Gijs Rood

Q&A with Sara

Iranian artist Sara Rajaei concluded the exhibition Gastarbeider Dating with the exhibition: ‘Spring cleaning, We are Iranians.’ Some questions and answers in retrospective to her project. The answers were written by Sara herself.


Haft Sin.jpg -


It might be interesting to know some of your background. For how long have you been in Holland and how did you get here?

I arrived here in summer of 98. My father got a job at the OPCW (one of the UN organizations) and I came with him… I was not planning to stay but 2 weeks after I arrived, I got accepted at the art academy in Den Haag and… look how many years it is now…

What was Spring Cleaning about? Can u explain that in a couple of sentences?

Spring cleaning was a cultural presentation of Iran, that’s why I decided to involve it in different directions: Music, Dance, Poetry, Film, History and most important of all how Iranian’s really are or how it is to be an Iranian, what it means… to me being an Iranian means; hospitality and enjoying your guest’s enjoyment…
That’s why we tried to make all the days like Iranian house parties, by offering people tea and sweets none stop, the way we do it in Iran… tea is always ready, sweets are on the table and you are always prepared if someone might ring the bell… as an Iranian host you never ask ‘would you like some tea?’
Instead, you have the tray full and you bring it to offer, you almost bend in front of your guest while offering… ‘Spring Cleaning’ was about feeling at home… for me… for my participants and for the visitors… and occasionally it was matching the arrival of the Iranian New Year so we called it ‘Spring Cleaning’ referring to the same tradition in Iran.

How does it relate to your earlier work as an artist?

Spring Cleaning did not very much refer to my own artistic activities. I was asked by the two curators (Katja Sokolova & Irina Birger), to do something that I would not do with my own art works, and so I decided to completely stand on the side and become a coordinator… to invite many people and let them do different projects… I decided I would only make possibilities for them to do what they wanted… I was curious if I could be an organizer at all… so I gave it a try.

How did Spring Cleaning evolve? What do you consider the highlights?

I started thinking who of the people around me I could invite… I invited a few Iranians along with a few non-Iranians… I was curious to see how I have been representing my cultural background to my none Iranian friends… and to let them try to feel how it is to be an Iranian… to let them try to represent me… I made a list and invited about 7 people and asked each of them to make a proposal… a few of them decided to collaborate, a few decided to invite more people… and so we became a group of 12… plus lots of people who helped us on the side… like my mother and her friends who helped me do the little tea house, collect the carpets and make the new years table… And that was the best part of it… After years I began feeling like a real Iranian…

Can you describe the visitors that were interested in your exhibition?

We had different types of people… Those who came for the film screening, music or the poetry only… those who had Iranian friends and knew already a bit about the country… the Iranians who came out of curiosity and then friends of my parents for example who came because they thought they should…
There was one person who came everyday… I do not know who he was but I guess he really loved the tea…

And there were a few who were just interested about Iran … there were other types too…

How did they react to Spring Cleaning?

Positively most of the times… I can’t really answer that question… I guess once you are serving people and smiling to them, smile in return… lets hope they did really like it… But I have to say the happiest group were the Iranians themselves… they thought the week was a good representation and had done a good mission to let us become more understood…

What do you think Spring Cleaning has contributed to the understanding of Persian culture?

I hope it made us look more humoristic and more cultural, I hope its could make clear what language we speak and who we really are…
My first idea for Gastarbeider’s Dating was to show the differences between Iranians and Arabs… or let’s say Iranians and people from other Islamic countries…
It was very interesting when after the lecture of Nafiss Nia about Persian Modern Poetry, one guy came to me and asked if he could have the CD that Nafiss had played. I was surprised because on that CD all the poems were read in Persian… I told him ‘but you won't understand it’… and he said ‘it was so beautiful that I am satisfied hearing it in the original language without even understanding it… such beautiful sound can only mean beautiful…’
For me the emotional part of Iranian culture is very important… I heard once from a Dutch guy at Tehran’s airport, who was saying ‘the best thing about Iran is the Iranian people’… Then I thought to myself it’s a pity that once you become an immigrant you get so much involved into struggling with your problems that you hardly can be what you’ve been in your own land… between your own people…
During that week at Mediamatic, we tried to be ourselves again…

The old Iranian expression “Honar nazde Iranian asto bas” talks about the relationship between art and Iranians, can you explain what it means?

"Honar nazde Iranian asto bas" in common language means ‘Art only belong with the Iranians’… but I remember when I was at the university in Tehran… one of my professors explained to us that ‘Art’ in this sentence means ‘Crafts’… so in a way we can say the sentence refers more to the beautiful carpets or the Iranian architecture…
But I also have to say in Iran we believe if you do something with all your heart and soul, if you do your best to do something good… then you are called an artist… a good cook is an artist… a good tailor is an artist and a good mother is an artist…
In that case this sentence does not much have with the fine arts…

Iranians always say ‘God is the greatest artist’…

Iran is known for it’s rich cultural history but also for it’s complicated relation with religion and politics nowadays. Is it hard to be an Iranian artist and do you feel restricted?

It’s hard because a lot of times I am very much categorized… as if my work has to deal with the country where I come from… when it does not… When I make a work I try to clear it from any kind of code… time wise and location wise… I am only interested in people and in feelings… people are people… no matter where they come from…

Has it influenced Spring Cleaning?

Well yes… specially when we were making clear what language we speak and what kind of culture we have or even when in the year we celebrate our new year… how is our dance… how is our music…

What’s the story behind the table with seven objects that start with an “s” that had a central position in the exposition?

We represented the table for its beauty and life and for representing our tradition of celebrating the Iranian New Year and the start of the spring… I hardly know any Iranian who can say ‘I don’t like the table’ or ‘if I see it I don’t get nostalgic’… So it was there to represent a beautiful tradition which hardly any one knows about… a tradition that we as Iranian’s are very proud of…

The explanation (from wikipedia):
Haft Sin (the seven 'S's) is a major tradition of Norouz, the Persian New Year.
It includes seven items starting with the letter ‘S’:
Sabzeh: wheat, barley or lentil sprouts growing in a dish - symbolizing rebirth.
Samanu: a sweet pudding made from wheat germ - symbolizing affluence.
Senjed: the dried fruit of the oleaster tree - symbolizing love.
Sir: garlic - symbolizing medicine.
Sib: apple - symbolizing beauty and health.
Somaq: sumac berries - symbolizing (the color of) sunrise.
Serkeh: vinegar - symbolizing age and patience.
A missing ‘S’ is exchanged with another item starting with an ‘S’’, for example:
Sonbol: the fragrant hyacinth flower for the coming of spring.
Sekkeh: coins for prosperity and wealth.
Other items on the table include:
Iranian pastries.
Lit candles for enlightenment and happiness.
A mirror.
Decorated eggs, sometimes one for each member of the family for fertility.
A bowl with goldfish as life, and the sign of Pisces that the sun is leaving.
A bowl of water with an orange in it as the earth floating in space.
Rose water for its magical cleansing powers.
The Quran.

The Persian year starts on March 21.