Yasi Alipour (Rail): So, as I mentioned in the invite, this Critics page started with my questions about art and mentorship, especially for someone like myself who doesn’t belong to the Hegemonic narratives of history. A shift has been happening gradually. Now, I describe our subject as generational conversations that happen through and within different histories of erasure. I constantly wonder how all these conversations are happening in English. Maybe the bigger question is about silence or how much of our conversations happen in spaces related to silence. I want to start with thanking you for your work, for all that your paintings and drawings have made possible for me, for the language of multitude you have created around your work, and at a larger scale, for all the other aspects of your practice, from how you contextualize your work, to your commitment to spaces like Denniston Hill. Thank you for being here.
Julie Mehretu: Happy to be here. Thank you for asking me!
Rail: As inspiration for the structure of this interview, I’m taking three subjects that you have been mentioning in the past years to where your thoughts are these days: music, revolution, and failure.
Starting with music, I want to hear your thoughts on Nina Simone’s “Flo Me La” (1960). You have a painting from 2017-2018 that carries the same title. It’s such a unique piece of music by Nina Simone. The three words “Flo-Me-La” become the whole lyrics. Nina constraints herself to the three utterances. There is something uniquely intense about listening to this live performance. It seems like Nina can say so much without saying a single ‘word.’ And in that process, she completely shifts how we listen to everything else in relation, from all the musical instruments accompanying her to even the “silence” surrounding her and the band. I first listened to this piece because of your work. I’ve been thinking a lot about two of her other performances; “I Wish I knew how it would feel to be free” (1967)—Simone in the midst of the Civil Rights movement—and “Stars/Feelings” (live at Montreux, 1976)—she in exile after so much loss. “Flo Me La” is Nina before all of this. Somehow it feels like she can already hear all that, even sing it. I would love to start there.
Can you please tell us a bit about your work in relation to music? It has been a helpful way to think about your refusal to distinguish between abstraction and figuration in your work.
Mehretu: Big question. So first, all those paintings are part of a cycle of work for a show I made called Sextant (2018), which has a double meaning. Sextant is a really great Herbie Hancock album, but it’s also a seafarer's navigation instrument used to figure out where one is in the vast ocean. I usually title my work when I’m finished with it. Very rarely do I know a title early on. I wanted to claim this space of abstraction I was working in, as a space that plays in the Black radical tradition. And so, I was using music and the titles to put that in the conversation. The paintings weren’t necessarily inspired or made from those songs. They made me think of the songs. For example, this one painting is really provocative and has this weird set color palette. It feels galactic, almost from elsewhere. And it has all these different kinds of tenors in terms of its visceral experience. I came to John Coltrane’s Sun Ship (1971) as a place. One of the reasons those musical references are so interesting is their insistence on finding ways of transcending time and space in the face of an effort at their complete destruction—and not just destruction but the systemic and deliberate attempt to extinguish Black being-ness. (And the deep self-reflexive knowledge, not just belief, that it’s impossible to put that out.) There’s this other tenor and frequency at play that goes way beyond the self. Coltrane’s really immersed in that state of being, that insistence. “Flo Me La” is also precisely that because of its refusal to engage language. It’s a kind of vocalizing; it’s a song made from sound, made of abstraction, but filled with such visceral emotion. It’s not an emotion that one can name; it contains a multitude of collective expressions simultaneously. And it was made in the midst of the civil rights movement. It wasn’t before something changed but in the midst of it. She embodies a clamoring for the right to self, a resistance. All of that was super interesting to me.
Those paintings were the first of a big group of new works where nothing is decipherable; nothing is legible. In some of my earlier paintings, the architecture was legible. (Not even that it was legible; it became obscured into illegibility and it was unreadable in a way. But there were still some signifiers within that.) Those exist within the abstraction here too, but there’s something else that emerges. You can sometimes feel a hand; a figure might emerge; a figure might disappear; parts of bodies can morph into one. But it’s not a definitive decipherable language. That’s one of the reasons I was using these particular photographs—to blur and obscure—as the point of departure for these paintings. I intentionally worked in this other space so that they could not be delineated in a particular way. They are viscerally, physically, and emotionally experienced and cannot be limited by the bounds of what is knowable. Music has worked for me in these very different ways. It’s the spine or score to which I work. I use different kinds of music to access other forms of painting. It’s a way of disembodying, disconnecting my head and hand and self.
