San Francisco, Aug. 2013: I first saw Ala Ebtekar’s work on a billboard in downtown San Francisco. Juxtaposed amidst condo developments and rush hour traffic, it was a visual reprieve. It broke up a familiar landscape, one where billboard iconography is quite familiar and expected, and presented a new motif. The animal-like character featured in the center of a patterned background was almost recognizable, perhaps a ceremonial beast of some ancient history, but just abstract enough to welcome the unenlightened. What it represented was the insertion of a new aura, a new visibility, in a public place of generic advertisement.
Looking around this city, or perhaps anywhere, there are many of us who feel no standardized sense of place, how we identify with where we are and where we came from. bell hooks judiciously maintains that many of us are placeless, constantly trying to discover where we belong[i]. Working at the confluence of Iranian and Northern Californian heritages, Ebtekar’s body of work makes tangible histories and experiences found in moving between multiple places, giving a visual presence to the elusive in-between space of movement of existence. Like choreography, Ebtekar’s practice synthesizes undulating interests, narratives, and mediums. It’s a dance we can all relate to, a conversation we constantly find ourselves having: investigating how we physically and conceptually relate to community (often many) and our spatial environment. Wherever we find ourselves, at any point, how do we identify place or how does it identify us?
Saskia Sassen writes that cities hold a voice and we learn how to speak to them. Perhaps unknowingly, a different conversation is embedded within different built environments[ii]. I’ve been thinking a lot about how this relates to personal and professional practice in the contemporary moment and was excited to talk to Ala, not only about his work, but about showing work both here and in the Middle East and how the conversations each place holds may vacillate, or not. Would his billboard have the same visual rupture elsewhere? I was fortunate to be able to meet with the artist more than once to talk about art, books, education, and cowboy boots. What follows is an edited excerpt from several compelling exchanges.
Ala Ebtekar, Arrival, 2012, digital pigment print on canvas; Courtesy the Artist and Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco.
Kara Q. Smith: You recently traveled to Sharjah to complete a wall drawing at the Maraya Art Centre and have shown your work several times in Dubai and Iran over the years. Can you talk about how you approached your project in Sharjah and is there ever a difference in producing/showing work in the Middle East versus the Bay Area?
Ala Ebtekar: As an artist, I create portals and encounters. In my large scale wall drawing in Sharjah, I searched for a moment, for an atmosphere when past and present mingle.
I have an affinity to remix, to sample, to have high and low meet. I'm inspired by early hip-hop, but there’s also a history of borrowing from the Silk Road that inspires my work.
I grew up in California, but as an artist I also spent some time studying in Iran. The reaction from most young people there was surprise: You want to learn ancient stuff? The art students there were idolizing Pollock and Abstract Expressionism at the time. We tend to overlook our immediate world. I love to dissolve these boundaries, to create new intersections. Following my trip to Iran, I began to incorporate Persian coffee house painting and Persian manuscript painting in my work, worlds which don't often meet.
KQS: In many of your wall drawings, like your Absent Arrival series (which includes the piece in Sharjah), you create figures devoid of defining characteristics, presented only with an outline. Can you talk about this process? Does absence play a role in your work?
AE: In the Absent Arrival in situ wall drawing now at Sharjah, I overlayed the poses of hip hop crews onto Persian wrestling crews in large scale. I use outlines to suggest openness: there is both present and past represented in the image. These two historical moments are juxtaposed.
As I draw the figures, which are inspired by archival material I find, there is something simple and sincere about the nature of the line and how it emphasizes the connection between hand and gesture. With line my present-ness is evident in the form. For me, line work is also like mixing sound: pushing certain things forward, letting some fade in and out, adjusting background and foreground.
My use of outlines also touches upon the erasure found in Islamic manuscripts and objects, a figure could later be rubbed out, but the trace remains.
Ala Ebtekar, Untitled Manuscript 6, 2013, manuscript pages; Courtesy the Artist and Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco.
KQS: I’m glad you brought up books and printed material. I was particularly struck by our conversation about the transfer of books between hands, throughout history, and the resonance such physical transfer has. In your Manuscript series there is an absence of content, or perhaps we could even say context, for the manuscripts, as a viewer may not be able to discern whether these are found or originally produced.
AE: I see these manuscripts as site-specific works. I spend time with these historical texts and then respond to them by experimenting with erasure, painting over them, masking certain elements – all of which reveals them further.
Growing up in the Bay Area, we used to look at black books, filled with drawings, notes, and photographs of graffiti tags. Each mark was distinctive; the books were full of original visual language, with repeated, yet constantly changing forms. Bound together, there was a dialogue between authors. I see the manuscript works this way too, as there are often notes in the margin that I leave in place.
KQS: Visually, so much of your work is refined and meticulous. Do unplanned or experimental elements play a role in your creative process and how you reach a final product?
AE: I see the wall drawings as performance. They’re made in the moment. Solely ink on the wall, produced by my gesture and unable to be repeated in the same way. As developed drawings, they are a constant experiment. There’s preparation and practice in honing the composition, but once on the wall it's transformed into a unique iteration. Like calligraphy, there is a certain urgency to the line, and you only get one chance to shape each one.
I see my work as both dialogue and experiment. While in Sharjah, there was an older Persian wrestler living there who brought me his old photos and we talked as I painted. Over the course of our discussion, the outline of his figure merged into the piece.
KQS: Formation plays a role both in your figurative work, of crews or wrestlers in different converging positions, as well as in the recurring patterns of your Tunnel in the Sky series – not to mention the constellations in those works as well. What is meaningful to you about the repetition of form in your work?
AE: My practice is research-based, but there is also a strong element of play within these parameters. Lately, I have been working more between a cycle of media: as a series of paintings, a series of drawings, a sound work, a collaborative installation. It keeps the process fresh.
I love to translate a repeated form amongst mediums. Coming up this fall, I am collaborating with Sote/Ata Ebtekar and Blurred Whisper at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on Cylindr.us, a multiple sound channel work remixing Persian histories and the story of Cyrus into phonographic records (the earliest medium to record and reproduce sound), exploring connections between an ancient object and the present moment.
Ala Ebtekar, Tunnel in the Sky (3) (detail), 2012, collage; Courtesy the Artist and Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco.
KQS: Relating also to your Tunnel in the Sky series is your interest in Science Fiction, which I am so interested in for many reasons (reality, identity, future, present) but one wouldn't automatically think of sci-fi when viewing your work. Can you talk about some of your favorite science fiction books and how the genre plays a role in your work?
AE: For me sci-fi is a genre where the contemporary is discussed as past, present, and future, with the possibility of utopias and temporary worlds. What are other possible presents that could unfold from a historical moment? How can this be shifted? Re-understood?
In my upcoming pop-up exhibition with Ayandeh and Binta Ayofemi at Frieze this fall, we explore present/future fictions. Ayofemi’s work explores form, sound, pattern language and Islamic architecture. Since my earlier work with Tim Rollins and KOS, I welcome and pursue collaborations, to create, within the work, a space between.
[i] See the introduction and accompanying essays to her Belonging: A Culture of Place (Routledge, 2008)
[ii] SaskiaSassen, “Does the City Have Speech?,” Public Culture, 25:2 (2013): 209 - 221
—Kara Q. Smith
ArtSlant would like to thank Ala Ebtekar and Kimberly Verde for their assistance in making this interview possible.