Meeting Yasuna Iman, one of the first things that strikes me is that she's wise beyond her years in a way that makes you certain that her spirit has been around for lifetimes. Perhaps that's why concepts such as impermanence and instability seem second nature and infuse every aspect of her life and work? Yasuna paints with plants, and it seems they speak both with and through her. We joined her in her studio, both inside and outside, to learn more about her journey and process.
Yasuna is wearing the Rugose Hex Blouse and Maria Morgana Hera Pants in cotton.
In your artist statement, you talk about concepts like surrendering to instability, finding excitement in the unexpected, questioning permanence, and embracing change. All of this, while I know it applies to your process of painting with natural, plant-made dyes, feels like it speaks about more than your work; it sounds like a philosophy of life in general. How have these concepts influenced your path?
All of it is connected to my life in general. I developed my practice in Berlin, a couple of years after moving here from Paris. I was still settling in, a process that took some time as I was going through an emotional re-adjustment. Alone in a place I didn’t know for the first time in my life, I was made to go through a lot of experiences that I may have avoided in the past.
When you no longer have the comfort of a place where you have your familiar marks and your friends and family around, you can’t operate in the same way and are forced to find new ways. A lot of this happened through surrendering to the unknown and unexpected, to the things outside my control.
This extended into my practice after discovering the medium of plants, which is something that’s all around us, but is often taken for granted, and we hardly take the time to really look. Getting close to nature in this way made me reassess my environment completely.
Working with natural tints is a completely different experience from conventional paints since the colors change quickly, sometimes within minutes; they also continue to evolve over time. When I first experienced this, I was devastated. You create something you’re excited about, just to watch it change. It was really upsetting.
The more familiar I got with the process, the more I realized that this was exactly what was so special about it. I decided to find ways to embrace it and build a bridge between these concepts and where I was in my personal life.
Yasuna Wearing the Maria Morgana Athena Dress in Moonstone
It sounds like the process of grasping and learning to let go; of accepting impermanence. These are some heavy concepts!
Yes, we have a tendency to want control over our lives and to hold onto things as they are. The process of aging is one example. It can be overwhelming and uncomfortable, for myself included, to see that we’re changing in unexpected ways. Yet, there’s something freeing in accepting that they do and that we don’t have a say in it.
When my clients ask how I prevent my work from changing, I tell them that I don’t. When they ask why, I point out that they, too, are ever-changing. When we’re all constantly evolving, why should we demand that our surroundings stay static?
I find this an interesting concept to explore through art. Coming from an art history background, where restoring and maintaining art is a job in itself, we learn that art is valued higher when it remains unchanged through time.
We cherish what stays the same, and when something fades, it’s perceived value fades with it. I’d like to challenge that. Why shouldn’t there be value in having an art piece evolve with us; to provide an experience rather than just being an object?
How did you learn to appreciate these changes?
After moving to Berlin it hit me that the city is always under development, and after four years here, I see that this doesn’t stop, whereas, in Paris, the city is established and remains more or less the same.
Here, where I see things torn apart and rebuilt; destruction and reconstruction, I’m surrounded by instability.
Moving here at twenty-one, I was searching for myself and came with a head full of questions just to realize that there may not be any real answers. It’s intriguing to remain in a place of not knowing, and there are certain freedoms and opportunities found in not being certain of what the future holds.
In a place that is in a constant state of recreating itself, I came to embrace that internally. As if creating a little city of my own inside myself, I was reconstructing; moving things around.
Did you move here to be a painter?
Yes, but I didn't know it yet. I wasn't honest with myself about it. I studied art history and graduated with a bachelor's degree. During my last year, I was working as an assistant in a contemporary conceptual art gallery in Paris. There I met an artist based in Berlin who offered me a position in his studio and I decided to take a gap year after my studies to come here. That turned to two and later three… it just felt right, so I stayed.
In the beginning, I applied to several art schools, but got rejected multiple times. Each time, though, I felt a sense of relief. I know that often, when we’re turned away from a place, we talk ourselves into thinking that perhaps we didn’t want in to begin with. While this might have played a part, I couldn't ignore the sense of relief. After two years of trying, I realized that maybe I didn’t really want to be in art school to begin with?
I saw that I might have been applying because it felt like what I was supposed to do. Why would I be painting all day long if I didn’t want to get into art school, right? Then, I saw that I was already doing what I wanted to do, so I just continued to do my thing.
Yasuna wearing the Maria Morgana Athena Dress in Moonstone
From someone who went to art school, I can attest that the most valuable take away is the art and design history. That gives you a reference point from which to work. The technical part, you can learn on your own with practice. It sounds like you're following your path!
Yes, it felt right, and I learned to listen to myself instead of caring about what was expected of me. I didn’t want to do the obvious thing, but, then again, what’s more obvious than to make art when you want to be an artist?
Ha! I guess the most obvious would have been to go to the store and buy regular paint, but instead, you turned to plants. How did that happen?
I used to buy a ton of regular paint before, and when I moved here and applied for school, I presented works mostly in acrylics and Indian inks.
