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Art

Weapon of choice
Houman Mortazavi's art and ideas

By Elham Gheytanchi
July 18, 2003
The Iranian

Living in Los Angeles brings one into contact with many Iranians. Some have been out of the country for decades. Once in a while you see a fresh talented artist who has left Iran not so long ago and still very much in tune with present realities. Houman Mortazavi is one such artist. He is very personal in his artistic expression and is constantly reinventing himself. Here is my interview with Houman >>> See artwork

When did you start drawing?

Early, like everybody else, but I guess it clicked when I was eight or nine-years old when I saw cartoons in Ettela'at newspaper by an artist named Sakhavarz. He chose political and social topics. I fell in love with them and tried to imitate him and other cartoonists of the day.

And the story is kind of funny... the year was 1354 (1975). On Taj Avenue, near our house in Tehran, there was a distribution office for Ettela'at newspaper. I thought the office was the main headquarters of the newspaper! I entered the place and asked for the "owner" of the because I wanted to show him my drawings which I assumed were very similar to Sakhavarz's.

The guy who was cleaning the floors put aside his work, walked up, sat behind a big desk and interviewed me! At the end he said the "big boss" is not here and I have to come back later! It took me a lot of going back and forth to realize it was not Ettela'at's head office and the people there were regular distribution employees. In a fit of anger I promised myself never to work with Ettela'at... and I still haven't.

What was your parents' reaction to your new found desire to draw?

Like most Iranian parents they saw me as a doctor or an engineer. I remember my father used to say that drawing is a hobby, noon o aab nemisheh (It's not a way to make a living). But as time passed they supported me. Perhaps because Kaveh Dadashzadeh, my teacher in school, persuaded them that I really have some talent. I used to draw cartoons of my teachers. I would work on them for a whole year.

This eventually led to my first real professional attempt as a cartoonist with Karikator satirical magazine. Soon I found myself in a few group shows. I started illustrating a series of books for children, which didn't really lead to anything serious since the publisher's bookstore was one of the first torched just before the revolution. That was enough for me to get hooked.

How did you start working with Karikator?

I met the editor Mohsen Davallou. He was a veteran cartoonist who knew Prime Minister Hoveyda personally, so he was allowed to publish satire. I remember their office was on Sevom Esfend Ave, which had an infamous reputation for attracting pedophiles. I was scared walking there to get to the magazine's office.

I thought Davallou was impressed by me to give me my first job. He was very kind and resourceful. I later found out that my father had once gone to his office with his most impressive attire -- his military uniform -- in order to recommend me. The poor editor must have given me my first job out of fear of authority.

Karikator was published every two weeks. I still remember my excitement, as it would get close to publishing day. My signature was Houman, in Persian of course, and the younger I was, the bigger was my signature!

Where did you go to school?

Right around the revolution in 1978, I went to England to study. It was fashionable then for emerging middle class families to send their kids abroad. So I went to Ruthin boarding school in North Wales. I spent four years there. I was only 13-years old. I studied as little as I could and instead explored my new surroundings.

I was the only kid studying art in a science-oriented school! So I had a lot of equipment. The teachers didn't care much, as the news about the anti-Western revolution in Iran was spreading. They viewed us as people who are essentially backward. I was dissociating myself from Iranians in an effort to fit in.

I was 17 when I came back to Iran. It was really a new beginning. I met painter Aydin Aghdashlou who had a private art school. My life changed. I walked in to learn how to draw cartoons and soon switched to become an illustrator, which led me to graphic design. And then painting. I have been going back and forth ever since.

Where do you see yourself with regard to the new generation of Iranian artists?

I am not very young, you know...almost 40. I am not sure where I fit in when it comes to generational boundaries. But I know that I belong to the post-revolution generation old enough to remember popular songs on the radio, or TV commercials [during the Shah's time] but not old enough to hum the tunes or buy them [after the 1979 revolution].

My generation grew up with war and an imposed state of emergency which lead to a persisting sense of worthlessness, resulting in extreme gravitation toward anything which offered some sort of shelter and relief from the harshness of war and whatever came before and after it. Art became my weapon of choice.

My generation is more like a self-made Frankenstein monster, clunky and ugly but looking for a friend or community. In my case it was a blessing since I learned how to open my eyes and look around me. Learning by trial and error is much richer and more rewarding than a theoretical understanding of how art is supposed to work. Like many, I had to reinvent the wheel but it became "my wheel".

What were some of your exhibitions in Iran before you came to the states?

Besides taking part in group shows and some public art and design events I had my share of solo exhibitions. I worked with magazines such as Film, Sanant Haml-o-Naghl transportation magazine, Adineh (a famous journal about Iranian literature), and Mofid magazine in Iran. I also designed many book covers, logos and posters for theater groups, publishing houses, and childrens' books.

