YASSA discusses family, the universe, her art & being a badass woman
Interview by Noor Alabdulbaqi
Don’t Tell Yassa What to Do!
Something is unwaveringly magnetic about Yasmin. Perhaps it’s her infectious aplomb, perhaps it’s her courage to share her truth or perhaps it’s her art that she creates with intention. Yasmin, also known as YASSA, is a multimedia artist and an empowering woman on all counts. She is inspired by ‘ feminine energy and the universe.’ Holding numerous exhibitions, including The Power of the P, YASSA’s art is bold and outspoken, yet elegant and beautiful. In this interview, YASSA candidly shares her stories, as well as grandma’s. Her answers will relate, uplift, teach, reflect, and entertain all at the same time.
Who is Yasmin for those who don’t know?
Yasmin Sarkisian-Almokhamad. I was born in Russia and as a child, immigrated to the United States; Seattle, WA. My father was a Syrian exchange student in the USSR and my mother an Armenian factory worker. I have a billion intersections. I am an artist. I am a woman. I am a refugee. I am a Leo. I am a crybaby. I am Arab. I am ‘Caucasian’. I am YASSA.
When did you know you wanted to pursue art? Talk to me about the time when you quit your office job. How was that transition?
One summer, a good friend of mine had been shot and killed. Intrinsically, I chose to stop showing up in all parts of my life- friends, family, work and for myself. I was searching for an answer. That summer I started being really reckless. Months later I dropped out of school, moved in with my grandma trying to get my life back in order. I painted, read and prayed for months. Life is cyclical; I moved from Seattle to Los Angeles, over and over. Couchsurfing, dating crazy men, chasing fame, chasing fast money and escaping myself. Truthfully, the answer to your question is that I STILL do not know I want to pursue art. I know that I will ALWAYS remember that time in my grandparents’ home. Although, I always share my cute story of becoming an illustration artist on accident, the time I spent healing through art is what brought me to where I am today.
You mentioned you received a lot of inspiration for the arts from your grandma and mum. In which ways did they inspire you?
When my grandma would braid my hair, she used her big strong hands to pull my scalp till I cried, to give me the most beautiful tight braids on my huge head of thick curly hair. She would play Armenian music for me to dance in the living room with her. My mom would take me to the library daily to help me choose literature to read. I would be 8 years old reading Jules Vern & Mark Twain. My mom would take me to operas, ballets and plays. She sent me to Russian art teachers. A few days ago, my mom called me and was telling me a story of how my grandma watched as Azeris came to her hospital and put urine into Armenian peoples I.V drips. How they told my grandma if she didn't leave, they would throw her off the roof. Months ago, me and my grandma were eating watermelon in her kitchen. She told me how her and my mother escaped Baku in the middle of the night. They were raping and killing Armenian women in the neighbourhood. Her and my mother, with pyjamas and winter coats on leaving every single belonging they had, to catch a train in the middle of the night. How can I be anything but inspired by these women?
We can also receive much more from our previous familial generations. What other things do you feel you have collected from yours?
This year my father told me that my great grandparents were Palestinian and when they were exiled, they ended up in Syria. My dad still has the keys to his late grandfather's home, which is now an Israeli settlement. I have very little connection to anything Palestinian in my Americanised life except an understanding and empathy. Now, I always wonder about that part of myself and my family. I always wonder about how being Armenian also means being people who experienced a mass genocide. How trauma is in my body, from the trauma my family members before me experienced. I always wonder who and what I would be if I was raised in a different place and a different time. If I would still be the person to use my voice for what I believe in. My mom says I have hot blood cause we are passionate people. She is not wrong.
Intentions are important to you. You said, “We decide where we are today, tomorrow and yesterday. We can live consciously & intentionally. If not for ourselves, for our ancestors. They are our guardians after all.” How were you feeling and what were you thinking about when you wrote this?
Through every mistake I have made, I learned lessons with lifetimes of value. When you know the intention behind your action or thought process, NOBODY can take that away from you. NOBODY can keep you down and NOBODY can make you smaller. When you pay attention to your spirit, you know yourself, you trust yourself. This is what living your best life really means.
Your project around rebirth, death and transition resonated with many. How did creating a project about this help you heal?
In the past few months I said goodbye to parts of myself. Death of parts that did not serve me purpose anymore. Death to these parts also meant death of some close relationships. Saying hello to the newborn parts of myself, also meant looking at my current relationships from a different lens. When I am talking about relationships, I am talking about family and friends who I consider family. As time passes, people around you choose different life paths and grow in different ways. Sometimes it feels like the world around me is a whirlwind and I am just standing in the middle waiting for a sign. You know, being a mid-twenties woman in a western society with a traditional Middle Eastern family is fucking hard. Where people place your value as a person is such a juxtaposition and knowing that I can only live for myself is where this project came from. Every day I pull a card from a deck (tarot), I trust my guides to tell me what I need to pay attention to and then I share this with my community through my own version of the message.
Practicing Japanese Buddhism is really special to you, how has this practice strengthened you?