My path to discovering plant-based paints happened in a strange way. I was working as a waitress in a café. It was a spring morning, and very few people were there when I discovered this woman who was walking around, collecting pieces of plants and flowers from our vases. She looked so calm and peaceful, smiling at the flowers and I thought, what is she doing and why are her fingers all green?
Eventually, I had to ask, and she told me that she was collecting plants to make pigment to dye fabric to make clothes.
What??? Tell me more! I’d never heard of this before.
She came over to me and rubbed a piece of a plant onto a piece of paper, and it turned bright green. Then, she grabbed a piece of lemon from her tea, squeezed it on the paper and it turned yellow. I was in awe!
She told me she gives workshops and we exchanged contacts, but we never met again. Instead, it was this magical meeting: I’ll show you the way and you’ll find out later. I was completely captivated and couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Inspired, I went to the art supply store again, and there I stumbled upon a flyer for a natural dyeing workshop, but with someone else. I signed up, went and learned how to handle plants and turn them into dye. The rest, I figured out.
Wow, what a story! This goes back to the idea of surrendering and realizing that we can’t really plan these things. I continue to see that when we open ourselves up we allow for these synchronicities to happen. Then, when we pay attention, we start to see little crumbs on our paths, showing us the way…
Yes, things come together beautifully when we do. I love thinking about this woman, and the fascinating thing is that she came to me as I was going through a deep creative rut. I’d been struggling for months and felt awful, trying to squeeze something out of myself but nothing felt right. Walking home after meeting her, I felt this excitement again. You can't mistake that; the raw feeling of curiosity where you know there is something there you have to find out about.
You’d been trying to squeeze something out of yourself and here comes this woman and squeezes a lemon, and it all makes sense…
Haha, yes! This was only the first of a succession of nonsensical events that led to my creative practice. Not long after, I went to spend time in the countryside and I lost myself in the woods. The experience was terrifying and I remember the feeling of my heart beating in my chest and my hands getting clammy. All I saw was trees and I had no idea where I was. The only thing I knew to do was to surrender, so I sat down pulled my notebook out of my jacket pocket, and started drawing.
Observing the trees and branches I tried to just be present in my surroundings, and through the drawing, to be present in my body. I don’t know how long I sat there, but as I drew, page after page, I started to feel calmer. I could feel my hands and my face again, and my heart started beating normally. Looking down, I saw all these lines all over my journal. This was a few weeks after discovering the natural dyeing.
I decided to merge the two elements, which had both come to me in such an organic way, to see how they could coexist. When I returned to the city, I experimented and created the first piece that led me to what I'm doing now. That was my first time experimenting with blind line drawing and this natural color painting. I remember the sense of relief as the piece came together; this was what I’d been trying to force out. I remember being very emotional. I didn't have to force it, it just came…
Yasuna Wearing the Maria Morgana Bia Blouse and Venus Wrap Skirt both in Pearl
But, how did you find your way out of the woods?
It’s when we get scared that we lose sense and everything gets blurry. When we return to our bodies, we start to see clearly again. That’s what happened. As I sat in the stillness and calmed down, I suddenly knew my way.
Chills! Isn’t that a metaphor for life in so many ways?
I’m a huge fan of the idea that the path appears as we start walking. Don’t you think that, had you stayed in Paris, you probably would have been up to something completely different?
Absolutely! I left Paris searching for something, unsure of what it was, but I knew quickly that I was searching in the right place. Many asked me when I was planning to come back, but all the signs were telling me to stay and I couldn’t ignore them.
Yes, the confirmation telling you that you’re aligned.
Can you tell us a bit about your process? When you paint, do you try to depict anything in particular?
It's quite experimental and playful, usually starting with looking at the colors and making tons of swatches. These lead to compositions which I then combine line drawing. I might draw from something I see at home, but most of the time I like to go outside in nature; that’s my main inspiration.
Do the colors you come up with dictate what ends up on the paper?
To a degree. I usually feel a certain energy from each color and if it’s, let's say, a very sheer tint, I might add more texture and stitch in another natural element, like a leaf or flower. When the pigment is bolder I often end with lighter lines to give space to the color.
So, again, you allow things to happen?
Yes. When I make a pigment I also never focus on one page at the time. Instead, I paint on many different pages at once, creating lots of swatches and shapes. In the end, I select the ones with the most interesting compositions and continue with those. Its really like playing…
Everything you do aligns so clearly, conceptually, and all of it is about impermanence, intuition, and letting things happen. Do you feel like having clear concepts allow for more playfulness?
There's always an intention when you create a piece of art, still we never know exactly what’s going to come out. There’s a beauty in accepting that, and I play a lot with this within the mediums I'm using.
Accepting the fact that you can’t ever fully plan, what do you hope for the future of your work?
I want to make a bunch of it, and I want to spend a lot of time in nature in the process. I’d also love to have a show soon.
When I first moved here, I didn’t want to show my work to anyone and felt like it was more for me, but now, I’ve come to a place where I want to share it with others. I feel open and ready!
This interview was conducted and edited by Berlin-based writer Ena Dahl.
Photography by Johannes Berger