JULIE MEHRETU with Allie Biswas
Kettle’s Yard (CAMBRIDGE) | January 22 – March 24, 2019
Julie Mehretu, Conjured Parts (Syria), Aleppo and Damascus, 2016. Ink and acrylic on canvas, 60 x 120 1/4 inches. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery © Julie Mehretu.
On the occasion of her current exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, Julie Mehretu spoke with me about her work from the past two decades. The images she has been creating during this time, in the form of paintings and drawings, consider the world we live in today through references to cities, architectural sites, geo-political events, and histories. She shows us an urban landscape that is dynamic and chaotic; constantly in motion. Simultaneously, Mehretu’s fascination with mark-making, and her commitment to drawing as an intuitive force, is vital to how she functions as an artist and to what she makes.
Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa in 1970 to an Ethiopian father and an American mother. She grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, and now lives in New York. The following conversation took place over the course of a day in London, in October of last year, when an exhibition of Mehretu’s paintings was on display at White Cube.
Allie Biswas (Rail): I wanted to start by asking you about the role that drawing initially played in your work.
Julie Mehretu: When I started my MFA, I was making big, abstract oil paintings that looked gestural and expressionistic, even though I wasn’t interested in them looking like that. I would also include what I considered to be cultural indicators—things that might refer to an album or a part of a face, like a mask, for instance. Ultimately, they were super generic; I thought that I was making art, but that wasn’t the case at all. It was more like I was mimicking art, rather than really inventing something. A little later on, I began to think about my mark-making and realised that drawing was something that really generated my work and thinking.
Rail: Were there any particular turning points that helped you to recognize this?
Mehretu: One of the first projects I was given, by Michael Young, one of my most important teachers, required me to strip everything down for a moment and make just one mark on a piece of paper; a good sized piece of paper. I made hundreds and hundreds of them. They evolved on my wall like an enormous lexicon of my thinking. I then began making drawings of the marks in miniature. I realized that, for me, the marks took onparticular notions of behaviour. I began to think of them as characters; the marks possessed social agency in their own right. I started to investigate my marks as social agents in space, charting terrain, creating cities and cosmologies.
I learned something very profound and fundamental from this way of working—how to access that creative and inventive place within myself through drawing, which I likened to disembodied thinking. I was led by instinct, intuition. Learning this really shifted and changed everything for me as an artist, like finding the break. It opened up a way for me to create work.
Rail: Your early paintings were constructed by layering drawings that you had made, one on top of the other, which you would then trace onto the canvas. This led to comparisons with cartographical documents. Was the urban landscape, which has gone on to permeate so much of your work, already beginning to inform your thinking at this stage?
Mehretu: Yes, I had already begun to think of my small drawings as aerial maps of cities. I drew with ink and technical drafting pens onto thin layers of smooth, transparent acrylic that I applied on the canvas. As I layered them, and as they multiplied, I thought of them almost as small civilizations. They looked like maps to me. There was this tectonic quality that came into being, as you could see through several layers of drawing. I then began mapping the paintings, and then drawing those maps into the layers of paint—into the space of the paintings.
Rail: So your process of working was leading to these leaps in productivity, both in terms of how your work looked and what it encouraged you to think about.
Mehretu: Completely; how maps have functioned in the world; how maps have served particular narratives of power and loss; meta structures versus the place of the individual. It opened up so much for me conceptually. And even materially, the tools I was working with at the beginning, in terms of their technical nature, were tools for map-making and architectural drawing. It all had to conceptually make sense to me somehow—that was important. I don’t work that way at all anymore, but at that point I had to strip everything down to its bare minimum. I needed to create within these conceptual and material limits in order to find and build a language for myself, for my work.
Rail: When discussing your paintings from this earlier period, you have referred to them as “story maps of no location,” implying that they are imagined places. Over the last decade you have made references to very specific locations, whether that be a building or a city or an architectural site. These places have not just acted as source materials for a work, in a potentially inconsequential sense, but have entirely shaped its development. When did the specificity of a geographical site start to become integral to your compositions?
Mehretu: When I began using architectural tracings, that automatically generated a type of spatial specificity in the work, as each building represented a specific time and place. However, I was collapsing all sorts of historical, social and political periods into one space by layering many drawings of different buildings and cities into one cosmology, into one painting. It was as if I was creating a tectonic view of time and space that was also historical.
