Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - September 5, 2008

Past, meet the present

Iranian-American artist Ala Ebtekar connects his family's past with his Bay Area upbringing

by Jill Kimball

Ala Ebtekar mentions Adidas and the year 1492 in passing, and he's intimately familiar with the Bay Area hip-hop scene.

To speak to Ebtekar about American things, though, sheds light on only one identity. Inside, he has many more: He's a traveler, an historian and the son of Iranian-born parents.

None of these things is discernable in his appearance or his rhetoric alone, which is why Ebtekar is also a local artist. His new exhibition, on display at the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View, speaks volumes more about himself than a long phone interview.

The exhibition, titled "Epic Verse," demonstrates that Americans, particularly direct descendants of immigrants, can easily keep a harmonious balance among the multiple cultures that define them, Ebtekar said.

His work, he says, represents a new wave of multicultural art that sharply contrasts with that of the previous generation. "I grew up with that first generation of multicultural art where you see this strong clash of cultures and sentiments of alienation," he said.

Ebtekar, born and raised in Berkeley, didn't identify with those views. While others thought his social life and his home life with his parents to be two separate entities, he thought of them as one. He believed a person's multiple identities could meld together and intertwine peacefully.

"Looking at it more in a positive light, all our identities create a synthesis, not a hybrid," he said.

With synthesis in mind, Ebtekar, who holds a master's degree in fine arts from Stanford University, used a brush to sketch ink outlines of figures, one on top of the other, on huge Mylar sheets. The outlines closely overlap, but the differences between them are visible. A hint of a wrestler in a pair of billowy, traditional Persian pants seemingly tussles with a shadow of a sneaker-clad hip-hopper; two hip-hoppers in T-shirts and backwards baseball caps peek out from behind the broad, square shoulders of a soldier decked out in a helmet and combat boots. Some outlines are detailed, revealing a specific stripe pattern or a tiny row of tassels, yet they all remain vague and faceless.

Anyone who lives in the United States, a country of immigrants, can identify with Ebtekar's metaphor: It's possible to have 10 hobbies and not feel like 10 different people. A person who has ancestors in seven countries doesn't necessarily have seven separate identities. Each hobby, and each family history, can exist in harmony inside one person.

Kyle Williams, a curator at CSMA and Ebtekar's former Stanford schoolmate, said he likes the exhibition because his overarching idea is universal but still includes details of the artist's unique world.

"(It's) a great example of Ala's work," said Williams. "There's something here for everybody to get into, but at the same time, it's very personal."

These three figures Ebtekar uses to illustrate synthesis — the rapper, the Persian wrestler and the soldier at war — define heroism for the artist.

The rapper alludes to Ebtekar's teen years, when he spun old-school rap records as a deejay at friends' parties and school dances. Later, when he visited Iran, he saw framed pictures of local wrestlers in traditional Persian coffeehouses and drew a correlation between past and present, traditional and urban.

"The wrestlers were obviously the local neighborhood heroes," Ebtekar said. "The spirit of heroism ... I felt with the wrestlers immediately spoke to me, because the 1980s rap I grew up with was about that too. Every rapper was a hero — they all thought they were the baddest emcee."

Ebtekar then added a national hero figure into the mix: the camouflage-clad American soldier.

It seems the combination of these three figures, representing American pride, urban background and an appreciation for old-world Persia, could define Ebtekar himself — but the artist insists the main purpose of the tall brushstroke silhouettes is to forge a connection between the traditional and the modern, something he believes hasn't been accomplished yet in Persian culture. Some Iranians, he said, focus so much on the distant past that they're unable to move forward — but perhaps there's a way to retain important customs of the past and accommodate a new era at the same time.

"I grew up listening to people talking about things that happened 2,000 years ago and how they'd be better off now if they hadn't happened," Ebtekar said. "How can we step into the future if we're still talking so much about the past?"

For Ebtekar, connecting the now to the then is as much a personal crusade as it is a cultural one. He wants to see his family's country of origin progress as his home country has in recent decades.

"A lot of the Iranian-American population talks up the culture and how it's so connected with the arts, but they do a poor job of supporting the next generation of all those things — the writers, artists, musicians," he said. "If the arts are stuck in the past, our culture is lacking."

What: "Epic Verse," an exhibit of drawings by Ala Ebtekar

Where: Mohr Gallery at the Community School of Music and Arts Finn Center, 230 San Antonio Circle, Mountain View

When: Through Sept. 23. The gallery is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.

Cost: Admission is free.

Info: Go to http://www.arts4all.org or call 650-917-6800, extension 306. Ala Ebtekar's website is at http://www.torandj.com .

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