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Ala Ebtekar: Elemental

Strangers in a Strange Land

White powdery footprints, detailed with an intricate Persian flower motif, mark the way up Intersection's black stairs and into the gallery, which has been transformed into a liminal locale - a traditional Iranian coffee - house spattered with hip-hop paraphernalia.

A first-generation American, born in the late 1970s to Iranian immigrants and raised in Berkeley, Ala Ebtekar's experience of his Iranian heritage has been remote. More immediate and relevant for him are the influences of Bay Area culture - specifically hip-hop.

At first the blaring disparity between the two cultures that Ebtekar points to is emphasized. Everything Iranian recedes into the background; while the hip-hop jumps forth. All of the traditional features of an Iranian coffee-house - the "sardam" seating, pillows, cups, saucers, and hookahs - are painted the same stiff, sterile, uninhabited white, so white they disappear into the already white gallery. Even the old, faded photographs and paintings that hang on the walls are further obscured by a wash of white paint. Ebtekar cannot enter into this traditional Iranian coffeehouse the way his parents, or, more likely, their parents, might.

The presence in the show - the color, the life, is in the hip-hop aesthetic. Adidas shoes, jackets, and baseball caps are strewn around the room, making it feel satisfyingly less pristine and more lived in. A boombox designates a tiled square in the center of the room for break-dancing. In the corner opposite the idle white coffee bar is a DJ's station equipped with turntables and speakers.

But upon closer investigation the influences overlap and boundaries blur. The jackets, hats, and shoes are gorgeously embroidered and laced with Persian inspired patterns. Similar spiraling vines and blossoms ornament the boombox and tile dance square.

Indeed, the Iranian coffeehouse and hip-hop sets are not so incongruous. The coffeehouse congregate was a working class that valued the practices of painting, oration, and honing the body through physical activity. Analogous is hip-hop's commitment to graffiti, DJ, rap, and breakdance.

Hanging on the wall of the coffeehouse are celebrated examples of "coffeehouse" paintings, a tradition that privileged epic scenes of mythological heroes and religious prophets. In many instances, coffeehouse painters painted the scenes directly onto the wall - a custom observed by graffiti artists of today. The epic stories of moral and civic valor visually represented in the paintings were augmented by the narration of a coffeehouse orator. The orator's delivery of words, deliberately paced and set to a percussion beat, would resound through the space.

Weightlifters, who were prominent patrons of the coffeehouse, would lift to the rhythm of the orator. Ebtekar has amassed a collection of aged photographs of the weightlifters and hung them on the wall, beneath which rest their weights, oblong and outmoded (and painted white). During the time of the traditional Iranian coffeehouse, weightlifting was regarded as a practice on par with painting, an equal and essential counterpart to cultivating the mind and soul.

In Ebtekar's installation, the orator's narration emanates from a DJ's turntable, set against the everyday clattering and chattering sounds of the coffeehouse. In this confluence of time and space, hip-hop kids break-dancing to the sounds of a rapper's vocals and a DJ's mix are easily likened to the weightlifters moving in time to the orators' stories. Graffiti artists create imagery with spray cans as astute and evocative of our cultural condition as the coffeehouse paintings were of theirs.

The function of the traditional Iranian coffee-house was not so much to serve coffee (in fact in later years tea came to replace coffee), but rather to champion the creative expression of their patrons - providing them a space to paint, tell stories, make music, move to music; and, just as much, to appreciate these talents in others. What an appropriate setting for a hip-hop gathering.

Even though he could not have witnessed firsthand the now obsolete culture of traditional Iranian coffeehouses, Ebtekar has reached across decades and continents and successfully struck a parallel chord.

On display through July 31st
at Intersection for the Arts
446 Valencia Street @ 16th
San Francisco, CA 94103
Phone: 414.267.3956