The first painting that had a more concrete geographic specificity to it was made during my residency at the Walker Art Center in 2003. In this work, I traced the political capitals of each African country, which were montaged together into a large circulatory, vascular system that sprawled over the entire painting. As part of the residency I had decided to look at Minneapolis and St. Paul as East African cities, because I was so surprised by the number of East Africans that were living there. I worked with high school students who were of East African descent on what was to become a kind of self-ethnographic project.
Rail: Your exposure to these communities in Minneapolis resulted in you referring back to the notion of home—to their origins—as well as migratory journeys.
Julie Mehretu, Sun Ship (J.C.), 2018. Ink and acrylic on canvas, 108 x 120 inches. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging, Inc. Courtesy the Artist, White Cube and Marian Goodman Gallery New York © Julie Mehretu.
Mehretu: Yes, I was interested in questioning those notions and to think about how these people had ended up here in the United States. We gave the participants a toolbox of materials to document and study their lives in the city. They walked around with their cameras taking photos and superimposing their experiences onto maps of Minneapolis. We made posters that were plastered all over the city and in schools, claiming “St. Paul and Minneapolis are East African Cities;” graphically, the poster resembled a composite flag of the countries and repeated the statement in several different languages of Ethiopia and Somalia. It was a really interesting and empowering way of claiming space.
Rail: How did collaborating with, and guiding, these young people help you to think about your own work?
Mehretu: Working with students is a very different form of engagement for me, but the interconnectedness of their stories and my own resonated. I really wanted to bring that into the exhibition and the paintings somehow.
Rail: The residency was also revelatory in that it led to your first panoramic work.
Mehretu: The painting I made as part of this project was my first large-scale landscape—my first panoramic work—which has since become a format that I have repeated several times over the past twenty years. In the exhibition the painting was displayed opposite an enormous window, which looked out over the city. The painting and window bookended the rectangular gallery space. I thought of the painting as a kind of metaphoric mirror of the cityscape, as seen through the window. The painting’s first layer—I was still in the middle of making these layered works at that point—consisted of the aerial maps of all the capital cities on the continent, starting with Addis Ababa in the middle. In the second layer, I used buildings that had been built throughout the colonial and early independence movements of these cities. The final layer consisted of various plazas of independence, and other structures celebrating or encapsulating the post-colonial nationalist independence movements of their countries.
Rail: How do you think mark-making—an abstraction—functioned in the context of these physical, concrete buildings that you had traced? What role did drawing play in relation to these post-colonial sites?
Mehretu: I drew an enormous amount of the character lexicon which I had conceived by that point into the architecture and maps within the painting. The marks pierced and invaded, devoured, consumed and spit out of the structures, inventing new structural forms as they unfolded. It felt almost like a microbe invasion within the performative palladium-type space. The whole composition felt like this explosive image, teeming with activity. But it was also an image suspended in entropy.
Rail: I wonder whether the residency also triggered some kind of personal response, given that your father is originally from Ethiopia, and you spent the early part of your life in Addis Ababa.
Mehretu: Sure. Of course, being from Ethiopia has oriented my perspective in the world, as well as my making and interests. For a long time I had been mining for a way to make work that could somehow contemplate the desires and failures of the post-colonial African utopian projects. The large immigrant and refugee East African community in the stark and cold midwest, which is where I was also raised after coming to the States, prompted the desire to create that painting. I thought of it as our own Pan-African monument in the Midwest.
Rail: The project at the Walker encouraged you to think about geographical sites as a framework, but what about the architectural plan—when did that become a device within your work?
Mehretu: Architecture became a part of my work while I was living in Houston, shortly after graduate school. As I have already mentioned, I thought of my earlier drawings and paintings as being maps of no place or no location. Tracing specific architectural buildings, or parts of buildings, into the work, immediately gave the drawing a specific social and political context.
Rail: Were you seeking out the work of particular architects?
Mehretu: Specific kinds of architectural images intuitively attracted me—I was not a student of architecture and knew very little of it. I remember being at the library at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and seeing these beautiful plans of the Mies van der Rohe museum there. Having grown up in Michigan and Addis Ababa, I had been exposed to some incredible buildings—early Italian futurist buildings in Addis, some really unique International-style buildings; then mid-century modernist icons in the Midwest. So I think part of the attraction to these particular architectural plans came from a visual language that had informed me. But it was a deeply embedded, rather than an especially conscious, feeling.
Rail: How did you first approach these images of buildings—what was your way in?
