At the onset of a millennium defined by the twin forces of globalization and the legacy of September 11, Julie Mehretu is producing a new form of history painting that incorporates a wide range of formal, cultural, and personal references. Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, she was raised in East Lansing, Michigan, educated in Rhode Island and Senegal, and currently lives and works in New York City. It is no surprise, then, that her work has a cartographic impulse in which a dynamic visual vocabulary of maps, urban-planning grids, and architectural forms stand in visually for a world that seems to be spinning out of control. By using elements extrapolated from recognizable references in our built environment, the artist creates paintings that blur the line between figuration and abstraction, fact and fiction, while also alluding to the world around us. The results are perfect metaphors for the interconnected and complex character of the twenty-first century.
Mehretu’s paintings carry their own polymorphous history, almost like an archaeologist’s dream site, by layering each stage between coats of acrylic paint. Marks build upon lines, which build upon colored shapes, creating an explosive collision of mythical history, architectural archives, and fictional landscapes. She says, “My aim is to have a picture that appears one way from a distance—almost like looking at a cosmology, city, or universe from afar—but then when you approach the work, the overall image shatters into numerous other pictures, stories, and events.”1 In Babel Unleashed (2001), the viewer is overcome by a swarming mass of shapes and lines—red, blue, green, pink, and black—as if the illusionistic space in a Renaissance system of perspective has been torn asunder. The most elemental forms are architectural, ranging from the anonymous (airports, stadiums, public plazas) to the celebrated, such as the Tower of Babel—a fabled site of cultural differentiation that remains a powerful symbol in a world where ethnic conflicts continue to shatter communities from Europe to Africa.
Hopeful visions for the future and the heartbreaking failures of humankind’s utopian impulses constitute the underlying structure of Mehretu’s Transcending: The New International (2003). Drained of all color and rendered in layers of black India ink and acrylic on an enormous stretched canvas, the painting has as its underlying structure the city plans of the major economic and political capitals in Africa. On the painting’s surface, the artist has constructed complex line drawings depicting indigenous, colonial, and modernist architecture in the postcolonial period. For example, design schematics for a city plaza in Abuja, Nigeria, are submerged under a flurry of marks Mehretu calls her “characters,” which stage battles, form alliances, and ravage her fictional cities. The painting is not, however, simply a nihilistic invocation of the derailed promises of African independence—it is at base a hopeful speculation on the futures of the real and imagined locations it depicts. In all her paintings, with their triumphant, expressive line, Mehretu charts a visual course that speaks not only to the tragic aspects of history but also to its moments of liberation and freedom.
“Looking Back: E-mail Interview between Julie Mehretu and Olukemi Ilesanmi,” in Douglas Fogle, ed., Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2003), 13. ↩