Ala Ebtekar: Future Perfect Past tense

Sara Raza, Harper's Bazaar Art, October 1, 2013

Iranian-American artist Ala Ebtekar, re-imagines a future visual cultural study of Iran, from a multi-faceted vantage point in the present.

As a young teenager, Ebtekar worked with renowned artist and educator Tim Rollins & KOS (Kids of Survival) participating in several collective works. Later, he studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, graduating with a BFA and later pursued a MFA at Stanford University, where he is currently a visiting professor in the art and art history department. Here, he specialises in teaching public art, performance and street interventions in contemporary art. Ala Ebtekar is the recipient of several awards and academic fellowships and has a prolific international exhibition record. He’s participated in major solo and group exhibitions in the US and internationally - including at the Asia Society, New York, Devi Foundation, India, California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art, ZKM Museum for Contemporary Art in Germany and Museum on the Seam in Jerusalem - amongst numerous other institutions. 


In his multi-faceted, multi-media art practice, Ala Ebtekar combines popular cultural tropes such as urban music and fashion, comic books, street art and sci-fi literature, alongside ancient Persian and Turkic mythology, natural sciences and literature. He has combined Islamic and pre-Islamic Iranian Zoroastrian thought to create both sacred and heretic visual patterns and, by doing so, created a unique hybrid art practice that explores Iranian futurism from a position of both familiarity and distance - glimpsing an imaginary world of tomorrow’s Iran. The in uence of mystical poets and philosophers, such as the 12th century Illuminationist philosopher Suhrawardi, 13th century poet Nizami and 14th century poet Hafez, is abundantly clear. 


Moving forward a millennia or so, Ebtekar looks to American science fiction authors, including Robert Heinlein, Kim Stanley Robinson and 19th century Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Through his employment of imaginary and supernatural visual motifs — ranging from mythical gures to astronomical phenomena — Ebtekar comments on the numerous social complexities and shifts occurring in contemporary Iranian society. With the re-appropriation and translation of textual and scientific matter into ne art, Ebtekar’s practice has enabled him to create speculative visions for the future, suggesting possible solutions for that which remains unresolvable, or discordant, in the present tense. 


Clearly, the notions of the past, present and future tenses as a measurement of time and space are an important element in Ebtekar’s practice - live currents that run through his diverse body of work. And this sets the pace for the following discussion on this intelligent young artist’s fascinating hybrid practice. 


In Ebtekar’s ongoing body of work ‘Ayandeh Nameh’ (2009- 13) — which loosely translates from Persian into English as ‘future literature’ — he takes the pages of a book as a starting point to produce a study for sci- in Iranian art and culture, a genre that up to now, has remained relatively untapped. He explores the idea of future tense through American science ction, often referring to the poet Hafez as a source of inspiration. Hafez is considered one of the most esteemed poets within the Persian-speaking world, his poetry considered by many as prognostications into one’s personal destiny. In particular, one of the studies under the umbrella of ‘Ayandeh’ features Hafez’s tomb in Shiraz, Iran, known as Hafezieh. This popular site for cultural pilgrimage is featured within the magical vista entitled ‘Morning Breeze’ (2011), a mixed-media digital pigment print, composed at daybreak. The result is a dream-like, futuristic visual tableau wherein various Iranian modernist and ancient histories collide with a history that is yet to unravel itself. It’s important to point out that Hafez’s tomb, although originally erected in 1773 and built by Karim Khan Zand, underwent a major modernist redevelopment under Reza Shah Palahvi’s secular, modernising reign, with the employment of French architect Andre Goddard enlisted to expand its design in 1935.


Further works within the ‘Ayandeh’ umbrella also employ a special digital-pigmentation technique that Ebtekar adopts to allude to astronomical light-years. This is also featured within a set of cosmos-inspired works from the ‘Tunnel in the Sky’ (2012-13) series. These latter works create a gateway, or portal, that measures the distance of stars and explore Ebtekar’s interest in the works of medieval Central Asian/Persian astronomer and mathematician Al Biruni. These pieces are juxtaposed by architecturally-inspired pages taken from vintage Persian manuscripts, books, some of which are over a hundred years old, from which he creates cut-out shapes. These geometric shapes offer a new visual syntax, as rectangles, squares, circles and stars create a dialogue between informal architectural and distant spaces. 


