- Published on Monday, 07 February 2011 23:37
- Category: Art
When one thinks of Iranian art, images of opulently colored mosaics, sumptuous textiles, carpets and miniatures come to mind. Fast-forward about thirteen or fourteen centuries and the aesthetic of Iranian art has shifted.
Iranian American artist Ala Ebtekar creates art that embraces post-modernity by utilizing a myriad of mediums and urban, pop-cultural aesthetics that push boundaries as well as buttons. Yet, Ebtekar’s work has a sense of duality between classical Islamic traditions and contemporary art. In a web interview, I asked Ebtekar about his work and artistic process, his childhood and the feedback he’s gotten- both positive and negative- along the way.
EJ: Can you share some details of your background with us?
AE: Well, I grew up in the States for the most part. We jumped around a bit during the first 6 or 7 years of my life…From Tehran to California and then to Germany and then back to the U.S…My parents didn’t want to raise me in Iran during a time of war. So we hung around and jumped from place to place with the intention of going back once the war was over. But the Iran-Iraq war didn’t end and it continued for 8 years…my mother would always tell me “we’ll be going back, we’ll be going back…”
EJ: So, you are a first generation American. Do you feel that your upbringing was ‘American’ or more Iranian as far as customs, traditions and proclivities?
AE: Sometimes I felt more Iranian and sometimes I felt more American…For me personally they never really clashed, I know that’s not true for everyone. But I believe both the way my parents brought me up as well as the larger community that surrounded me made me very proud of my heritage. They didn’t clash, it was much more fluid than that…
EJ: As far as your exposure to art as a child, were your parents artists or artistic in anyway? What influenced you as a child to begin your work in the visual arts?
AE: Absolutely. Both of them were artists and designers…They were always very supportive of me working in the creative field. And encouraged me to continue drawing and painting as I was interested in it at a very early age.
EJ: What age were you when you decided to commit to the life of an artist?
AE: It took me a while to come around…I’d been drawing since I was 2 or 3 years old, but as far as committing to it as a career that’s another story. There are a few factors that I credit for that decision that I made. One was meeting and then joining Tim Rollins + KOS as a teenager, the other was a seminal trip to Iran when I was 18, and the third is of course my parents.
EJ: All of those factors seem to be relationship based experiences that have a strong sense of emotion tied to them; how did your education factor in to your artistic life? You got your undergraduate degree at SFAI (San Francisco Art Institute), what made you decide to pursue a graduate degree in a more traditional university setting as opposed to an arts academy?
AE: I had received my Bachelors from an art school, and I had studied a semester in Tehran at an art university, so I think at that point I really didn’t want to get an MFA from another art school. I was interested in taking classes in history, comparative literature, even political science…and art schools just didn’t have that.
EJ: Why did you choose Stanford?
AE: Several reasons. One was the vast and impressive resource it offered, as well as me wanting to work with the artist Enrique Chagoya who was, and still is, a professor in the Department of Art. It was also important for me to stay in my community, that’s where I get a lot of my inspiration from and where I’m able to do my research.
EJ: Do you feel that to function as an artist in contemporary society an advanced degree was a beneficial undertaking?
AE: No, it’s not necessary, but it can be beneficial. It wasn’t necessarily, or rather exclusively, the art courses at Stanford that helped me take that next big step but the whole package. Having access to the incredible amount of information that could be found in the many libraries they have, as well being required to TA every quarter for an instructor…and then teaching my own class in my second year there. …And how the program encouraged taking academic elective courses from outside the dept. It’s all these things and more that was beneficial.
EJ: What is your intended message that you wish to convey in your art?
AE: If I could deliver it in words I’d probably be a writer and not a visual artist…
EJ: Do you have a specific audience in mind with your art? Meaning – are you creating art for a more Western audience or a Middle Eastern audience?
AE: Growing up I always believed, and still do, that to create a successful work of art, the work would have the ability to connect with a broader audience. That’s to say I felt my work should aim to have something for not just one or two people who get it, but a lot more people who get something out of it and are potentially moved… for example a high school student visiting the gallery may pick up on something in the work that an adult doesn’t, or an art historian may understand the references that I’m making on a level most other viewers may not, or the security guard working at the museum who came and told me this is the best work he’d seen in the museum in a long time, because it’s moving in a way that he usually don’t see…All these reactions can happen from viewing the same one work of art…the experiences aren’t the same but each are unique and equally of importance. That’s what I aim to do. Create work that’s rich with layers… So certainly an Iranian audience may pick up on things an American audience wouldn’t but it also works the other way around…
EJ: Do you feel that your body of work holds an overarching thematic? Or does each work stand alone with its own meaning and narrative?
AE: Hopefully each work stands alone, and is complete in and of itself; but you of course gain more insight to my practice and work when seeing a whole body of work together. Or if I’m having a solo show, I’m always thinking of how each work is a statement and how it plays together with the other works in the show…
EJ: What is your favorite medium to create with?
AE: Pencil and paper, or brush and ink on paper. I think there’s something magical about making something extraordinary out of the ordinary. There’s just something about working with the simplest and most commonly available materials…
EJ: Do you feel that you will ever reach a point where you will become bored with art? Or do you feel it a vocation with endless potential?
AE: It’s endless, and it’s so open that it can take so many different directions that I can’t picture ever becoming bored of it. That’s the beauty you never really retire.
EJ: To what extent have you been influenced by other artists (either dead or living) and where do you see yourself in relationship to the greater art historical canon?
AE: Greatly, the influences are very much there both from specific artists and from different art traditions.
EJ: Even though the art world operates hypothetically and/or ideally under the auspices of extreme social acceptance of all cultures, art forms, etc., has your work ever suffered censorship? Do you have any interesting accounts of how someone reacted to your work in either a negative way?
AE: Yeah, my work was taken down and escorted out of the pavilion during Art Dubai last year. [A] couple reporters wrote about the incident. It’s a long story but basically somebody took offense to the fact that I had painted on pages from a prayer book. Actually it was the fact that the animal’s hoof that I had painted was touching the book page. So it was interpreted as though the animal who was in fact flying in the painting was perhaps stomping or walking on this religious text…The officials told the gallery it has to come down, but what’s funny to me is that that wasn’t enough; they had to have it escorted out of the building.
EJ: Finally, last question. Art is very much an extension of human emotion – and has been a tool of expression for centuries. Do you feel that knowing about arts history and its impact on the socio-cultural condition of humanity has affected how you create?
AE: Very much, I believe you need to know what’s been done in the past in order to create the future.
Indeed, the past, present and future of art all bleeds into one another in Ebtekar’s work. Even if your intention is not to dissect the work, at a subconscious level the question of meaning automatically populates the brain when viewing visual art. Ebtekar’s work displays the convergence of one’s heritage and one’s citizenship, of where one has been and where one will go… and how one can navigate that through art.By Erin Joyce, Aslan Media Art Editor
For more information on the work of Ala Ebtekar please visit www.torandj.com