Five years ago, when Hushidar Mortezaie’s father passed away, the Iranian-born, American-raised artist began a collage inspired by his father’s collection of 1970s Iranian sports, pop culture, and political ephemera. He created textiles from the design, which later became the basis of his collaboration with Jiyan Zandi, who was born in the U.S. but has roots in Iran’s Kurdish region, as well as Mexico. The pair titled the resulting, deeply personal body of work “The Champion Series” (2018).
One image from the series, titled The Brotherhood, features two men, crowned with roses and outfitted in Mortezaie’s textile designs; one man slings his arm around the other, their outward gazes soft but direct. Mortezaie said they created a set for the photograph that would be reminiscent of a retro photo studio in Kabul or Tehran. Family heirlooms provide a backdrop onto which Mortezaie said he and Zandi placed their “champions”—subjects in the series who represent the beauty of overcoming adversity—“onto a heroes’ shrine of roses.”
The work overflows with vibrant colors and celebrates masculine beauty in Iran and its diaspora, paying tribute to the designer’s father; Mortezaie, who is gay, said that his father accepted him unwaveringly, something he said is still uncommon in his culture. The image, he said, honors his “father’s gentle, yet strong spirit founded in love of all humanity, including his gay son.”
And the diversity captured in the image is a microcosm of Iran itself, Zandi said—something frequently lost in Western narratives of contemporary Iran. Together, the two photographers and two models represent Assyrian, Chaldean, Kurdish, Mexican, and Persian backgrounds. Zandi also hoped to highlight the key role that young Iranians play in shaping the country’s future.
“Young people make up the majority of the population [in Iran], and are defining the future, a future that will look very different from what we see today,” Zandi said. She sees this new narrative of the Middle East as one that “celebrates multicultural diversity, erases gender norms, and promotes LGBTQ acceptance.”