Julie Mehretu - Biography and Legacy
Ethiopian-American Painter, Draughtsman, and Printmaker
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Biography of Julie Mehretu
Julie Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, in 1970, the eldest child of her Ethiopian college professor father and American teacher mother.
The family left Ethopia when Mehretu was seven years old, to escape political violence brought about by the Derg's (a military junta) campaign of terror. They settled in East Lansing, Michigan in the United States. Her father taught economic geography at Michigan State University and Mehretu attended East Lansing High School. During high school, Mehretu came out to her friends as gay, though she did not come out to her parents (who responded supportively) until her college years. Mehretu was an excellent student, performing near the top of her class. She recalls feeling immediately comfortable in America, and her childhood has been described as "typically American" from that point on.
Both Mehretu's familial history and her sexuality can be seen as early harbingers of what would inform her later artistic career as displacement and associations to place would become key, overriding themes. She has explained that, "Coming from this African background, you're the children of people who were there during decolonisation, when the world really fundamentally shifted ... Now we're all dislocated ... and there's this constant negotiating of place, space, ideals, ideas." She also states, "I am only the person I am because I was raised in this."
Education and Early Training
Having been interested from a young age in drawing and painting, Mehretu earned her undergraduate degree in art at Kalamazoo College, Michigan. She spent her junior year abroad at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, where she was influenced by local artisans. She returned with a renewed determination to pursue an artistic career.
Describing this journey to the New Yorker's Calvin Tomkins, Mehretu recalls finding her feet following graduation in 1992. She first travelled to San Francisco, a haven for alternative, creative lifestyles. Here she took work as a waitress and began to paint every day, describing her paintings from this period as "the kind of thing you do when you think you're making art, but you're not." While making this work, Mehretu was inspired to continue her art education and was awarded a full scholarship from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) to study painting and printmaking.
At RISD, Mehretu was drawn to the slow and deliberate process of etching and took this considered approach forward into her drawing and painting. Deeply influenced by her teacher Michael Young, she produced a huge volume of drawings, through which she discovered her distinctive approach to mark making and began to develop a visual language made up of dots, lines, symbols, and shapes. It was at RISD that Mehretu also began to explore aerial views, bringing these areas of marks, which she calls "communities," together in formations that resembled landscapes.
The artist went on to combine this technique with works built up from several layers of drawing and painting; for example, marrying expressive, abstract marks on top of delicate architectural drawing. Working from source material including urban and architectural images, maps, charts, logos, flags, and photographs, together these layers formed "flattened re-imaginings of city life" comprised of multiple points of view. Her practice was further transformed through the use of a computer to digitally manipulate architectural images and project them on to canvas. This technique became particularly important as she began to work at a larger scale, facilitated by access to her own studio as part of a residency program at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The increased intricacy of these works meant that the artist produced just six or seven pieces a year.
Following her graduation from RSID, Mehretu moved back to New York. She set up her studio and began to establish her reputation as a professional painter. In 1999, she showed two of her paintings at Exit Art (a non-profit cultural center) in SoHo and took part in several group shows, including the Museum of Modern Art's "Greater New York" in 2000. As a result, several dealers (both American and international) showed interest in her work, including Christian Haye of the Project gallery in Harlem.
Haye identified Mehretu as an artist who was "taking things in a completely different direction." Her first solo show in 2001 at Project gallery completely sold out before the opening. She has since spoken of such attention as overwhelming, preferring to focus on the work itself and the process of artmaking in the present. In 2005, a collector sued Haye over the right of first refusal on Mehretu's work. The case was the first of its kind and demonstrated the high demand for and high profile of her pieces.
Mehretu has credited her close family and friends for keeping her grounded amongst worldwide success. In 2000, she met the Australian artist Jessica Rankin, with whom she immediately established rapport based on their similar interests. Like Mehretu, Rankin's artwork explored signs, symbols, and mental geographies, using embroidery. Soon after they met, Rankin began showing her work at the same galleries as Mehretu. The synchronistic coupling bloomed, both in love and in their support of each other's artistic careers. Rankin has commented, "We're constantly giving each other feedback and I feel like we see each other's work differently than anyone else does."
A further development in Mehretu's practice came in 2006 during a six-month residency in Berlin. Having become dissatisfied with a paint wash she had applied to one of her pieces, Mehretu began to explore selectively erasing her work in order to reveal the layers of drawing and painting beneath. The Grey Area series of paintings (2007-09), one of which is called Vanescere (disappearance), is built around this idea, and was exhibited at the Guggenheim in New York in 2010. This creative development also inspired Mehretu to accept a commission by Goldman Sachs for their new office building, which she had been going back and forth on due to her heavy workload. The noted location and its public access inspired an eventual commitment from the artist.
Mehretu married Rankin while still working on the Grey Area paintings and the Goldman Sachs mural. On completing the corporate commission, they hosted a party at Mehretu's studio, to which a large part of the Berlin art community was invited. The couple currently live and work in New York, though they maintain an apartment in Berlin as well. Mehretu has expressed her fondness for the cosmopolitan environment and freedom of Berlin, as well as believing that in Europe, "It's more about what the work is and what the work is doing than who the artist is. That's always, I think, where the conversation should be."
Art critic Jason Farago has remarked on the contrast between Mehretu's chaotic paintings and the calm within her studio, which he describes "as much a think tank as a laboratory," perhaps on account of the large number of reference books it holds. It is important to the artist to remain organized in her working practice, especially now, since she and Rankin have two children: Cade (born in 2005) and Haile (born in 2011). "When you're not a mom you can get up in the middle of the night, paint, sleep all morning ... you can't do that when you have two children!"
