Julie Mehretu explores space, history at the High Museum of Art


In Julie Mehretu’s latest retrospective exhibition titled “Julie Mehretu” on display through January 31, 2021 at the High Museum of Art, her  large scale pieces demonstrate how architectural language can manipulate the way we engage with history. Touching on themes of human rights in relation to global and national conflicts, Mehretu’s work channels the past to inform the present. It’s the first comprehensive survey exhibition of Mehretu’s work and Michael Rooks, the Wieland Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the High, says the aspects of identity have been critical.

“It follows the course of her career from her early work from the notion as cities as socio political constructs, to complex layers colors, lines, brush strokes and architectural renderings, to the more recent predominately abstract and colorful work in which the body in space becomes the principal subject,” Rooks says.

Using a technique consisting of Mylar and translucent paint, Mehretu developed a strategy to embed layers that are permanently fused together creating a different directionality of history and landscape says Christine Y. Kim, Curator, Contemporary Art at LACMA. Kim says the direction of time is the opposite of how it is traditionally translated in typical western art.

“If you think of these paintings  on a table top or surface and the layers being add on top of it and if think about landscape as this type of surface where underneath the most recent layer are the interment so that time is being developed. and landscape but having a different directionality,” Kim says.

  Markings as Signifiers 

Julie Mehretu “Hineni” (2018)

The results are images symbolic of war remnants and trauma. As an abstract artist, Mehretu works in an intuitive manner connecting modern narratives of trauma using markings as signifiers that continuously evolve. Her piece “Hineni” is based on the image of the California wildfires of 2017 and the intentional burning of Rohingya homes in Myanmar. Hineni translates to “Here I am” in Hebrew and was Moses’ response to G-d at the burning bush. In the work Mehretu explores three types of fire-one prophetic, one environmental and one intentional.

“The question is always about how the marks behave and how they occupy, determine and create space and interact with space,” Mehretu says.

In 2004, Mehretu began using architecture as a social, political metaphor for space and time. The architectural renderings are used as a tool to compress space and time away from the social world that we experience. In her piece “Stadia II” she explores the Summer Olympics through architectural language and cultural signifiers. The markings converge to form a relationship between the architectural phenomenon of a stadium, nationalism, internationalism, and propaganda.

Julie Mehretu “Stadia II” (2004)

“It was made for the Carnegie International in 2004, it was the first full year of the Iraq war, and the Summer Olympics that were coming to Athens,” she says. “My feeling at the time, and I think very clearly historically, it was understood that is was a very illegal war that we should not have gotten engaged in. And we did not have the proper international precedent to do that and, in fact, we went in off bad intelligence and lies.”

Simultaneously, Russians were boycotted from the Olympics for invading Afghanistan illegally and that logo is at the center of painting. The painting becomes a gaze of spectacle of how the war was being portrayed in the media with the use of “propaganda language.” It was the first group of paintings where she focused on a single architectural phenomenon. In the work, she strategically places the Summer Olympics logo and Al Jazeera logo to harness themes of the piece.

“One of the things that came up for me was the intense celebration of internationalism and nationalism because of the return of Summer Olympic to Athens and it was a huge moment,” she recalls. “There were there of these, so this painting has hundreds of stadia layered into it. So you have this 2000 years of time compressed into the painting.”

Born in 1970 in Addis Ababa to an Ethiopian father and an American mother the political tension in the country at the time has a major influence of her work. Mehretu’s maternal grandmother is of Eastern European Jewish descent and her father is from a Coptic Ethiopian background.  Her parents were “Africanist” constructing a future she says was quickly interrupted by a major revolution. Ethiopia went into a dystopic reality when the Derg regime took over in 1974 sending the country into a reign of terror which she says influences her outlook of the world.

“It’s formative of who I am, how I think, and how I participate in the world.” Mehretu says. “The decades of the 70’s was this really potent time, not only in post-colonial moments of the efforts on the continent, but also in that effort here in this country.” Mehretu says.


A walk through Berlin 

Julie Mehretu “Berliner Platze” (2008-2009)

Through harnessing her natural curiosity, Mehretu gained insight into the complexity of the past.  The piece Berliner Platze (2008-2009) is a statement on narratives as the destruction of place. She worked on the seven part cycle of paintings between 2007-2009 for the Deutsch Guggenheim Berlin Project. She was in the “quagmire” of the war.  The paintings are reflections on how we participate in the erasure of a place through a particular narrative.

In Berlin, the violence of the past was unavoidabe whether it was World War II, The Holocaust, World War I, or the Cold War. While walking down the street she confronted the scars from the past that often revealed themselves in the architecture. Mehretu says she “mines history” by critically observing the construction of space and erasure within the gray areas of her work. However, the process only leads to more questions and she’s left to find the possibility emerging from those experiences.

“Every corner you go to these structures are built on these particular plots of erased buildings. Mostly erased buildings that used to exist at the beginning of the last century and don’t exist anymore,” Mehretu recalls.  “And you walk through Berlin and you can tell the corners that were bombed because all four corners are new and you walk down the street and then you have the old 20th century buildings, so that became something that was really evident.”

While reflecting on interruptions in space and time, the issue of complicity bubbled up for Mehretu. She says living in Berlin changed her historically understanding of complicity.  Narratives are often constructed to distance oneself or entities from tragedies such as the Holocaust, or the killing of six million Jews in Europe, an event many solely blame on Germany says Mehretu. The piece Berliner Platze is made with ghost markings or what she calls “spirits.” The markings are an attempt to understand what it means to be complicit in the creation and participation of such a horrific event.

“And many times, it’s this kind of flattening of the narrative that it was just Germans and it wasn’t our entire participation in part of that structure and the atrocities that were committed and continue to be committed now,” she says “ These are the questions I was asking at the time and me trying to mine the history of Berlin.”

The paintings are not a means to dictate, decipher or be prescriptive, but Mehretu says the paintings are an “interrogation or a form of learning.” The concept is that this form of architectural information is a way to investigate this time or this moment.

The painting Black City, (2005) is layered with architectural drawing made from military industrial

Julie Mehretu “Black City” (2005)

complexes or fortifications.  She studied the history of military architecture and how the structures come together to ultimately become “useless forms of technological forms of borders and protection.” She says the wall or conversation around the wall, being a good example of that.

“In fact, they become very poor spaces, and usually they are these immense concrete edifices,” Mehretu says.

The painting is made from different architectural drawings that were photographs, plans or images of these architectural forms  reduced into a wire frames drawing that retraced into the painting.  The result are images of fortified cities or Hitler’s Wall Atlantic wall. But Mehretu says it can be difficult to invent a language without the language for the current reality. And while all the issues are information and immaterial, Mehretu reiterates the paintings are an investigatory process.

“It’s like the other side of these two bookends of how we built urban space over thousands of years where they are the place of spectacle, the space of entertainment, the place of gathering and then become a fortified effort of some kind of form of security apparatus.” Mehretu says.

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