Working with concepts surrounding narrative, crews, pattern, and mythology, Ala Ebtekar is creating a major space for himself in the contemporary art world. We featured Ebtekar in an interview back in 2007 and we wanted to see what he's been up to since then. With his participation in three major exhibitions right now (Migrating Identities at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Proximities: What Time is it There? at The Asian Art Museum, and Faux Real at The Laguna Art Museum) there's clearly an interest in his work, and we're intrigued.
I was fortunate to meet with Ebtekar at YBCA a few weeks ago, where he walked me through his work with great detail. (We also talked extensively about his personal background, but much of that can be found in our previous interview).
He and his work are very genuine and he takes as much care in his discussion of it as in its creation. Beginning in the first gallery of the exhibition, we talked about his large-scale, muted, figurative Absent Arrival paintings. These works are so subtle that you have to see them in person, and you have to get close to do so. The paintings emphasize his interest in the "crew" as they juxtapose crews of Iranian wrestlers with hip-hop b-boy crews. He has a personal archive of photographs of crews, but the purpose of the poses here is not to emphasize the similarities between the two cultures, but rather to explore their symmetry and the temporal and physical spaces they open up. These spaces become a portal to something else; through a combination of history and presence, these works open to an undefined reality beyond. Later reflecting on his work, Ebtekar noticed the similarity here to the Indian Sri Yantra, a symbol that combines triangles and guides meditation through its center. Like the Sri Yantra, Ebtekar's wrestlers and b-boys create shapes that provide transcendence to viewers, and allows them to look beyond the surface of the paintings to provide them with a cultural meditation.
The creation of these paintings is unique, as although they look like simple lines planned-out and executed on a canvas, upon closer inspection, the ghosts of other figures seem to emerge as being covered, but not totally hidden. Much like the figures within them, Ebtekar brings time in and out of the work by both drawing and erasing his acrylic ink lines with a process of sanding. It is interesting to note that Ebtekar's background as a graffiti writer makes him familiar with the process of buffing, and because he does this to his own work, the connection can't be ignored. Like the traces of history, the ghost-like lines can't be completely covered, and instead hold their presence, no matter how subtle, in the larger composition. However, Ebtekar isn't focused on the complexity of this process, and instead embraces the basis of these works and the nakedness of the line when he said, "It's just ink and a brush, there's nothing fancy about it."
Much like his large-scale paintings remove context to open space for viewers, his cut manuscripts literally open space for endless interpretation. By removing all text from these manuscripts, viewers are forced to look instead upon the space of the text and are prevented from making any literal readings of it. This sculptural approach leaves the aura of the text, reminiscent of the feeling of a book after you set it down. You are no longer physically reading the words but the narrative nevertheless stays with you. This feeling is what the poetry, which was originally on the page, was meant to provide and the removal of the text doesn't prevent it, but encourages a personal approach to the work, making it accessible beyond any language barriers. By removing and simultaneously constructing his work, Ebtekar again opens spaces for himself and viewers within it.
As wall space was unexpectedly left open, Ebtekar was asked to install the last group of works in this exhibition with his Tunnel in the Sky series. These works are monoprints over a first-edition copy of Robert Heinlein's 1955 science fiction book, Tunnel in the Sky and again provide a transcendental space for viewers. Displayed in large frames and concealed by mat boards with cut-out archways, the pieces reference his focus on shape and emphasize the presence of the archway in his work. Throughout all of his pieces in this exhibition, an archway can be seen, whether in the poses of the wrestlers or in the spaces of the manuscripts, but all are meant to be spaces that span time, the earthly, and the divine. Ebtekar told me that the eyebrows are like the archway of the soul, allowing you to enter your lover's soul through the eyes. This romantic notion spreads throughout his work, connecting personal and cosmic psyches and seeing beyond the limitations of a physical reality.
Pushing his own physical limitations, Ebtekar is now in Sharjah (a small city outside of Dubai where most of its workforce lives) creating a huge mural on an outdoor wall. Returning to his roots as a graffiti writer, as of when we last spoke, he wasn't sure what he was going to actually do with the wall. Instead, like with his studio practice, his surroundings will talk to each other and tell him what to do. His background, the heat, and the wall itself will dictate what happens, but I'm sure it won't disappoint. He says that when he was writing graffiti, he always preferred the quickie line pieces, and it doesn't seem like he strays too far from that desire. If he chooses to create a linear, figurative piece for the mural, I have a feeling it won't be done in haste, no matter how quickly it is executed, but it probably helps slow the process when he isn't worried about being chased by cops.
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