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All the Identities He Can Paint

Ala Ebtekar synthesizes the roles of graffiti-loving Persian miniaturist.

Peter Stember

BERKELEY MEETS TEHRAN: Ebtekar first visited his parents’ homeland when he was 19. Where Iranian peers were enamored of Western art, he sought traditional forms.

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By Jack Fischer

Ala Ebtekar was on his first visit to his parents’ native Tehran when he pulled out a can of spray paint for a bit of freelance cultural exchange. Except for political sloganeering, graffiti was largely absent from the walls of the Iranian city, and the Berkeley-born graffiti artist thought a bit of “public art” might cause a stir in the dour, postrevolutionary capital.

Some days later, Ebtekar returned to the wall and saw an old man sitting and studying his transgression: three stylized letters in yellow and blue— SNC—his signature abbreviation for “essence.” “What do you think of this?” Ebtekar asked, not acknowledging authorship.

“I suppose it’s okay—if you have nothing better to do,” the old man replied indifferently.

So much for the artist’s first foray into cross-cultural art. That was 1998.

Since then, Ebtekar, MFA ’06, has gotten a lot more respect for the art he creates, working at the unexpected nexus of Persian mythology, graffiti and hip-hop culture, and Western military iconography. His drawings and paintings are subdued and pleasing, with instantaneous visual rewards for those who want to go no farther; but there’s much more on view for those who like complex, unresolved musings about the ways cultures and memory collide and blend in an increasingly global world.

In some ways Ebtekar and his work exemplify the evolution of multicultural art. He was 12 when art critic Lucy Lippard wrote Mixed Blessings, a 1990 critical manifesto of sorts that called to task the Eurocentric and dominant American culture for marginalizing art drawn from ethnic groups and cultures outside its canon. Let a thousand hyphenated artists bloom, she argued, and they did.

Today, for Ebtekar and his generation, that battle has been largely won. Instead of seeking acceptance by an art “mainstream,” he works with the confidence that he is the mainstream, however much the outsider impulses of an erstwhile graffiti and hip-hop artist animate him.

“I prefer ‘synthesis’ to ‘hybrid’ because who knows what’s pure, right?” he says of the cross-cultural elements of his art. “I think we can check in and out of these identities as we choose, rather than having them imposed upon us.”

Ebtekar ranges across all of his interests, dipping into Persian mythology for source material, and delighting when he finds visual parallels in vastly different cultures, as he did when comparing some hundred-year-old photos of Iranian wrestlers found in a Tehran bazaar with pictures of American break dancers. The pleasure he finds in these similarities gives Ebtekar’s sensibility a Jungian tang, as if these coincidences tease out something universal from discrete cultures.

The artist moved beyond his graffiti and hip-hop roots during that first visit in Tehran when he was 19. Disappointed to discover art students were more interested in contemporary Western art than their own traditions, Ebtekar sought out a teacher of miniature painting, a book-based form that reached its zenith in the 16th and 17th centuries. Miniature paintings depict the epic poem “Shahnameh,” which tells the story of Persian culture from the creation of the world until the Islamic conquest of Iran in the 7th century.

Miniature painting and its subject matter led Ebtekar to so-called coffee house painting, a populist version of miniature painting wherein the stories are painted on coffeehouse walls and the narratives they depict are recited in live performances.

After a year in Iran, Ebtekar returned to the Bay Area, where he received his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute before coming to Stanford. Not long after he received his undergraduate degree, Ebtekar conflated the Iranian coffeehouse tradition with hip-hop culture in his 2004 installation Elemental, for a show at San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts.

Ebtekar’s work, while still grounded in some Persian iconography, has moved from the specificity of Elemental to “a visually more indeterminate and allusive place.” Verse 13: Jaded Gaze of Echoes is a ghostly martial scene of Persian and Western warriors preparing for, engaging in and recouping from some great, unspecified battle. Read from right to left like Farsi text, it consists of 22-by-30-inch sheets of paper with the scene only faintly visible in pencil with white gouache occasionally obscuring the action.

It’s testimony to the artist’s free-ranging and mischievous interests that he speculates, perhaps prompted by Jaded Gaze, “Did you know there is no tradition of science fiction in Iran? What’s up with that?”

As for that graffiti in Tehran, it seems it was not a cultural offering made in vain. In 2006, Ebtekar got an email from an Iranian who had seen Ebtekar’s SNC and started putting his own version of U.S.-style graffiti on Tehran walls.

JACK FISCHER is a San Jose writer on the visual arts.

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