyone, you can do everything yourself. I don’t even need a model, I can take pictures of myself. And the other person is a certain responsibility. And there’s a risk that they’ll say «my ass is big in the photo, but my nose isn’t like that».
But the most interesting thing is that my first project was still with people and was called The Village of Angels. I dedicated it to the people of my village, and they were the main characters. It was my first experience with people, and it was right after I bought a camera.
It made me very angry that in order to make something I had to go to someone, find that person, negotiate, waste my time, feel uncomfortable about wasting someone else’s time in turn. Besides, my main idea is that every photo is super budget friendly.
So I make everything myself — I rent things, I make everything from what I have on hand, like wire. And sometimes I would accidentally find something handy in the trash, namely groovy pieces of slate or pipe, which made my husband laugh a lot. But this way you can make something cool for almost nothing.
Moreover, who else knows what my picture should look like but me? Plus, being independent really saves time. At first, I took props or went to seamstresses I knew when I didn’t understand how to make certain costumes, like daisies for my dad. Now I have my own sewing machine.
Since the beginning of the war, I’ve been alone again, and I’ve realized another bonus of mostly working without anyone — my creative process is by no means affected by being on my own. I’m back to the beginning, where I work by myself, photograph myself and do everything I need to do for the shoot.
Working with my parents also started partly because I was afraid to call people to take pictures. But I had to study, so I asked my mom to pose for the picture somehow. I also started with my parents becaus, ande they didn’t care at all — I photographed them, and they went about their business. They didn’t expect me to take super pictures for Instagram.
I worked with my mom and dad for a long time, telling them why I wanted to take pictures like this and why they should be my heroes. Eventually we had a seamless transition from «we’ll wear vyshyvankas, and you can take our picture, and we can also stand by the rose, here in the arch, or sit here beautifully» to something more creative, like costumes or a pink basketball in the frame. Then I would photograph them again near the flowers, and then I would create even more intricate costumes for them. The end result was a kind of mix of flowers and what I liked.
I am proud of my parents and my pictures with them. So we started communicating more, and I stopped being embarrassed that they were so simple. They trusted me, opened up, believed in themselves and weren’t afraid to be funny. It was after the photo with my parents that I got the biggest response.
Lack of a Smile
No one smirks in my photos; all the characters pose with serious faces. For me, they’re all children that their mother has placed near the Christmas tree for a picture or memory. And while the mother is looking for a good angle, the child stands frowning, because he is uncomfortable doing it.
I think that my photographs are a certain interpretation of the parent-child relationship — all my models are like children who are overdressed and feel uncomfortable, so they are not smiling, but waiting for it to be over.
It’s been with me for a long time, ever since I wasn’t photographing, but I was learning Photoshop for work purposes. I really liked to make myself big lips in it, crazy hairstyles, put rugs on the background, different leopard prints, add rhinestones. I got away from that after moving to a more professional level. And this kitsch transformed from rhinestones and leopard to exaggeration, something over, like Pshonka-style on a background of minimalism. Or like a «normal understandable» love story, comparing it to the over-styling of a couple who have too much of everything.
I don’t know where the line is between kitsch and tasteless. There came a moment when I started doing NFT and got to know a bunch of artists. Each of them does different things, and I realized what is too much for me is beautiful and cool for someone else. So it seems to me that overkill just doesn’t exist, it’s a subjective thing. If you look at my work, on the one hand, I’m very afraid to overdo it, so that my art doesn’t become too much, and on the other hand, only I will know when I’ve overdone it.
I was once inspired by Pshonka, girls with huge lips with Pomeranian dogs who wear fur vests — these are characters who care about showing so-called wealth. It was this folk kitsch that was the model for me, that’s where I started.
Before the war I was subscribed to some strange for me girls with inflated lips, they inspired me to look at the world differently. Yes, they are all the same, but in that moment they energized me. But many things inspire me: now it’s nature most of all, but it could also be a bag flying in the sky, homeless people digging in the trash near McDonald’s, while three identical rich girls sit next to each other. Or when I go to the countryside, I am inspired by a grandmother who is just milking a cow.
I’m also inspired by rugs — my parents have them in their house, too, because it reminds them of other times when a rug meant prosperity.
