I met Ala Ebtekar in Berkeley on a crisp October afternoon. Berkeley seemed an appropriate meeting place, since Ala is a "hometown boy" and the Berkeley Art Museum's One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now showcases a piece by Ebtekar, Elemental. A room-sized installation that evokes Tehran's traditional coffeehouses, with white-washed floors and furniture, Elemental carries a bittersweet nostalgia.
We neglected to trade physical descriptions, so I stood outside of the Peet's Coffee & Tea at Walnut Square, quizzing passersby. Ala arrived before me, and had wandered off to see if the Juice Bar was still open. (It was not.) He walked up the street, a slim, serious young man in a dove-grey parka, and we found ourselves chatting beneath heat lamps. We trade bits of autobiography before settling down to talk about more serious matters. After we greet each other, Ala turns to me and says, "Hey, you look familiar!"
It turns out that our paths have crossed repeatedly in the past few years. Born in Berkeley (in the Alta Bates Hospital on Ashby Avenue) to Persian-Iranian parents, Ala grew up in Berkeley and its environs. For the past eight years or so, we've lived and worked within a ten-mile radius of each other. After he graduated from San Francisco Art Institute, Ala went on to Stanford University, where he received an MFA. And I graduated from Stanford the year after Ala finished. As we talk about our backgrounds, we realize that we are both "first-generation" Americans. But more than that, we both came from families that regarded America as a way station. Ala's parents, like mine, dreamed of returning to their native country. We both moved often, as children, and our lives were tinged with a certain kind of instability, a strong belief that the present represented a disjunction from life proper. Our American sojourns were meant to be temporary interludes, yet we settled, here, and though we each have the opportunity to move, we find ourselves rooted in this community.
"I grew up on the notion that we were here on a temporary basis," notes Ala. "My mom would always say, 'we'll go back [to Iran] when the war is over.' We used to jump around from Berkeley to Oakland, and one year we went to Germany, but that didn't work, so we came back." After years of exile, Ala's parents finally settled in the East Bay, and though Ala often visits Iran, his parents seldom return. For them, as for so many reluctant exiles, the past and the present feel completely disjunctive. The return causes as much pain as pleasure.
No newcomer to San Francisco's art scene, Ala has been painting and exhibiting in the Bay Area since his teenage years. Poised and polished, Ala speaks with great passion. A riveting storyteller, Ala moves easily through Persian history and literature. We began the interview by discussing Elemental..
Before we met, I sent Ala a list of potential interview questions. One of the questions asked him to take us through the process of creating a work, and we decided to begin with this piece.
A: Elemental came out of my show at the Intersection for the Arts. Kevin Chen [Intersection's director] had seen my work, contacted me, and asked me if I would like to do a show for Intersection.
At the time, I was working in the same vein to what was at Paule Anglim this summer. [Ala exhibited a series of works on paper, mostly delicate drawings layered over text, or each other.] I was still an undergraduate, but I was beginning to think about working with this coffeehouse idea. When Kevin asked me if I wanted to a solo show, I said, "Yeah, but for the solo show I want to do this coffeehouse thing."
In that space that I created for Elemental, everything has a story. Working in the installation format means that you go outside and make things happen, as opposed to drawing, where for me everything happens in the studio.
Take for example those found photographs of the wrestlers that I worked with in ElementalI found those in a bazaar in Tehran. Every Friday in Tehran, they hold a bazaar in an underground parking garage. Nine or ten years ago, when I first went there, the bazaar was still undiscovered. Now the bazaar has become a tourist attraction and it has become difficult to find anything. There, I found negatives of these photographs, with old wrestlers featured in them. And each of these pictures has a story. When I bought them, I talked with the dealers, and I learned their stories.
Or take the shoes. One day, wandering around in Tehran's main bazaar, I saw these beautiful textiles in tape format. I looked at them, and I saw that they could be fat laces. So I had an idea.
In Tehran, the central bazaar is almost like a mini city. There are the textile dealers, the people who sell secondhand objects...you can find anything. I bought the fabric and I went to the shoemaker quarter and asked different vendors, "Can you make this fabric into shoelaces?" Everyone shook their heads and said no. But the vendors said if there's anyone that can do it, it's Mr. Jourabchi.
So I went and found him. At first, he kept saying no, but then I told him that all the other vendors had told me if there was anyone who could do it, it would be him. Finally he agreed to make a few samples, but he told me that it would cost me. I asked him to name his price, and he said he would do it for a dollar a pair. He didn't know I was from America, and it seemed reasonable. So I said just yes.
He owned a factory outside of the city. I went to the factory to meet him and look at their samples. They worked. So I asked him to make the rest.The day before I was to leave Tehran and return to America, he called me and told me to pick them up from his nephew.The nephew arrived with an enormous bag stuffed full of these beautiful textiles that they had transformed into fat laces. They were perfect. When I asked him how much I owed him, he told me to forget about it. I said, No, no, that's not right, and the nephew said, "Call us when you want to put in an order of more than a thousand. Then we'll take care of you."
This kind of experience just doesn't happen when you work inside of the studio with works on paper.
I had asked Ala how he begins a work.
