Artist's Statement: Ala Ebtekar on Coming of Age in Iran, and Finding His Early Muse in Hip-Hop and Graffiti
It was Renoir who said that a work of art "must seize upon you, wrap you up in itself, and carry you away." Interviews with artists should have a similar effect. With "Artist's Statement," our weekly interview series with prominent and upcoming visual artists in San Francisco, SF Weekly speaks to the people behind the art you see in the galleries, in the museums, and in the streets.
The summer of 2013 is the summer of Ala Ebtekar. The Oakland artist is featured in two major San Francisco exhibits: The Asian Art Museum's "Proximities 1: What Time Is It There?" (through July 21); and YBCA's "Migrating Identities" (June 28-September 29). Ebtekar makes art that spans his interests in Persian history and modern America. Raised mostly in the Bay Area, Ebtekar has a background in street graffiti. Hip-hop music also influenced Ebtekar, who DJ'd for many years. Ebtekar, 34, who graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute, spoke to SF Weekly about his eclectic background, how street art was an important proving ground, how learning art in Iran had many humorous moments, and how his new work takes a "post-identity" approach that says everything about the state of Iranian-Americans.
Courtesy of Ala Ebtekar The Shape of Things to Come
Q: Your work in "Proximities 1," like The Shape of Things to Come and Tunnel in the Sky (2), are mesmerizing - like stars systems shaped by Persian aesthetics. Their back story involves Iranian wrestlers, of all things. You have to explain.
A: Back in 2006, at the Richmond Art Center, a show that Anu Vikram curated, we talked about doing something that would be hung. I saw the space and the first thing that came to mind was to do wall drawings. And what I ended up doing were these drawings that essentially were overlaying these images of traditional Iranian wrestlers, who were very much the kind of heroes of urban cities of Iran. If you go to any coffee house in Iran, what graces the walls are these huge paintings on canvas that depict ancient heroes of the great Persia. Most of these are images of heroes from the Shahnameh, the book of kings, 1,000 years ago. Beside them are these smaller-framed photographs of wrestlers. In many ways, they're the more tangible local heroes next to the mythological heroes. But the connection is very interesting. The wrestlers are like martial artists. They're buff and huge, but people approach them for advice, family and financial advice, and at the same time, the wrestlers work out with the same poetry from the Shahnameh. In the traditional wresting ring where they work out, there's a guy called the morshed. He's on the drum, and he basically runs through the workouts going "1, 2, 3," and then says a verse of poetry from the Shahnameh. The chivalry is infused in these workouts. With the new drawings, I was looking at these poses and looking at the symmetry - the lines created in the poses, and I overlayed them with early Bboy gesture poses that I looked at when I was growing up. I was looking at the parallels, and the root of these cultures - I thought there were a lot of similarities. Now, I'm looking at how these poses create these gateways and portals through the symmetry. They created these Sri Yantras, which I wasn't necessary going for; it was triangles within triangles, and this empty space - a lot of my work keeps going back to that.
Courtesy of Ala Ebtekar Tunnel in the Sky (2)
Q: You came to art through music, including hip-hop. You're one of the few Iranian-American visual artists with that background. How did that happen?
A: I grew up in one of the greatest places I think you can grow up, which is Berkeley, California. We jumped around a few times - my dad was studying architecture at Berkeley, and my mom was studying printing, not fine-art printing, at City College of San Francisco. I was born, and then we went back to Iran, and the Revolution happened, and then the war (with Iraq), and they came back. Their student visas had expired, but through me - since I was considered a "born American" - they were able to get visas renewed. For the most part, I grew up in the East Bay. We went to Germany for a year. And then we came back. I didn't go to Iran after that until I was 18. I initially went back to visit family. I fell in love with someone, and I really wanted to explore more of the country. I had all these extended family - cousins, uncles, aunts, both my grandmothers. I stayed and studied drawing and painting. I thought I could take some classes in miniature painting and calligraphy, and sure enough I show up to school - I registered for classes, and kept looking at the roster, and couldn't find any miniature painting. I'm 19. I asked a couple students, "Where do I find miniature painting." And they looked at me as if I were crazy. They said, "that stuff is ancient! They don't teach that here!" And I said, "what are you guys into?" and sure enough, they said, "Jackson Pollock - abstract expressionism - what else?" I started laughing. It was one of those moments where the grass is always greener on the other side. You're always fascinated about what's not available to you. Even the teachers were big fans of abstract expressionism.
So I had to look outside the institution - I found a miniature painter, and a calligrapher, and started working with them. Three months into my studying with my miniature painter - this is in the northern part of Tehran - I go into this coffee house with my uncle, and there were all these large-scale paintings. It was wild. I'd never experienced anything like it. They were dynamic, expressive. And the miniatures were very academic, very refined. There's very little expression in those faces. In front of these paintings are Naghāls who are essentially the oral narrator of these stories who will spend a hour setting the mood. "The wind blew from the East. It was cold. It was this." And they build up this epic from the Shahnameh for the working class, the common folk, and for an audience that may not be able to read, in these very intimate settings. I was at an age where I'd been doing graffiti for 8 or 9 years. I picked that up when I was 14. I came back to my miniature painter, and it was the 10th day in a row that he has me drawing the same horse. (laughs). With an ink and brush. It has to be perfect. And I said, "this is great, but can we learn this other style, too?" He said, "do your work." I came across a book around coffee-house paintings, and I took it to him, and I said, "This is what I want to learn." And he said, "Well, this is coffee-house painting." I said, "whatever this is - can we do this?" And he immediately was offended. He said, "If you want to learn this, go home. I can't teach you this." I was able to find a coffee-house painter who happen to be one of the last living coffee-house painters. I worked with him the rest of my time in Tehran. For about nine years after that, I'd go back and work with him every summer. Some of the greatest things I've learned about art-making have come from him.