Mehretu: Using a projector, I placed photocopies of the images onto a painting I had made. It really made me stop in my tracks. An immediate type of translation occurred in the work. I realised the character drawings and maps didn’t have to be in their own universe, this instantly put them into a social political context. I traced the architecture over the painting, freely. I began combining various sources into that one painting: a Tadao Ando courtyard up a staircase, it rose out of an ancient Greek amphitheater; another colonnade; several of those Mies images of the MFA Houston; and various other plans, I don’t even remember what they all were. After that, I began collecting all kinds of this stuff and tracing everything very intuitively, without really understanding, at first, what was being built spatially in my paintings. But it was transformative and profound. It shifted the work and its conceptual possibilities—a real breakthrough.
Rail: The significance of this development—of the currency of architecture in your work, in relation to these technical drawings of buildings, and your contemplation of geographical sites—was initially made clear through your first major exhibition, the Carnegie International in 2004. The Carnegie International is known as the first exhibition in North America of international art; that’s especially interesting, to think that you presented a series of paintings in this show that focused on stadiums from around the world. The Stadia paintings signalled your interest in places outside of the United States.
Julie Mehretu, Stadia I, 2004. Ink and acrylic on canvas, 108 x 144 inches. Photo: Richard Stoner. © Julie Mehretu.
Mehretu: Since I was young I have constantly been aware of, and uncomfortable with, the complex contradictions of American exceptionalism and the hugely consequential reverberations of America’s behaviour globally. Ethiopia is a perfect example of being a discarded American casualty of the Cold War. While I live in, and love living, in the United States, I also have really complicated feelings about the country and its actions, and its responsibility as a hegemonic global superpower. So I think I am constantly mining the counter-narrative, the counter realities and counter possibilities both of and outside the United States. I made the “Stadia” paintings specifically for this context, the Carnegie International, viewing it as a charged site: as the global expo, a form of spectacle created within and from the quintessential narrative of American exceptionalist neoliberalism. Stadia as a form felt like an apt metaphor for the exhibition.
Rail: Where does this interest in huge, civic buildings stem from?
Mehretu: I have always been attracted to stadia—who doesn’t love a stadium? We are compelled to love them. I have drawn them since my earliest architectural tracings, the ancient amphitheatres and such. For a long time they have excited and fascinated me. As a form of architecture that has been part of civilization from the earliest known cities; as mega containers for social occasions, that dictate very particular, prescribed forms of behaviour. As places for entertainment, drama, executions, slavery, imprisonment, shelter. As propaganda machines and symbols of democracy. When I made the stadium paintings it was after the first full year of the Iraq War, with all of its horrors, and just as the global media fervour was building for the upcoming Olympic Games in Greece. It was the summer of 2004. I was thinking about the stadium as this vehicle for spectacle and propaganda, as well as all of the inherent contradictions embedded in this very intense moment—an enormous, illegal war that had huge geopolitical ramifications, and then the Olympics.
Rail: As your work has evolved, you appear in many ways to have a more and more personal relationship with the places that you choose to focus on. Compared to the stadium paintings, for example, a work such as Mogamma carries a certain level of emotion. Would you agree that your level of involvement varies depending on what the site is and where it is located? Tahrir Square and Meskel Square are charged spaces where spectacle and disaster have collided—as well as revolution and social change. I know that you actually visited Cairo in the summer of 2012, following [Mohamed] Morsi’s election.
Mehretu: Revolution on the African continent is an especially charged and profoundly resonant topic for me. My parents were deeply committed to their lives in Ethiopia and invested themselves and their work to its development, and what could be possible for post-colonial Africa in the 1970s. They had a huge family in Addis Ababa, and they were passionate about their work. They slowly bought land and built their house, only to leave it all behind five months after we moved in. The 1974 Revolution, and the dreams of a possible democratic Ethiopian future, were extinguished by the Soviet backed military junta and the red terror that co-opted and followed the revolution, led by Mengistu Haile Miriam. Our lives were completely and utterly transformed by the revolution and its failures in Ethiopia. So in 2011, when direct action protests erupted all over the Middle East and North Africa, as an unprecedented gesture that responded to repression and force, I was completely riveted.
Rail: Of course, what was so incredible about the Arab Spring is that the dictatorship was actually overthrown. That must have felt cathartic for you on a personal level, given your own experiences.