And in general, I like something bright and pretentious. This ostentatious richness, by the way, is also contrived.
Costumes and masks
I always liked costumes and masks, but for lack of opportunities I did something simpler. And now it just so happens that I don’t have the opportunity to create anything large-scale in Portugal.
I started making masks at the beginning of the war, and back then they were exclusively gray or black, even though it wasn’t about me at all. Then one of them had blue eyes, which symbolized to me some hope for a brighter future.
But I didn’t even take a picture of these masks. Why? I want to carry something light, and all my work is about lifting people’s spirits so that they stop, laugh, and move on with something warm inside.
I like making masks, also because the process of making them can keep you busy for a long time and thanks to that you won’t be watching the news.
Also, masks cover your face, and you don’t know who’s hiding underneath, so you can make up any story you want. I’m inspired by all kinds of things. For example, recently a friend and her daughter came to visit me and advised me to watch the cartoon «The Socksnatchers». I liked it and it gave me certain ideas about my masks.
She also suggested coming up with funny names for them and encouraged me to do something childish. Yes, it would end up being a bunch of fictional characters, and each would have their own story. And I think they’re also echoes of me wanting to work alone. Because you do what you want to do.
Now I have an idea and a desire to create a series of masks, about 10-15, and exhibit them in galleries.
Exactly one year ago, a friend of mine came to me and told me about NFT — like, «you sell, you get money, and everything is super». Another acquaintance of mine explained to me how it works — and it’s pretty complicated. And then I had to deal with Twitter on my own, because all of the NFT artist communication takes place on that social network. It was a bit difficult, I had to make connections and acquaintances from scratch.
But a year later I already had my collectors and my own community of cool artists. For years I was subscribed to some of them on Instagram, and now they have noticed me and we are friends, we communicate with each other and they buy my work. For example, the cover for my upcoming book, Blue Horse, was purchased by photographer Ben Zank, whose style I really like.
Instagram is one community, while Twitter is another, broader one that offers more opportunities. For example, a professor at a university in Colorado who is studying NFT wrote to me recently. She ordered my book, but not for herself, but for her university’s collection.
Many people call the NFT a bubble, but it still hasn’t burst. It seems to me that in some ways this is our future. When you can go to a gallery in your underwear from the comfort of your own home, and at the same time find out all the details about the artist you like, namely where he’s still exhibiting and what he’s selling. And after that, without leaving your kitchen, you can discuss what you’ve seen with other people who are also in their apartments, but on the other side of the world.
One day representatives of the British publisher Snap Collective wrote to me and offered to publish a book with my photos. Before the war in Kyiv, I really wanted to make a zine, but I didn’t have time. And it’s harder to do such a thing abroad. And suddenly a publisher, which deals with emerging artists, wrote to me.
One of my pictures gave the book its title. I have two favorite photos, and they are both with my parents: the two of them posing together in «Cowboy in the chamomile paradise» and my mother posing alone in «Blue Horse». I put her on the cover. The pictures with the masks looked more spectacular, but I chose the photo with my mom because it evokes emotion and a lot of questions about how my parents agreed to be my models.
And then we picked the color of the cover, and that was the hardest part. We had to choose between blue and orange. The latter really looked better, and it was favored by most of those who saw the layouts. But I wanted something calmer, and finally I got a cool monochrome — blue on blue. And the font on the cover, imitating children’s scribbles, was also chosen for a reason — it’s another reference to the «children» in my photos.
hooly gooly is such a play on words. I love pigeons, at one time I used to photoshop them all over the place, I even have a tattoo with a pigeon. Although everyone calls them rats, I still love them very much — in some countries they symbolize peace and prosperity. And so the hooly gooly is a reference to what pigeons are usually called.
The story of spasi i sohrani is a little more complicated. It is by no means a mockery of religion. I don’t go to church to make fun of it. For me, church is more about architecture, murals, etc. But I can make fun of lavish religious rituals with kissing crosses and falling to the ground, for example. Because it’s too much for me. You can always just pray to God, not consecrate cars for crazy amounts of money. This religious fanaticism, by the way, is also an interesting topic, as are the girls with the lips.
Also spasi i sohrani is about my period when I really liked crosses as jewelry and everyone gave them to me.
Don’t miss the previous hero of the Meet column: