Curatorial Projects > Elemental (2004)

Elemental - A Solo Exhibition by Ala Ebtekar

June 16 – July 31, 2004
Intersection for the Arts
San Francisco, CA

In his first major solo exhibition, Ala Ebtekar explores the merging of styles from two different cultural traditions spanning opposite ends of the world and separated by centuries - Iranian coffee house culture and hip-hop culture. Although they may seem disconnected, both of these traditions are grounded in reflecting the lives of people who are often marginalized and in providing a common space for people to come together to share history, news, and information. Ebtekar creates an environment where these two cultures and styles fuse. Through sculpture, painting and sound, he distills the components of these empowering traditions into their essential and elemental components. He deconstructs and reconstructs time, space, and history, while providing a visual crossroads where contemporary events meet mythology, creating a hybridized narrative with infinite interpretations.

Many young people coming of age in the U.S. are exploring the cultural heritage of their immigrant parents, oftentimes looking for points of connection between the history of their parents’ culture and their own culture growing up in the U.S. Whether through the fields of choreography, literature, performance, visual arts or filmmaking, many artists are developing a new language where meaning is constantly negotiated, where cultures mix and merge, and where this convergence is strongly emphasized. A “third language” evolves that represents neither one nor the other. Ebtekar was born in Berkeley in the late 1970s, a couple of years after his parents emigrated from Iran to the U.S. Like many young artists of his generation, Ebtekar came of age when hip-hop culture was becoming the predominant cultural force both domestically and internationally. While in high school, he began to learn and gain experience in the rich Bay Area graffiti world, and was deeply involved in hip-hop culture. It wasn’t until he was chosen as one of 15 young Bay Area artists to work with internationally acclaimed artist educator Tim Rollins and K.O.S. in 1998 on the inaugural exhibition for Zeum (the technology and arts center for youth located in SOMA) that Ebtekar began to cultivate a style that not only stemmed from graffiti, but also transcended it. Ebtekar traveled to Iran for the first time during the late 1990s, and lived there for several months. There he was able to study first-hand the rich tradition of Persian miniature painting, and incorporate many techniques employed in this style of painting to his own work. Yet, he found himself drawn more to a concurrent painting tradition in Iran, known as coffee house painting.

Coffee houses, prevalent throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries in Iran, were social establishments for many people in Iran. People congregated over food, coffee, and tea and engaged in social, economic, and political dialogue, as well as literary and cultural exchange. Coffee houses essentially became socio-cultural institutions, schools for nurturing artistic and literary talents, and filters of traditional culture and folk-literature to the masses. They became a frequent venue for live entertainment, where narrators told stories from ancient Persia, focusing on the epic battles of the warrior class. Artists would gather around and translate the stories onto painting boards and the coffee house walls. Contrary to the tradition of Persian miniature painting, where the noble class supported artists and their work, it was the ordinary people who supported the artists and requested them to depict the scenes that they were most interested in seeing. Most of the paintings that emerged from this environment were painted according to the desires of the public. People wanted to see images of their saints and their heroes. The artists served as the messengers of the dreamworld conjured up by these narrators. Unfortunately, in contemporary times, the original use of coffee houses as points of dissemination and promotion of traditional and popular culture, literature, and artistic heritage of Iran has begun to erode and has all but disappeared.

This new site specific installation was conceived more than a year ago, developed through meetings, collaboration, exchange, travel, and studio work, and made manifest over the past several weeks here in this space. Ebtekar creates an environment that evokes a dreamworld as imaginative as that created by the original coffee house painters. By merging influences, he presents us with a visual atmosphere that imagines the confluence of hip-hop culture within the physical and architectural space of a traditional Iranian coffee house. In effect, he articulates a moment in time where the past and the present collide. Here, we are invited to envision and experience the many types of interactions that could happen in this hybridized place, amongst MC's and coffee house narrators, graffiti artists and coffee house painters, b-boys and farmers, DJ's and drummers. In elemental terms, Ebtekar truly honors the past in a day and age where the present shifts ever more rapidly and dangerously.