Mehretu: Having lived through the revolution in Ethiopia, completely uprooted with our lives scarred in a particular way, it was extremely emotional for me. These protests challenged the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Algeria, Bahrain, Syria, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the live coverage of Tahrir Square during those first days of January. After eighteen days of enormous and continuous protests, one of the longest lasting dictatorships on the continent ended. That was inconceivable. I don’t know of any African who wasn’t blown away by that. Who could imagine? There wasn’t an obvious coup as far as we could tell. There was some deadly and real violence, but not at the level we had grown used to. Mubarak stepping down after those huge protests was hugely symbolic. I never thought that he was going to step down. In fact, I thought maybe new elections would be called for. But what ended up happening, what I watched in real time—the kind of uproar and disbelief and excitement that took place on the streets there—was contagious. Though of course it was also somewhat anxiety-provoking and worrying, as well as exhilarating.
Rail: Were you making a lot of work during this period?
Mehretu: I made several paintings that came out of this time, but the painting I was working on during the revolution completely changed in direction. The marks and the way I worked into the painting came as a direct response to that moment. I do think that is my most emotionally charged painting up until that time, Invisible Line (2010 – 2011).
Rail: The following year, in 2012, you made the “Mogamma” paintings; what was the starting point for this series?
Julie Mehretu, Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts), 2012. Ink and acrylic on canvas, 180 x 144 inches. Photo: Ben Westoby. Courtesy the artist, White Cube, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York © Julie Mehretu.
Mehretu: I made these paintings after reading a really smart and terrific piece about the Revolution in Cairo by Nassar Rabbat in Artforum, titled, “Circling the Square.” He brilliantly articulated the architectural history of the buildings surrounding Tahrir Square, from the Mamluk to the British Colonial, from the Soviet Brutalist to Haussmanian modernism. He created a really interesting prism from which to think about the various political forces within the history of Egypt and Egyptians, and, thus, that specific revolutionary moment. The Mogamma paintings looked at every square globally, in this manner. Public spaces that had been the site of a major revolutionary effort and protest action in the last half century. So, from Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, to Tiananmen Square, to the Zócolo in Mexico City, Tahrir Square, the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain, Place de La Concorde in Paris, Damascus, Aleppo, Daraa. The four paintings that made up the “Mogamma” series were filled with drawings of the buildings from all of these squares, and therefore the political and cultural charge of those places, the many histories that circled the squares, the many histories that created forms of power, totalitarianism, or global neo-liberal hegemony. I was mining for the many forces that contributed to varied but similar eruptions of mass public protest.
Rail: Was it the reaction of the protesters that had compelled you to visit Cairo? Was there a need for a physical experience—to actually stand within the square that you were going to paint?
Mehretu: I was invited to participate in the Cairo seminar in Alexandria as part of Documenta. Morsi had just been elected in Cairo and I just wanted to be there. I wanted to feel the tenor of the city and the country. When I was back in Cairo and back in Tahrir, it felt like an imperativeto make a big, panoramic painting that felt like it was spinning or rotating in the middle of Tahrir Square. I was interested in it because of the symbolism - what it represented. But also, more widely, I had always been interested in the public square, the agora. What can happen in the public space? What is allowed? But, also, what will not be tolerated? What is banned or forbidden? What is possible in the spaces of interiority surrounding the square; the vistas from windows looking outward. How can one behave subversively, inside the square and out? Beloved (Cairo) (2013), the painting of Tahrir turning, was also, in a sense, my last architectural painting. In that painting, I really pushed to the edge something that I had been investing in for years.
Rail: The sources for your work could be described as a close-knit group that you refer back to. Since 2012 you have been manipulating news photographs in Photoshop and then rendering them onto the canvas via airbrushing. For your recent exhibition at White Cube in London, the show felt very informed by the photograph, and you have spoken before about embedding your paintings with “the DNA,” referring to your use of photos. Does taking a real-life image offer a kind of potency that a blueprint of a building cannot?
Mehretu: I have been using news media photography for a long time in my work. For my architecturally based paintings, we would trace the buildings from the many photos I would collect of a particular place, such as Baghdad during the war or Tahrir after the revolution. In 2014, I made a cycle of seven paintings called the “Invisible Sun” cycle. They were void of the architectural language and just centered on my drawing and painting on these grey grounds. I was immersed in what could be drawn, conjured, and painted without using any social markers that were representationally specific. I was completely taken with what I could invent in my mark-making off the grid, so to speak. But during this time I still continued to collect news and media photographs of events that were transpiring in the world around me, and that were especially meaningful or haunting for me politically or socially.
Rail: What made you want to start manipulating the photographic image?
