Houman Mortazavi's art and ideas
By Elham Gheytanchi
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
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
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
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
What was your parents' reaction
to your new found desire to draw?
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
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
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
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
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
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
loose in the elections and other campaigns. Advertising
and media companies were merged at the time so they ended up
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
I needed to pack up and leave.
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.
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
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
So I began to pay close attention to Iranian aesthetic style.
There is no universal aesthetic; the standards vary culture by
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 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
mundane are either ignored or dramatized. But behind all the drama
and generic reactions, there is a pattern and logic, which still
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
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,
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
dimension to the viewer's experience and exploration. The
viewer becomes a part of the art and acts as a switch which will
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.
mission is to collect and present the undocumented, the
obscure, the marginal, and the seemingly unworthy aspects of
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
around this fictitious person's personality, ego
and understanding of the
world around. I am using newspaper ads as the delivery
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
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