Rail: Interesting that you use the word disembodiment. I’ve been thinking a lot about movement in your work and that as a different form of embodiment.
Mehretu: Well, there’s this deep place of making, which is unknowing. It’s a place that I trust in as an experience of working intuitively and with chance. However, we experience and move through the world completely informed by our embodied experiences of race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. We also participate with art and viewing from those same cultural or racial embodied experiences. So, of course, the tenor in the work, the movement, the forms, and the scales of the work are all experienced differently.
Rail: Hearing how you talk about Coltrane, Nina Simone, and music makes me think about your relationship with the older generation of visual artists. I find it moving that you often bring up this specific piece of David Hammons. To recall Hammons as someone who made something possible for you and your practice. I am also thinking about how Martin Puryear spoke in your recent conference at the Whitney “Black/Queer/Abstract.” In his presentation, he weaved a history of abstraction that is often disregarded. He embodied and carried this narrative. He was so open, generous, and yet deeply vulnerable in that presentation. In that exchange, there was so much care from him, you, and all the surrounding people. It felt like that history was being held. I was thinking about this generational conversation and the ways in which dialogues are happening that are not linear, or not reducible to textbooks, or not possible to capture in a specific way.
Mehretu: They lay down the gauntlet, and you have to try to meet them. It’s so multifaceted for me. There is an immense history of really amazing Black and Queer abstractionists, but in the telling of art history, they are often erased as the central candidate or subject of discourse. That’s changing now. But you have people like Martin Puryear who have always been here. He’s a bit younger than some of them, but still. He’s always had this very engaged and stable way. I was really impressed by his lecture, and who he brought up, and why they were there; that was such an amazing special thing. We were fortunate to listen to that and have that experience. He’s somebody who I think has been working so intensely with these issues. His commitment is in making, in finding and informing. And through that, he builds these incredible pieces that are deeply coded. They play between codes, even code-switching. I think of “A Column for Sally Hemings” (2019) in the American pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale. It’s this amazing piece. His project interrogated and explored an entire cosmology, system, mindset, and machine of colonialism and slavery through abstraction. It went really into ideas of the Renaissance, mapping the Cosmos, to slavery to colonial architecture to civil war to ghosts. It was all in there, and yet they were fundamentally these abstract pieces that moved through space.
Hammons is a major touchstone artist for me. I have a body print from 1976 that I am lucky to live with. We’ve had it in our family for maybe 11 years and see it everyday. It’s a piece that deeply inspires me, “if I can make something that even comes close to that today, that would be good.” It’s that kind of a thing. It has all these kinds of references, but what happens in it when you look at it every day is that it goes way past those references. It’s these puzzle pieces; there’s the eye and the mouth and the hair and then the chest. But what happens in the eye and the mouth is that the mouth becomes an eye, like a third eye. You have this transformative experience that is almost dissociative; it’s freshly awe inspiring and moving every time. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s incredible! I’ve had that experience with certain kinds of paintings that just blew me away when I saw them for the first time. For example, I didn’t know all of Jack Whitten or Frank Bowling's work until it started to be shown—or until I could search it—and then I was completely blown away by his effort to paint with light and use abstraction as this space for something else to be possible.
These artists generally grew up in places where they couldn’t even go into museums—as places of study and to look at work themselves. They grew up in a world where that was impossible. Yet look at Beauford Delaney’s abstract works. His mother was an enslaved person. We can’t even imagine the terror and his embodied life experience. For Delaney though, a yellow field painting as a place of liberation. These artists chose this vehicle or mode of work to create something else, to imagine on another level entirely. That blows me away. I learn a lot from that. One of the most profound aspects of being an artist is being in engagement with this history and participating in it with the complete knowledge that we were basically the same as people 5000 years ago, 50,000 years ago. There is this engagement with visual culture, visual history, and how we access it or how we are able to make it.
Rail: You know, there’s this fairly random five-minute video of Fred Moten on YouTube—I sincerely believe I’m 40 percent of its viewership because I show it in my classes—where he talks about “figuring it out” and as he puts it, “its permutations.” And he just plays with that word in the unique way that he thinks—almost as improvisation moving through language.