Mehretu: I began blurring and obfuscating singular photographs that held particular meaning for me using Photoshop. The blurred photo was then either printed or copied by airbrush onto canvas. What does the blurred image mean politically? Especially in this moment of so much political haze. How much could the blurred image carry in terms of light, color, energy? In these blurs, I felt apparitions; ghosts of the moment represented in the photograph. I would then draw and paint onto the surfaced, airbrushed blurred painting. I am fascinated with the blur, with the loss of focus, with how much of these images still comes through. Even though my studio has been experimenting with this way of painting since 2012, I have really only pushed this way of working in the last few years.
Rail: The works in your exhibition, SEXTANT, from last fall felt like your most urgent in many ways. The formal qualities of these works were vital to that urgency—the highly animated marks, the loss of more rigid structures. The level of animation in these paintings expressed that urgency. But I also wonder whether this dynamic quality was created because you were often referring to events—a lot of times, riots—in a way that you perhaps hadn’t before. Although Mogamma was connected to a revolution, the underlying framework for that series of paintings was a building. SEXTANT moved away from the building itself, and instead looked at physical activity.
Julie Mehretu, Invisible Sun (algorithm 7, spell form), 2015. Ink and acrylic on canvas, 119.5 x 167 inches. Photo: Tom Powel. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York. © Julie Mehretu.
Mehretu: As I was saying, the photograph—the news photograph and the images of current events—have been part of my archive from the early days. Certain ones really stand out in my memory. There have always been particular photographs that have been especially haunting or unique in a special way—they stay with me. But I think that reverberates for all of us, in a bigger cultural setting. Things stay with us. The paintings for the recent show in London I finished making in the summer of 2018, just after the anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. When they memorialized that initial rally from 2017, in the newspapers recently, it was uncanny for me, as several of the iconic photographs that I had been working with in the past came back into the news cycle. That’s because those photographs somehow stayed within a bigger consciousness. They resonated in a meaningful way. For SEXTANT, I used images from that rally, from the California wildfires of 2017, from the Muslim Ban protests, as well as the women’s march, and other resistance efforts to the racist and abhorrent president of our moment. My paintings are reactions, conjurings, and inventions from within these moments. There is a sense of urgency in them, but also a sense of insistence, resistance, and possibility. I’m most interested in what I can invent in painting, and in the image.
Rail: Returning to where we started: drawing. Tell me about your show at Kettle’s Yard, which is of new drawings. You are in dialogue with Louise Bourgeois, who will be shown in the other gallery.
Mehretu: I made two groups of works on paper. There will be ninety-five monotypes with drawing and airbrush. For these, I worked in oil ink on plexiglass and then printed that on paper. It allowed a different form of experimentation and invention with regards to the marks, as well as the mediation that transpires through the printing process. The works will be installed on all of the gallery walls in a grid. I think of installing it like a rubric; a codex of marks, part landscape, part written language, part figurative and calligraphic, part gestural. They are actually similar in a particular gesture, to the early drawings I made in graduate school that I spoke about, although I never showed those or even kept them for that matter. But as a spread-out lexicon, they function in a similar manner. I also made a group of smaller, more intimate drawings with ink on paper. These are to be shown specifically in Helen’s bedroom [Helen Schlapp is the wife of Kettle’s Yard founder, Jim Ede. The couple’s house forms the foundation of the gallery]. It is a personal space with her bed and furniture as they were left. These drawings were made from a conscious place of interiority. They are more like erotically-charged, “desire” drawings.
Rail: You are continuously held up—perhaps more than any other artist working today— as conveying our world as it exists right now. Bourgeois’s world consisted of very personal experiences that we find fascinating and want to understand, but it was very specifically her world.
Mehretu: I feel tremendously honored to be showing alongside Louise Bourgeois. I have really admired, revered and respected her work my entire life. The works I am showing really come from the immediacy of drawing and making, intuitively. They are internal, and also reflexive of the process of making.
Rail: I think that while you are always working from a place of intuition, from within yourself, your practice—particularly the paintings—have a more direct relationship with a context that is outside of your personal space, that is within the world at large.
Mehretu: There is an external focus when I am generating some of my larger paintings, but my drawings really come from a different place. They are channelled or found inside myself, that place of disembodied thinking. And still, while the paintings are made with, and from, that larger social and political context—the blurred photos, the architectural language, whatever it might be—the image I create actually evolves, develops, and materializes from that intuitive, internal place as well. I liken it to what [Édouard] Glissant calls pensée du tremblement—trembling thinking. In my work, the generative force of inventing and creating relies on that disembodied form of making. But, for me, it is impossible to take that outside of the larger, complicated social and political contexts of which I am intrinsically implicated and a part of.
Allie Biswas is a writer and editor. She is based in London and New York.