As far as commercial art, through my design and advertising company I worked for Apple computer, Siemens and Panasonic. After the economic embargo on Iran, I switched to Iranian-produced products such as Golestan tea, Chai golkis, etc.

What made you leave Iran?

Back in 1994 a new generation of moderates used urban billboards to promote political campaigns. Soon the hardliners realized they have to ban it or else they will loose in the elections and other campaigns. Advertising and media companies were merged at the time so they ended up revoking the agreement between advertising companies which included ours. Overnight I turned from an award winning, hard working designer into a person who was breaking the law of the land.

Also a few months later I was working on a huge art project. This art exhibition/ installation show was called "Life Accessories". The theme of the exhibition was masks, or covers, we hide behind in everyday life. The idea behind it was to show how we become those masks and barriers. The exhibition consisted of multiple rooms each devoted to one topic; women, martyrs, worries, and mundane things. The Ministry of Intelligence denied the necessary permits so I had to go underground and negotiate, and bribe the local police to leave us alone.

These two brushes with the system made me think that I am wasting my time and energy and that I have to leave. By luck the show got international attention and soon afterward I was invited to visit Yaddo, an arts colony in New York state. And that was all I needed to pack up and leave.

I think you are mostly engaged with the Iranian audience. Even though you are an artist, it seems that you speak to Iranians inside and outside of Iran. Do you agree?

I am always responding to my social surroundings. There exists a visual language among artists. Artists develop their visual language from their life experiences... mine was very different from the American way... I never had to explain my art in Iran. In other words I don't necessarily pick my audiences but Iranians back home seem to connect more easily to my work. It is not a matter of choice and I don't make my art for them is specific but somehow they seem to be my primary audience.

It must be because we have all been through the same chain of events... at least this was the case until eight years ago when I got sick of everything and decided to leave, not realizing that I was to live away -- and not apart -- from my audience.

Why boxes? How did you start making boxes?

By necessity. Some years ago I started painting objects next to each other and at the same time I began to discover the power of "outsider art": art made by non-artists. And being the lazy soul that I am, it was much easier and interesting to actually glue the pieces to a surface than making a false representation of them.

So I began to pay close attention to Iranian aesthetic style. There is no universal aesthetic; the standards vary culture by culture. Our aesthetic reflects our understanding of the world. I began to see a distinctively Iranian sense of beauty that permeates every dimension of our live. So in a way the state propaganda is organic and very much rooted in our everyday culture.

I got some of my newly discovered artistic inspirations from altars at Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery. I had made many trips to this gigantic cemetery. I was a driver during my army draft years and one of the regular trips I had to make was to a camp for Iraqi POWs just outside the cemetery.

The camp was extremely depressing and boring and I ended up wondering into the morgue and watching people going through different steps of preparation for burial, families dealing with their loss and of course the grave sites and altars. Being present during the whole process was an amazing discovery. As topics, life, death and the mundane are either ignored or dramatized. But behind all the drama and generic reactions, there is a pattern and logic, which still amazes me.

Altars are probably the best-kept secret in contemporary Iranian art scene and a perfect example of outsider art. After a few trips to Behest-e-Zahra, my whole vision changed. I developed this new admiration and obsession with "Iranian aesthetics" which is native to our culture. I started experimenting with large mirror boxes. After I began my journey to the US, my boxes automatically shrank along with my studio, since I was moving around too much.

I think everybody has some of those boxes buried somewhere in their thoughts. A mismatched collection of memories, events, understandings or feelings which are seemingly irrelevant and, only make sense in their metaphorical setting in one's mind.

Unlike traditional painting and sculpture these boxes need to be physically touched and explored. This way they add a different dimension to the viewer's experience and exploration. The viewer becomes a part of the art and acts as a switch which will toggle on and off a series of emotions, experiences and thoughts that are in most cases completely different than what I had intended or imagined, but are just as valid. Every viewer creates his or her version of the box that in a way creates a new box and narrative... all just as relevant and acceptable as the one before.

What is your new project?

Currently a few friends and I are working on a Center for Iranian Culture, a virtual site featuring cultural traces from contemporary Iranian culture and society. Our primary mission is to collect and present the undocumented, the obscure, the marginal, and the seemingly unworthy aspects of life encountered by Iranians around the globe.

I am also working on another project that deals with the Iranian style of exile and immigration. The whole project revolves around this fictitious person's personality, ego and understanding of the world around. I am using newspaper ads as the delivery method to tell the story of being uprooted and tossed in a different environment. Most importantly is the need to be seen, documented or registered somewhere. Apparently here in LA, instead of working on something more lasting, the cheapest, fastest and easiest way is to pay for some ad in local newspapers.

This is a work in progress and at some point I am planning to wrap it up by exhibiting the printed pieces. We will see how it goes >>> See Mortaavi's boxes

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