He says: “There’s this thing where you kind of figure ‘ok, let’s get together to see how we can figure it out.’ […] And we’re interested in the moment at which this kind of weird inkling or transformation might begin to occur in which you realize that what we have been trying to figure out how to get to is how we are when we get together to try to figure it out.” And he continues. The recording kind of wraps up as he says, “cause my sense of it is that, you know whatever, capital and the state are most violent in these modalities in which acquisition and extermination of those basically amount to the same thing. That these institutions are most violent against us when we’re trying to figure it out. They just don’t seem to like it very much when we just get together. And at the same time that they don’t like it, they love it; they want to eat it. They want to steal it and keep it, lock it up and sell it and cut it up into pieces and replicate it. Like I said, they can’t live with it; they can’t live without it. We can live with it; we can’t live without it.”
It’s been intense to me because, on some levels, I am excited about how there are so many historically marginalized voices that are now invited into these museums, universities, and institutions. And at the same time, I’m scared.
I’m also interested in his play with the word “figure.” Is it the bodies gathered in the room, the idea of them, or is it just numbers? It makes me think about the writing you sometimes present as “New Thoughts on Painting, Origins” and how you play with and think through the word ‘abstraction’ there.
I keep wondering, are new conversations possible now that we are in these rooms? What are the limits of this moment? Sometimes I end up watching an interview with artists like you—who I admire—from even 10 years ago, and I am taken aback by the ignorance and violence of the space surrounding you. I keep asking, how did you manage to continuously have these conversations with nuance and complexity in moments that almost felt impossible?
Mehretu: I think a lot about that when going back to those artists. In the past, we have seen a co-optation that happens in moments like the one we are experiencing right now. In the civil rights era, they got a lot of attention. They studied and were working all the way through that. And some of them got some attention but very few. And then, after the Civil Rights Movement, they were in all these shows. They were shown in these institutions. These institutions even collected some of their work—and have never shown it since. This is not the first instance. We saw it during the civil rights movement and again in the post-“identity politics” moment that blew open the art world in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. That was the time of ACT UP, multiculturalism, internationalism, and cosmopolitanism. But by the late ‘90s, all of that complexity that had taken the art world by storm, in exhibitions like the ‘93 Biennial or Black Male, was co-opted by formalist discourses of aesthetics, discourses about a return to beauty and the like.
Certain galleries in Soho and Chelsea were interested in this internationalism, showing artists from Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, South Africa, Cameroon, wherever. You saw this! But at the same time, very few galleries were doing that. Most of those artists were then ignored for many years after that or sidelined intentionally because the center part of the art world got sick of talking about politics. This was when you had this real bottoming out of direct politics in work. That’s one of the reasons Hammons is so interesting is because he could play this tightrope. There was a reactionary movement toward aesthetics and form that refused to discuss politics. But these artists didn’t let that stop them. And what I think is interesting too is that there’s this place where we forget where we can find potency. But these artists didn’t let the focus on formalism and apoliticism stop them. That’s my point. Their insistence on making and their intimate knowledge of the absurdity (and fascist underpinnings) of concepts of purity.
Rail: Maybe this is a good time to begin talking about your relationship with revolutions. I was born into the 10th anniversary of a revolution, so when I think about revolutions, I think about the initial dreams and desires, and then the realization, co-option, and policies. I think of the sacrifices that had to be made, and I think of the brutality of the failure. For me, revolution is Tehran as a city that had to be renamed, street by street. Something as mundane as walking in this city includes contradictions—people who would refer to old names that had meant nothing to the new generation. There’s constant collapse happening in memories, timelines, histories, and the political ideologies of both the old and the new. You lived through a revolution too, from the dreams of your parent’s generation for Ethiopia (and post-coloniality at large) to your ultimate migration.
I’m so moved by how the Arab Spring affected your work. Not just because it’s a moment in history that I lived through—and is forever dear to my heart—but because of something more profound. A postcolonial post-revolution generation dared to desire a revolution again—after what the revolution had cost their society only a few decades before. It was beautiful, and it was dumb! (And today, we can’t talk about it without thinking about all the horror that has come to the region since the Arab Spring.) The “Square” was a big part of that political moment. I’m interested in how that space reflects in your work. And when I think of the word “square” in this context, I go to the Farsi/Arabic, which is Meydan میدان. The word refers to the same point in the cityscape, but the geometrical form is a circle. Epistemologically—at least in Farsi—it relates to the empty space where the streets and alleys converge, no buildings, no mansions. It is the in-between space where people come together, where people hang out.
And of course, that’s not at all what they were in these massive cities in the late 2000s. It was the center where the main streets met. The municipality and the police station were never that far from it. It’s also the favorite subject for all the governments to rename. It is how they signal their power and political ideology.