From his position of solid footing in the West, Ebtekar provides visual commentary on Iran’s recent history, from a point of unity rather than fragmentation. Following the civilian and state clashes in 2009 after the disputed parliamentary election result, which became known as the ‘Green Revolution,’ Ebtekar embarked on the project ‘1388’. Debuting at The Third Line Gallery in Dubai ‘1388’ referenced the Iranian calendar’s year with the Gregorian calendar year 2009, the year in which this show was mounted. In fact, 2009 was a colossal year in Iranian history and perceived by political analysts as being the first wave of ‘spring’ protests in the Middle East. 


Standout works within this project included Ebtekar’s mixed- media hand-painted and photographic portraits of Iranian women, whose mandatory Islamic headscarf and modest coats, were replaced by traditional Persian armour, including garments from the Sasanian Empire worn by high ranking of cials. Within Ebtekar’s works, his usage of armour alludes to a second skin, feminine yet sensual despite obvious connotations with hyper- masculine robes of war. These works reference the importance of women within Iranian society, not only as a signi cant majority who took part in the election process and subsequently took to the streets during the protests, but also as an active and resilient force who are capable of generating change. 


Although Ebtekar’s works can be read as an ode to contemporary living women, he often states that his inspiration lies in the past, citing such major female gures such as 19th century Bibi Khatoon an ardent campaigner for women’s education and rights.The author of ‘Ma’ayeb al-Rejal’ (Failings of Men) in 1895, a declaration of women’s rights, she was also credited for opening one of Tehran’s first women-only schools. In addition, Ebtekar also claims Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi — the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 — as an influential figure for his and future generations. 


Earlier works by Ebtekar meditate upon growing up between two cultures, two languages and the two modes of thinking that Iran and the US represented for him. This duality is perhaps best captured within the installation ‘Elemental’ (2004), which was fashioned after an Iranian coffeehouse salon, mixing up American pop culture with traditional Iranian narrative styles. The installation featured a white ‘majlis’, which featured a series of re-appropriated hybrid readymades. A pair of sport shoes, hand- customised with intricate sketches of Persian mythological fairy  tales with decorative ribbons for laces and adorned with beading. A boom-box, made using a traditional Persian woodwork craft known as ‘khatam kari’, where triangular shapes exist in harmony. Detailed drawings and epic paintings of dynamic Persian wrestlers, rendered as b-boys and much more objects and apparel. The ambiance re ected within this installation echoed Ebtekar’s contemporary take on traditional Iranian coffeehouse culture, which historically gave birth to 20th century modern Iranian art discourse, serving not only as a spatial interlocutor for the display and dissemination of art, but also as space for dialogue and public exchange. 


Incidentally, a decade later, Ebtekar reprised these coffeehouse-style paintings in 2013 as a continuation of his interest into cross- cultural dialogue. His newer versions are, however, signi cantly larger and more epic in scale while maintaining a sense of uidity, where bodies interweave between history and various cultural tropes. These new works are also inscribed with real and imaginary spheres. These spheres reference various elements and virtues, where Iranian history and culture collide with contemporary mainstream American urbanism. 


On the horizon for the remainder of 2013, Ebtekar will be participating in several museum exhibitions including Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach California and the Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah. He is also working towards a major happening centred around the historical Cyrus Cylinder, as it continues on its current global tour, with a stop at the Asian Art Museum in September, as well as preparing for a unique presentation at Frieze Art Fair, London with The Third Line Gallery, focused on his ongoing ‘Ayandeh’ visual research. In addition, he is producing a book on Iranian street art from the 1970s to the present day, alongside maintaining his busy teaching schedule at Stanford University. 


This energetic pace allows audiences to witness rst hand Ebtekar’s desire of creating alternative visual journeys both for himself and his viewers. These journeys re ect new progressive narratives in art, and take both the present and the past to comment on a liminal future.


Ala Ebtekar was born in 1978 in California. He constitutes part of the post-Revolutionary cohort of diaspora Iranians, who came of age during the advent of hip-hop, mobile phones and the internet. Yet from his West Coast position, he has maintained strong links with Iran through his parents’ cultural heritage as well as by regularly visiting his homeland, following the war with Iraq war and stability having returned to the country.


From the September-October 2013 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art.