A: Drawing is always fundamental to my practice. Every piece starts with a drawing. Drawing, for me, is the most basic, most fundamental practice, and there's something very special about taking everyday suppliessomething that everyone has at homeand using it to create something that's magical, or powerful, or meaningful.
I started drawing as a really young kid.
Do you remember your first drawing?
A: No, but I remember this scene where I did a squid and six different sharks coming up to get it. No one in my class believed I did it! They all thought I traced it. I actually stopped drawing at around age ten or eleven, and I started really getting into music. I started DJing at a really young age. I would DJ at the junior high parties. That led me to intern, in the summer of '92, at KALX. I went through DJ training. I used to come on after Beni B, a local underground hip-hop celebrity. (Years later he went on to produce Dilated Peoples.) He was finished at 1 am, and then I came on. In high school, I used to spin everythinghip-hop, reggae, house. DJing introduced me to graffiti. I credit graffiti for bringing me back to drawing. One day, I picked up a pencil, and I said, hey, I forgot I'm good at this.
The Bay Area has such a rich history of graffiti. Graf writers in the Bay Area seem to be much more socially and politically conscious, and writers like Dream and Spie worked revolutionary references into their work. I remember Bisaro talking about him and Dug, another great graffiti writer, taking the train over to the East Bay in '84 and being surprised to see so much graf in Berkeley and Oakland. So, all those Bay Area first generation graf writers, like Razer, Dream, Spie, Vogue, Pase, Heist, Nac, Bisaro and Dug, became our heroes in high school.
I had sent Ala a question asking him about his childhood, and how his early experiences may have impacted his current practice.
A:I looked at that question, and I thought, how could my childhood not have influenced my work?
I grew up on the Persian carpet. No, literally. I used to drive my toy cars around on the carpet. The Persian carpet has a border, with those intricate patterns, and those were my freeways and intersections. To this day, I think that's where my love for patterns comes from.
Did your parents keep you connected to Persian language and culture?
A: I also grew up on the Shahn Ameh, an epic written 800 years ago. It is a history of Iran, written in poetry. It begins in the first days of Persia, 5,000 years ago, and continues all the way to the time it was written. Though it was supposed to be written in Arabic [after the Arab invasions of Persia], but it was actually written in Farsi, and it's been credited with saving Farsi, as a language. The piece begins in a mythical manner, and as it moves up in time, it becomes more and more matter-of-fact. I do have an interest in myth, in what makes something "mythical" and heroic.
If you want to draw structural comparisons between the coffeehouse culture and the hip-hop culture, you'll find the hero figure in both. And there's also the element of rebellion. Hip-hop culture, like coffeehouse culture, is a rebel culture. In the early days, hip-hop culture always questioned the mainstream
I asked Ala to describe his artistic influences. Who intrigued him during his student days? Who shaped his eye?
A: lot of the artists that I looked at in high school were the Mexican muralists, especially Siqueiros and Orozco. During that time, in '92, I remember seeing A3's work [A3 was a graffiti crew from New York] in Source, a hip-hop magazine. A3 had tapped into the Mexican mural tradition, but it was also graf, and it was mind-blowing seeing that at age fourteen. Art as a way to move peoplethat really spoke to me at an earlier age.
Enrique Chagoya became an influence later. When I was in high school, my teacher took us to his studio in Oakland. As an undergraduate, I encountered his work again, and saw it differently, I began to understand how it worked and what made it strong.
[Ala also studied with Chagoya at Stanford.]
À propos of the "One Way or Another" exhibition at BAM, I decided to ask Ala about the "problem" of living within two cultures, or being bilingual.
A: We grew up in a different era than today. That era was very much about multiculturalism. In high school, I encountered Lucy Lippard's Mixed Blessings, and she introduced me to Enrique Chagoya, Carlos Villa, Hung Liu, James Luna.
We enter now into a different era. Now you look at One Way or Another, versus the Asian American Art Show in '94. Now you don't see as much on alienation and on trying to restrain ourselves from assimilation. Now, it's a much more organic look at our dual cultures, much more positive and confident. You see the clash of cultures highlighted in previous generation's work. We may be speaking in a third language, unlike the older generation, which tended to place a hierarchy upon the cultures, and to place them into confrontation with each other.
I asked Ala to talk about the works on paper that were on display at Paule Anglim this summerhow did you begin that project?
A: That project goes back to a few important factors, and those early experiences, such as working with Tim Rollins and KOS, brought me to art as a profession. A woman named Sheila Bergman introduced me to Elissa Perry, back when Zeum was first started, and from there, I got a stipend and got to come in and make art.
They had set up a workshop, with Tim Rollins and KOS. They'd gotten Tim Rollins to come out to SF and do a project for Zeum's opening exhibition. They brought me, and three or four other students from Richmond High, Balboa High, to be this core West Coast KOS group. KOS was my first glimpse into the fine art and gallery scene. Tim pushed me to go to art school, and to think more conceptually about art as well. And it was great, getting to meet Barry McGee at a very young age through graf, and seeing him do that work. And then to see the show at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 1994, to see his work in a big museum setting, all over the space, that had a big impact on me.