Courtesy of Ala Ebtekar Rapture
Q: That's a great story. But what about music?
A: I got into music at an early age. My uncle came to the U.S. from Germany. He had these music videos he was always listening to - he got me into it, and I was probably in the sixth grade when I started DJing at school parties, and got really into that. And then between 7th and 8th grade, during the summer, I went to KALX. They had this arrangement where if you volunteered for like 3-6 months, you can go through DJ training and be on the air. So sure enough, I got on the air, on my 13th birthday, from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. I just ran into Bennie B, who used to be on before me, and he's one of these hip-hop producers who went on to produce a lot of these underground hip-hop acts, and not only did he remember me, he remembered my mom. He said, "I remember she'd bring you in at 2 in the morning, and she'd hang out until you were done. And she'd go to work at 8 a.m." And that was true. In 9th grade when I started high school, I got involved with a lot of kids who were doing graffiti and elements of hip hop that appealed to me. Sure enough, I was able to spark back my visual art.
Courtesy of Ala Ebtekar "ESNCE" graffiti work by Ala Ebtekar, from 1997
Q: What sort of street graffiti would you draw?
A: I was into these one-line pieces. They weren't necessarily "throw-up." The letters were more like wild style. But they were all done with one line. Looking at what I do now, there are actually similarities. Thinking about how I work with the contour; and these one-shot lines, which is all about the thinness of the lines, and the movement of line. Without filling it in. Without shadows. Just the line, and how the composition of a line says something. That's what I was doing. And being able to do it in five or seven minutes on the street. They would say the name I wrote. Like "essence." It was "ESNCE."
Q: Does your current artwork appeal to people already familiar with Persian aesthetics or does it also appeal to people who see these other element in your work?
A: There's a lot of connection with my history, whether it be going to Iran or working as a teenager. I hooked up then with Tim Rollins and K.O.S. and was working on paintings that came from literary classics, so there was book art, and responding to texts. A lot of those happen to connect. And you could see how what I ended up doing was shaped and formed. I started doing imagery that was more about my personal narrative. I ended up staying on this idea that once the Iran-Iraq War is over, we'd go back to Iran. That took many years. By the time it was over, it was 1988 and I was in third or fourth grade. At that point, we couldn't go back. There was always this sense of being in a place on a temporary basis, which was interesting. A lot of the work I was working with were very much about that personal narrative - the Iran-Iraq War, and the connections between that war and the stories of the Shahnameh - the stories of the epic and mythological past and connecting these very separate but also connected things, Then 9/11 happened, and I was like, "I can't do this work anymore. The last thing I want to do is create an image of a bomb or anything of the military, over text that is obviously Persian or Arabic. That's already so much in the media and the news."
Q: Many art exhibits explore the supposed divide between East and West. Are you still exploring that?
A: There was this show I was in called "One Way or the Other: Asian American Art Now," that came to the Berkeley Art Museum in 2007 or 2008. It was a follow-up to an Asian-American show they did in 1994 or 1995. And it was so different. In the earlier exhibit, many of the artists were dealing with alienation, assimilation, culture clashing. The new group of artists, who were first generation or second generation, were doing art that was a lot more fluid. It's almost like, "You can be a little bit of this, and a little bit of that." It's much more positive, and it doesn't feel like things are clashing. What I hope to do now is do "post-identity" in some ways. So it's about something a lot larger. Works like Journey to the Far Side of the Sun and The Shape of Things to Come - a lot of these works are inspired by (the Persian poet) Hafez and these ideas that exist in Sufi philosophy. Whether it's architecture or illumination of books, the arch of a doorway spans time and history. Sufis believe that existence is of two natures - both earthly and divine - and it's that transition between these two states that's represented by an arch. The arch could be in architecture, but it could also be a beloved's eyebrow, and how that's an entrance to that other space. But I'm also looking at science fiction. So The Shape of Things to Come is actually on the backside of H.G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come movie posters - a collection of old sci-fi posters, from 1969. The image is on the back side of the poster. You have tape and stuff that show on the edges.
There's a certain kind of nostalgia that's haunted Persians within Iran and Persians in the diaspora - this state of always looking towards the past. You hear, "If it wasn't for the Arab conquest of Persia, we wouldn't be in this state." And, "if it wasn't for Alexander the Great, we wouldn't be in this state." These are things that happened more than 1,000 years ago. Now, people talk about the Khatami era in the '90s as if it was the golden age. In the Khatami era, they were talking about the Shah's era, the '60s and '70s, as being the best time in Iran. Through this looking at the past, we've grown numb to envision a future. There is no science fiction genre in Iran. It just doesn't exist. So I'm hoping to go beyond these issues of identity in all the new work.