You're going to myth me

Bay Area Now: Ala Ebtekar rises above while tapping into persian and personal mythologies
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The Invisible Fold

You don't need to pick up all the subtleties of Berkeley-born Iranian American artist Ala Ebtekar's work to appreciate the resonant beauty of, for instance, The Ascension II (2007), and its angelic, part-griffin, semi-human, quasi-Homa messenger drawn from Persian mythology, winging across reams of Farsi as assorted readers' delicate notes intricately lace the printed manuscript. But it helps to know that the iconography of that winged messenger reaches back 5,000 years to a pre-Islamic Iran, was eventually appropriated in depictions of Ayatollah Khomeini, and that the angels with keys dangling from their necks, surrounding the wary mythical creature, refer to the child soldiers enlisted during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) to run across battlefields and detect land mines. "They'd give these kids these keys to heaven," explains Ebtekar at his Palo Alto studio near Stanford University, where he received his MFA. "It's like, 'Whoa!' That's a certain kind of mythology, but it's tapping into something apocalyptic."

And you don't need to know the specifics of aerospace design to appreciate the watercolor, acrylic, and ink jets tearing across script in The Breeze of Time (2002): they happen to be the exact ones used in the Iran-Iraq War. Ebtekar is aware that viewers bring their own connections to the work. "Yeah, I was doing this stuff before 9/11, in school, on book pages, and then 9/11 happened and I stopped. I thought, there's no way I can do this," he recalls. Much of his work tied in directly with the Iran-Iraq War, a part of his own personal mythology, and the reason his activist Iranian parents remained in the States. "I was very much tapped into those older stories and histories. But then they announced the [Iraq] war, and I thought, actually, if there's any time to do it, it's more important to do it now than not."

The urgency of the present continues to call to Ebtekar, who draws from his studies in Iran of the refined art of Persian miniature painting and the less-known, more visceral field of coffeehouse painting for his works, which range from the aforementioned pieces that play off rich layers of text and imagery — and Iranian poetry and history — to large-scale graphite drawings that superimpose the outlines of Iranian wrestlers — current street-level mythological heroes — with hip-hop figures culled from Ebtekar's music-obsessed youth, one spent DJing at parties and interning as a hip-hop DJ at KALX 90.7 FM.

As we listen to classic tracks by his mother's pop idol, Iranian diva Googoosh, and scope out images of strongmen striking poses in a zurkhaneh (house of strength), juxtaposed with aerodynamic break-dancers in his studio — aptly situated over a downtown Palo Alto coffeehouse and crammed with art supplies, books, cassettes, vinyl, and a Tehrangeles T-shirt Ebtekar made for the 2006 California Biennial — it's clear the artist's pop interests still find a way to light: witness the 2004 Intersection for the Arts show that saw Ebtekar pairing a white-washed Iranian coffeehouse installation with shoes sporting fat laces fashioned from ornate Persian textile. "Bay Area Now 5" will find him combining his two approaches with a piece that layers ancient and modern-day warriors in a ghostly epic that looks backward and forward — a gesture familiar to Ebtekar, who rolls his eyes over John McCain's comment on recent cigarette exports to Iran — "Maybe that's a way of killing them" — and is currently teaching art at UC Berkeley in preparation for his dream. By 2011, he wants to start an art foundation and school in Iran.

After the US presidential election, Ebtekar hopes he can make it happen. First, he says, "there needs to be more diplomacy. In Iran, there's this thing about nostalgia.

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