May 5 2015 07:20 PM

The media artist/designer wants women to challenge the idea of what’s expected of them

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    Arzu Ozkal
    Photo by Seth Combs
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    Szechuan Taste’s dry-cooked string beans
    Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
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    Birdy Bardot
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Arzu Ozkal's journey thus far has been one of artistic defiance. Most of her video work, graphic design and performance pieces have been decisive statements against male-centric totalitarianism and patriarchal value systems.

Born in Turkey, Ozkal is an assistant professor of graphic design at San Diego State University. Since 2011, she's been working on Home Affairs with fellow artist Nanette Yannuzzi. Comprising poster-sized screen prints that blend text, photography and graphic design, the series intends to honor, as Ozkal puts it, "creative, successful women who are also raising children."

From her workspace and studio at SDSU, Ozkal says, "It's bullshit to believe that women can't have both a career and a family. When I had my baby, I never questioned my capabilities to be a good mother, artist, professional and educator, but the perception out there is that once you get pregnant you have to settle down. Dealing with that is very tiring."

One print from the series, titled "Allison," shows a black-and-white image of a mother with a massive cloak, and her daughter emerging from the bottom of the cloak. The image appears to be one of playfulness, but the overlying text reads: "The princess. The princess. The frog. Live in a patriarchal society." It was inspired by an interaction where the mother explained to the daughter what, exactly, the word "patriarchy" meant. 

Another, titled, "Arzu," shows Ozkal herself (disguised in a fox mask) breastfeeding her newborn son with the caption, "Does your Gallery, Museum Conference Center or Festival provide Child Care?" 

"It was the first one I created," says Ozkal, who says the work was inspired by an incident where she was essentially kicked out of an exhibition in New Jersey for being pregnant. "There was a lot of discussion at that time about whether women have to choose having a baby or choose to have a career. I also saw this article where this female artist said she wasn't going to have kids, because if she did she couldn't be a 'perfect artist.' That pissed me off."

Ozkal says the fox mask is an alter-ego of hers, but in a way, she had to wear a lot of masks growing up in Ankara, Turkey. It's a bustling and modern city, but she says the capital of the heavily Muslim country is still repressive when it comes to women's rights. While she points out that her family was comparatively progressive, she still felt unhappy and repressed. 

After studying at Bilkent University in Ankara, she moved to—of all places—Buffalo, New York, to get her MFA. She was hired by Oberlin College to teach new media practices, and in 2011, moved to San Diego to teach at SDSU. Throughout the moves, she was creating art, publishing DIY book projects and exhibiting all over the world. In a lot of ways, Home Affairs—which opens at Art Produce Gallery on, naturally, Mother's Day, May 10, from 1 to 4 p.m.—can be seen as a culmination of not only Ozkal's artistic career, but of the issues she's attempted to address throughout her artistic journey. Through the prism of motherhood, Home Affairs shines a light on the larger issues facing all women. 

"All of my work is related, but part of a broader framework," says Ozkal. "Most of it is about inclusion and exclusion dynamics. This one just happened to deal with why we are excluding mothers." 

Ozkal plans to have photographic equipment set up at the show opening to take pictures of mothers that she'll ultimately use in the exhibition catalog. "We really wanted to open it on Mother's Day so we could meet other mothers and take their pictures and celebrate motherhood," she says. 

Email or follow Seth on Twitter at @combsseth.