It really comes down to knowing God. God as in the universe. God as in GOD IS IN ME. God is in ALL OF US. God is an alchemist. God is a woman. God is Earth. Think about that, the connection between ourselves, the universe and every single coincidence or moment of self-realisation. I was raised Christian but you know, my father still feels I am Muslim by bloodline. For me, the faith where I feel empowered is what feeds my spirit. My Buddhist practice makes me a better person, which is what all forms of faith really boil down too.
Whilst you have been representing the diaspora community you come from, Middle Eastern artists are still underrepresented in the art world. What do you think should be done to improve this in this sphere?
I find that people think diversity is having one Middle Eastern in an art show, or brown person in general. One Middle Eastern giving input, having that one image of a woman in a Hijab. When in reality, there are so many different kinds of Middle Eastern folks with such complex identities. One person will never be the proper representation of all of us. I also find that, Middle Eastern people have had to co-opt space with African American folks in the U.S. This is because that's where people find commonalities in one another's struggles, find safe space and acknowledge how we are treated in the U.S. We should create our own spaces, so we can stop taking up theirs and also have something that is truly sacred and aligned with our own experiences. Being Middle Eastern is ALL ABOUT COMMUNITY. I also think white people should stop the white guilt and being fake weird liberals, acknowledge that their existence is colonising and AUTHENTICALLY choose to give opportunities to marginalised folks. Not use them to create diversity, but actually appreciate the knowledge and stories they are sharing.
You are a badass, empowering woman that exudes confidence and comfort to us who watch you and your work. Your openness about your past, your stories, your queerness. What advice do you give other women who are less comfortable and who worry about what mama, baba, anyone may think?
I have to reiterate, KNOWING YOUR INTENTION. If what you are doing does not hurt others and makes you happy, don't make yourself smaller. It is really easy to get lost in doing things influenced by social media or your peers. So when we choose to express ourselves the way we do, it is important to think about the message we are sending. People will judge us day in and day out, this is inevitable. Just be mindful. It took me ten years of fucking up to get to where I am today. Let us not forget that we are living capitalist and colonised lives, erasure of our cultures is very real while we try to survive in western society. This is not our fault. We didn't ask to be brought to other countries or born as ‘millennials’. Earlier, I almost shared a story with you but had to delete the whole thing because I realised that someone will tell their grandma, and their grandma will tell mine. It is also important to live our life with gratitude for our elders whose lives may be too traumatised to share. They might actually understand way more than we realise. God bless them.
Please list the most annoying moments when you were told what to do before. (Don’t tell me what to do! List)
· SHAVE YOUR ARMPITS!
· Grow your hair out, you look like a boy
· YASSA! don’t swim too far oh my god be safe be safe
· Cross your legs, sit like a lady
· My grandma ALWAYS asks me to go to church and be baptised
· You have to have kids, you are a young woman and you won't be able to have kids when you're too old. You need to have a baby soon you are almost thirty YASSA
· Don’t move! How will you afford it? Do you have a job? Where will you live? It is so expensive to live there, you HAVE TO save thousands of dollars. You CAN'T move.
· BABA, why don’t you get offize job doing data entry or somezing like zat
· For my grandpa's funeral they did not want me to have my green hair and asked me to dye it black or wear a headscarf cause the community will judge our family
· FIND A HUSBAND FIND A HUSBAND FIND A HUSBAND FIND A HUSBAND FIND A HUSBAND FIND A HUSBAND
· My dad forced me to wear an Islamic bathing suit at the Dead Sea in hot ass weather out of respect for his wife, but all the Russians were in bikinis
· My mom told me to tell a dude that cat called me “THANK YOU” and be nice to him because it's a compliment?
· FIND A MAN FIND A MAN FIND A MAN FIND A MAN
Free text: You can write anything you want here about yourself. Can be anything from fave cereal to politics.
Sometimes I get really embarrassed when people tell me I’m an activist cause I never thought myself as that. I have no formal education in any activist work and was never too involved in actual activist community. Then, after a while I realised, I am also an activist. I am an activist through art, for being brave for myself and other women. For standing up for marginalised people and for what I believe in. If a person feels like they are not doing enough to create a change, one must always remember that one small daily action for the greater good is also activism. If that means referring a black or brown friend for a job, buying art from a POC, sharing a resource or even just sharing someone's Instagram post. Activism starts in our daily lives. Other than that, I want to say that I am hoping to gear my art in a different direction. I am hoping to focus more on a way using it to help people and not just make cutesy fun pop art. If that means teaching young children art or donating parts of my profit or whatever else I can figure out. Also here’s a list of my top favourite things in the world:
Pupusas from the lady at Macarthur park in LA
Hugging men when they try to shake my hand
Shaking mens hand so hard it hurts to assert power and equality in a business setting
Sticking my tongue out at strangers toddlers walking down the street
Eating hot cheetos in bed while watching Pretty Woman
Going to pay for dinner with a Middle Eastern friend and then you both argue who pays and then we split it
I really really really love burping
Crying and then laughing
I love sleeping on the floor
I love dancing to Gipsy Kings in the grass and spinning in circles then fall laughing with my friends
Smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee for breakfast, but I don't smoke
Saying YALLA to all my friends
*YASSA notes* people are subject to growth and change so this interview might hold a different space for YASSA in five years.