Do you remember that piece that Barry did? It was just a big overcoat, with custom-sewed pockets stuffed full of spray cans. He hung it on a hanger, it was a bit like Joseph Beuys. There were some papers and sketchbooks at the feet. And McGee called it Folklore. That had a big impact on me. That this uniform that we have, is as much a part of American folklore as white-t-shirt-and-blue-jeans. So if these are both folk, then graffiti is the folklore, the Americana. And I saw that just a simple title can elevate it to another level.
In '97, I went to Iran, the first time since I was one. I wound up staying in Iran for six or seven months and eventually went to art school there. Then, all the Iranian art students were in love with Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists. I just couldn't believe it. I wanted to learn some of the traditional arts, but couldn't get that from my school. It wasn't a part of the school's curriculum, so I had go out and find a miniature painter to work with, and I also took calligraphy classes from another ustad [mentor or professor]. After school I went and took classes in their studios. Then I came across another type of painting, which at the time I thought was just another branch of miniature painting. It was very dynamic, very expressive, and large scale. There was a lot of drama, even blood. I thought, This is hot. I took an image to my miniature painting teacher and I said that I wanted to learn how to paint like this. He gave me a rather negative reaction. He said it wasn't miniature painting. It was coffeehouse painting.
Miniature painting was always commissioned through the court. The format is refined, small, delicate, and very controlled. The medium was ink, watercolor, and gouache. Miniature painting has been viewed as an aristocratic form, because it can be described as a more academic tradition, and coffeehouse painting has been viewed as a low art, one that has more in common with what we call the "folkloric" and "outsider" traditions.
Coffeehouse painting works with a lot of the same narratives, but painted in large scale by coffeehouse painters. They're done in oil, directly on the walls or on canvas. Coffeehouse painting itself is only about 200 years old. What replaces the textthat was in the miniature paintingsis an oral narrator. An oral narrator recitesalmost freestylesthe story on the coffeehouse stage, telling the stories. I met one of the last living coffeehouse painters and worked with him. He told me that this work is really about telling a story. For my lessons, I just went and watched him painting. I stood behind him, watched, and listened to him tell the stories. Once I saw the coffeehouse paintings in that context, how the paintings interact with that larger community, I realized that I had discovered something amazing.
My works on paper comes from a variety of sources, but the aesthetic references often come from the coffeehouse paintings. The tools and materials often reference the history of miniature technique, which is based on ink and brush, as well as watercolor.
I am drawn to worklike the work of Attar [a 12th century poet] or Nizami, both Persian writers who resemble Gabriel Garcia Marquez in their magical realism. Attar and Nizami interweave fact and fiction, creating complex moments where the boundaries are not clear. My work speaks to the moment when the past and the present meet.
I'm committed to creating works that give a glimpse of a crossroads where present day events meet history or mythology. In a similar way, I prefer not to use the hybrid term, because it implies two pure terms, and who's to say what is pure and what is not? I prefer the word "synthesis." Through these moments, we [here Ala refers to those with dual heritages] can portray or shed light on something that others perhaps cannot. So that experience, along with the conceptual background that I received from working with Tim Rollins and KOS, form the backbone/background for what I make.
At this point, Ala pulls out a catalogue and directs me to the "book page drawings," a series of delicate pencil drawings layered over beautiful Persian script.
I found my first book in that same underground bazaar. The book that caught my eye was this prayer book. I had it for a long time. I couldn't bring myself to touch it. On these pages, you can see the annotations on the text. These pages hold so many marks and interpretations of different people. When you hold these pages, you cross their tracks, you encounter their presence. These encounters, here, are more powerful to me because they happened in a prayer book, in a book that concerns faith. My edition [of the prayer book] is just another encounter with a text, or a source, that has been circulating through the culture. In these encounters, in these moments, you don't know what will happen next.
That's something that I seek in my work, to create that unknown, unfinished moment, when two armies meet head to head in the seam between two pages, but you have no idea where it will go. The next momentwho knows? My works are visual narratives that are a simultaneous deconstruction and reconstruction of time and space - a visual glimpse of a crossroad where present day events meet mythology, creating a "synthetic epic" with many possible interpretations and outcomes.
In the last few years, I have drawn and painted on antique sheets of Farsi and Arabic prayer text. My illustrations both illuminate and provide ironic contrast with the texts' purpose and meaning. For example, in "The Invisible Fold," the drawing that I was talking about, two armies face off at the fold a book, as though fighting over two interpretations of the same text.
Just to return to ElementalI had to whitewash everythingthe furniture, the walls, the floors, even the photographsbecause that coffeehouse really represents something close to that magical realism. It's not a replica of a traditional Iranian coffeehouse, it's my image of an Iranian coffeehouse, and it has to be whitewashed because I can't see it clearly. My parents have memories but those aren't mine. I have to go there to discover the real object. Though the framework is there, the details, and the clarity of the texture, is less sharp. What I can see, and what I know, here, is indistinct. I can only seeand feelthe grain of the wood on those benches when I am in Tehran.
You can see more of Ala Ebtekar's work at his website: www.torandj.com
You can see more of Ala Ebtekar's work at his website: www.torandj.com
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