In the wake of the so-called Arab Spring, Julie Mehretu began a year-long project, a series of large-scale paintings titled Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts) (2012). The title references the imposing modernist government building often mis-ascribed to the Soviet-influenced Nasserist era but actually constructed by 1949, prior to Nasser’s reign. Sitting on the edge of Tahrir Square, the building has come to represent the overbearing bureaucracy that crushes Egyptians under its enormous weight. Similarly, Mehretu’s four vertical canvases engulf the viewer within their distorted, shifting perspectives; the architectural drawing in the top half of each painting is upside down, creating a mirroring effect with the bottom part. This foundational architectural layer incorporates details from similar sites of resistance and revolution. However, rather than approaching these spaces as stages, Mehretu treats them as “containers” created by the layers of overlapping histories, their narratives disrupted by the outbreaks of ink markings and gestures that explode across the canvas. Tahrir Square—an unplanned public space, “the accumulation of leftover spaces,” surrounded by buildings that capture different moments in Egypt’s history—embodies the kind of archeological unearthing that the artist has been undertaking for almost three decades.
Mehretu’s mid-career survey is breathtaking and immersive. Following a year of confinement marked by the smallness of life, the work feels monumental, not only in scale but in the expanse and scope of its vision and the world it imagines. Multilayered and multi-referential, her paintings and works on paper engage with questions of power, surveillance, migration, war, displacement, climate change, and globalization, capturing both possibility and pain, hope and shattered dreams. By drawing on an extensive range of references, Mehretu collapses geographical and historical demarcations in works that feel at once urgent and timely but also ancient and epic. During a career committed to abstract painting, Mehretu has challenged assumptions about the continued relevance and political significance of the approach. As an Ethiopian-American woman, she defies expectations that artists of color should produce representational work by rendering the figuration/abstraction binary superfluous. (The “absence” of figuration from “traditional” non-western art has often been used as justification for the dismissal of these practices.)
Following her graduation from the Rhode Island School of Design in the mid-1990s, Mehretu began developing an intricate and complex lexicon, wielding a wide-ranging vocabulary of influences. In early works such as Time Analysis of Character Behavior (1997) and Conflict Location Index (1997), the artist conducts meticulous studies—almost scientific dissections—of her experimental system of gestures, markings, and symbols. Using graphs and charts, she plots the movement and behavior of these characters, each independent and complete with its own path in a carefully choreographed dance.
In the early 2000s, Mehretu’s practice shifted as her concerns became more global. Her interest in cartography expanded to include maps, blueprints, and architectural plans in the layered landscape her earlier characters come to inhabit. Transcending: The New International (2003) fuses maps of Addis Ababa with those of other African capitals. In using aerial plans of indigenous, modernist, and internationalist architectural styles, the artist plays with perspective so as to merge these systems and collapse historical trajectories. Born in the Ethiopian capital in 1970, Mehretu has often talked about the influence of her early childhood during the moment of pan-African possibility that preceded the civil war (1974–1990). Transcending captures the failed promises of African decolonial projects and the subsequent cooptation of these dreams while also acknowledging the hope they once offered.
During this period, movement and migration became key questions for Mehretu. Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation (2001) explores mobility in an increasingly globalized and transitory world; tracings of airport floor plans, subway platforms and stations, various spaces of transit and temporariness merge with parts of ancient ruins. Bright, bold geometric shapes shoot across the enormous canvas with centrifugal speed. They are layered over fainter mappings, shadow-like maquettes that appear to move slower in their washed-out blues. Due to the enormity of the painting, the viewer too becomes engaged in these transitory processes as they travel through the work. However, as one approaches the canvas, the painting fragments, as if its unity can only be sustained at a distance, when the multiplicity of layers cannot be fully recognized. Up close, Retopistics is replete with detail: symbols, markings, sparks, delicate ethereal drawings that give a mythical quality. This relationship between scale and detail is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Mehretu’s mesmerizing cartographies, her “story maps of no location.” Her expansive landscapes are constantly unfolding before us, revealing diverging and disorienting perspectives, dizzying details that collide and splinter into alternative geographies.
Over the course of her career, Mehretu’s canvases have become denser, opaquer. In works produced since 2016, she has forfeited the clarity of identifiable architectural mappings, integrating them instead as apparitions. In Epigraph, Damascus (2018), a six-panel print, she combines a blurred photograph of the destroyed capital with architectural drawings of the city’s buildings and a layer of gray markings and gestures. The dark, smoky palette haunts the work, giving it a spectral quality. Through this inclusion of blurred images—collected from media sources then photoshopped, edited, and cropped—Mehretu is excavating what she refers to as “the DNA of the photograph” to see what still comes through, what emerges after all this manipulation. Similarly, in Conjured Parts (Eye), Ferguson (2016), inspired by the composition of ancient commemorative slabs, the artist blurs a black and white photograph of police violently confronting protesters and paints into the piece. Part of a series in which each work is titled with a body part and city, the visceral and corporal nature of violence and the disregard for black and brown bodies permeates the piece. However, this sense of disquiet is created through a play with light and shadow, for such horrors cannot be represented nor rendered legible.