Looking for the “square/circle” in the mystifying chaos of your work in that period became an important anchor point for me. Can we talk about revolutions (it’s echoes or sirens, their hopes and failures, past and future)?
Mehretu: [laughs] I think you spoke about it just now in the way it’s always felt for me. I have the desire for revolution—the sense of liberation and possibility, the project of collective transformation, the creativity and hopefulness. All of that is embedded in me, in my core, and at my cellular level. It’s my life experience and my world—and the reality of every aspect of my parents’ and my grandparents’ experience. And it always gets worse. [laughter] I haven’t watched anything get better in a revolutionary situation. So, this is the contradiction, right? I was born and came into being in the midst of that desire, in the midst of a revolution, in the possibility of socialist-democratic postcolonial futures. However, almost everywhere globally, where those postcolonial desires played out, the revolutions were co-opted by dictatorial autocracies or neoliberal oligarchies. And so, I am trying to make sense of that contradiction, or, as Fred Moten says, I am “figuring it out.” That contradiction of possibility and failure, the co-option of revolution, and the dystopian states of horror that ensue.
This is one of the reasons that our collective Denniston Hill is interested in the study of Exodus as an ontological concept. We are trying to make sense of the aesthetics of uncertainty, of the wilderness, of a post-emancipatory moment. Most of what has been invented through the effort of Exodus is fundamentally a failure. It’s the creation of another nation-state where the power dynamics are different. The promised land became exactly that same problem. Many of the people who were once enslaved wanted to return rather than be lost in this fog, in the confusion and the experience of the desert. There’s the complexity of that story and those years in the wilderness. And what is the wilderness? And what is the kind of structure that we’re building? And how do we exist in that? I think we all have these kinds of concepts around us. And we’ve been taught so much about these different realities that exist between the state and between us as individuals—and the entire infrastructure that enables this dynamic. But what we see on a daily basis is its impossibility and unsustainability. So we’re in the midst of contradiction, constantly living, making, breathing, working, but it’s not without that drive, you know?
My interest in the Square was what you talked about. There’s the idea of a Square—or its form—is not how these things happen. When you think about the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain, it wasn’t a gathering place. It was a space, this huge roundabout, and roadway, not a place where people hung out. But it became that. And then they abolished the actual monument that was there because of the revolution. They got rid of it! But how do you eliminate that in the psyche? Do you erase the circle from the mind? Make it so you’re not allowed to draw circles anymore?
Rail: [laughs] I know of dictatorships that would try that.
Mehretu: How far would you go to eradicate or erase this thing that exists? The circle. How far can you go?
Rail: And then with each revolution that gets co-opted, the Square is renamed, everyone is trying to have the new name, and erase that past and define who the new people are, you know?
Mehretu: That’s what’s so interesting, that repeating pattern. And why is it that we keep doing that?
Rail: Yeah… I’ve been so blown away by the “blur” of your work. I talked to a friend about teaching and my inner contradiction—a revolutionary desire accompanied by knowing its immense failure. I keep thinking that as a teacher, I need to give my students—and all their radical anticolonial revolutionary drive—solid ground. I want them to have something to stand on.
Mehretu: For sure.
Rail: Right? But there’s no such thing. The ground is always moving. I was discussing it with a friend (a fellow postcolonial subject and teacher), and they responded that the only ground we have is the muck. It’s inspired by Fred Moten. I’m thinking about Fred’s essay in the monograph of your retrospective and what he calls “the gray” in your work. It’s the being in the “surround” that is the blur in your work. I wanted to hear more about the blur.
Mehretu: The surround that is the blur. That’s cool. The blur comes from the kind of ambivalence and cognitive confusion we’re in. My friend Paul Pfeiffer says it’s like we are in this moment where a fish can’t see the water it’s swimming in. We are trying to make sense of this new hyper-mediated reality we live in. That’s one of the things we try to explore at Denniston Hill. Most of us are in this place where nothing feels solid, especially considering the pandemic and how it brought into sharp relief how untethered and yet interconnected we all are. For me, the blur became a way to interrogate this space of ambivalence, uncertainty, and unknowing. I was interested in the haunting that could emerge from the images. The painting's color and dynamic is informed by the color and the light and the time of day and what people were wearing and what was taking place and what the event was. There’s something else in that image that I’m interested in, and that is what creates a point of departure. There is this kind of a blur, or that haze of the desert, the haze of the wilderness—in that space of confusion and unknowing.