‘Occupy Me’ explores thought-provoking clothing, systems of control

“Occupy Me: Branding Culture, Identity and the Politics of Fashion,” an exhibition by Hushidar Mortezaie was on display from Aug. 20 to 30 at the Lindhurst Fine Arts Gallery at USC. (Emily Smith | Daily Trojan)

A pioneer of multiple aesthetic movements, Iranian contemporary artist Hushidar Mortezaie is already part of a particular canon — his work has, according to a  press release, contributed to the rise of Middle Eastern and Islamic symbolism in the fashion world and in New Wave Iranian conceptual art, a movement that flourished with the children of Iranian Renaissance at its center.

His epic collages, featuring striking portraits and traditional Middle Eastern prints and patterns, juxtapose color with black and white, stillness with dynamism and confrontation with introspection. Utilizing text, pattern, paint, photography and more, his work is as multidimensional physically as it is ideologically. Artists’ backgrounds and their respective countries of origin are often brought up in conversations about their work. In the case of Mortezaie, his background is the conversation.

Having immigrated from Tehran, Iran, to Northern California in 1975, Mortezaie explained that the expression of identity through clothing was always important to him. His journey, which began 24 years ago, involved moving to New York, exposing himself to the local drag scene and being mentored by costume designer Patricia Field. At one point early in his career, he asked himself, “Wait, what about where I’m from?” He cites an “exodus back to Iran” in 1999 as a turning point in his career. During this trip, he saw propaganda art and learned that over half the population was under 30 and that Iran was metropolitan, much like New York City,  in ways that he did not expect.

Mortezaie began the walkthrough of his show with a survey of several fashion pieces — mostly dresses. The artist stated that his original intention was for Iranian women to be recognized as powerful and strong. Intertwining graphic design, screen printing, sewing and painting, Mortezaie believes the fashion industry is now dwindling in craftsmanship due to its focus on fast fashion. The artist is very conscious of the way in which technical immediacy impacts society, half-jokingly stating, “The future has come and we just want to be famous.”

In the first part of the gallery, Mortezaie intends to show that thought-provoking clothing can also be aesthetically pleasing. He prefaced these works by saying that many magazines have explored “the politics of fashion” by employing headlines such as “Generation Terrorist.” Hoping to subvert racist stereotypes. Mortezaie, as he puts it, wants to move “past the question of the veil — the bottom line is that it should be a choice … not forced … not demonized.”

The mannequins themselves are positioned in ways that relate to the characters on the garments. The white gown, for instance, features singer Googoosh and the number 678, which is significant to a poem by Forough Farrokhzad. In it, the words of the Iranian national anthem are used to critique monarchy and control. In mounting cultural, social and political references onto his garments, he emphasizes that “fashion, revolution, death —  everything becomes a trend — it’s endless.” His designs are thus art pieces in and of themselves, critiques of sensationalism and commodification.

The title of the show, he explained, denotes, “The various ways that we are occupied… whether it’s systems of control from the East or the West.”

One painting in particular stands out:  A grey-toned painting with subtle notes of pink. It is an act of rebellion against the lack of representation of Iranian men, particularly gay men, as beautiful in the art world. It is a nod to the gay community in Iran, who are not often represented. Thus, the rosiness in the portrait becomes a source of power, reclamation and visibility. To the left of this painting stands another mannequin, half-dressed in garb of Iran’s old regime and half-dressed in contemporary political costume. Gazing at the female mannequins, this figure insinuates that across time and space, women are subject to patriarchal control.

On the right side of the painting is a mannequin dressed in clothes patterned with newspaper clippings. Mortezaie calls this figure “an ancestor to where we are now,” inspired by a man who openly came out as gay many years ago and was subsequently murdered for it. The next piece features two figures with a soccer net. This symbol of athleticism takes on a special role throughout the show, evoking personal recollections of the artist’s childhood, standing as a symbol of Iranian masculinity and “reverting the gaze onto men.”

The gallery is powerful and intense, but the tension is purposeful. Mortezaie began describing his “red carpet” piece by stating, “I have nationalism — but then I do

despise nationalism as well.” This work is an exploration of how the media represents Iranian people and the way Iranian people are conscious of the constant battle between representation and Orientalization. Keeping with the artist’s satirical approach, this red carpet piece features a garment with a laundry detergent label-like print that reads “Orientalism makes me Barf.” (“Barf” in Farsi means “snow,” and is also the name of a detergent brand.)

Next is an installation emulating a store display. The “Paris is Burning” collection, as Mortezaie calls it, is a reference to the film of the same name and the resilience of its characters. The message, he stated, is that one could create without capitalist incentive. The last display, also placed against this wall, features an outfit called “Receipts,” previously worn by model Linda Evangelista in Vogue Italia. Under the guise of Ronald McDonald, this clothing and its display represent the introduction and marketing of hardship into the commercial sphere, something that, according to Mortezaie, is “enslaving us — or enlightening us — depending on how you look at it.”

Having familiarity with so many avenues of classical Iranian origin, contemporary American and other styles including poetry, art, fashion, film and politics — Mortezaie is active within the discourses surrounding what will, for him, always be personal. He does so while subverting expectation and stereotype, staying weary of all implications of his work and simultaneously remaining lighthearted and celebrative of life.

Presented in partnership with USC Roski School of Art and Design, the Farhang Foundation and the USC LGBT Resource Center, “Occupy Me: Branding Culture, Identity & The Politics of Fashion” is on view at the Helen Lindhurst Fine Arts Gallery on the ground floor of Watt Hall. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.