This "giving up of control" mentality has infused Mehretu's technique as it has become "freer and messier" as she uses oil and ink on Plexiglas, as opposed to ink on paper, for her monotype prints. She enjoys how these materials promote "a loose, fluid way of working - because nothing is more fluid than oil on Plex." This experience has been liberating for the artist and has reinvented her style.
Mehretu is driven to make her work by real world events and the need to process them: "One of the big issues for me as I continue making paintings is a belief or an insistence that this continues to be necessary, considering what is taking place in the world and how fundamentally messed up it is. ... The new paintings come from this necessary investigative space ... I feel that painting is necessary, essential, and crucial." The feeling has been more pronounced since the political events in Egypt in 2011. Mehretu was heavily influenced by President Hosni Mubarak stepping down from power. Days later, she travelled to Tahrir Square in Cairo, which was the scene of the popular demonstrations that brought this change about. The trip inspired her painting Beloved (Cairo) (2013), in which she explores the "tension and contradiction" within that historic moment.
Mehretu's art is not necessarily inspired by single events or spaces. For example, she has described the process whereby the painting Invisible Line began as a response to the architecture of New York but changed on account of events in Egypt. "I was in here working on New York, and I'm drawing, and this thing is unfolding: I have al-Jazeera on the computer livestream, I'm paying attention to NPR ... So I was looking architecturally at New York, and then suddenly I'm back in Africa." While Mehretu acknowledges the original subject matter brings with it a range of urban experience - "The characters in my maps plotted, journeyed, evolved, and built civilizations. I charted, analyzed, and mapped their experience and development: their cities, their suburbs, their conflicts, and their wars" - the results no longer represent a specific time or place but "an intangible no-place: a blank terrain, an abstracted map space." In this way, Mehretu's work gives new life to her source material. The artist challenges narrow geographic and cultural readings of urban and architectural images by bringing them into a new time and place in the art world.
Inspired by the masses of lines and shapes in Mehretu's work that perhaps suggest networks of urban movement or communication, Farago comments, "Mehretu's paintings come closer than any other artist's today to conveying the world we now live in: culturally hybrid and in constant motion, a synthesis of skyscrapers and ruins." This idea of the pace and change of city life contrasts interestingly with Mehretu's working practice, which is extremely slow. It is not unusual for her to spend a year on a painting, though her drawings are often created more quickly. (Those of a smaller scale are often made in between paintings). Many works take several weeks to dry. Similarly, Mehretu's artworks take a long time to view and digest. She affirms that "All art chooses its own audience ... Certain paintings are made to be consumed fast. But some require a slowed-down time."
The Legacy of Julie Mehretu
Mehretu's contemporaries at graduate school were figurative artists such as Kara Walker and Shahzia Sikander. As art critic Calvin Tomkins notes, Mehretu presented something different with her approach that combines architectural drawing, maps, symbols, and abstract shapes. Although the works - or elements of them - are inspired by specific events and places such as demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo, wildfires in California, and the Grenfell Tower disaster in London, Mehretu combines these particular histories and geographies with her own thoughts and experiences to create what she calls "story maps of no location." Museum director Kathy Halbreich has praised the work for introducing a new kind of abstraction that is "very much of its time."
One influence on her subject matter is her father's work as a geographer. In her words, Mehretu had "a subconscious awareness of his way of dissecting the world, to try to make sense of it." Stylistically, critics have identified the influence of such 20th century art movements as Futurism, Constructivism, and Abstract Expressionism, owing to her work's dynamism and scale. Mehretu herself is keen to point out influences that are often excluded from the canon, for example, Ice Age carving and Chinese painting. With respect to Abstract Expressionism she cites Helen Frankenthaler and Elaine de Kooning alongside better-known artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Barnett Newman, noting that women and artists of color are rarely "considered part of the story."
Whilst Mehretu's art is inspired by events taking place in Africa and the Middle East, she resists interpretations of her work that fail to see past her ethnicity. According to the artist, her work is not all about "blackness" or "otherness." She believes that there is a failure to "simply accept and understand that a woman of African descent is making large, abstract paintings" and that this is a restrictive view of what artists of color can achieve.
As a person, Tomkins has described Mehretu as "bursting with energy, adventurous and outspoken," while journalist Julie Cerullo calls her "modest and self aware." Art critic Jason Farago notes that she has become one of the most significant painters of her generation, while avoiding "the art world's exhausting social games." This is something that is important to Mehretu and part of her successful relationship with dealer Christian Haye, who managed her publicity to such an extent that she "could just focus on the work, and not pay attention to the noise." Whilst Mehretu is best known in the USA, she has exhibited internationally. Her first solo exhibition in the UK was in 2019, in which she showed smaller scale prints and drawings as opposed to monumental paintings.
Alongside her passion for drawing and painting, Mehretu is interested in music. "When I'm working I am usually listening to music, and I have always been interested in the juxtaposition of looking at images and listening." Her paintings, in the way that they are articulated with dense and less dense moments, have been compared to musical scores. Reflecting this dual interest, Mehretu painted Auguries in 2010, which responds to the first of Wagner's Ring cycle of operas. In the same year, musician Jochen Neurath composed a piece to celebrate the completion of Mural for Goldman Sachs, later performing another for the exhibition of Grey Area. More recently, in 2017, the artist has collaborated with composer and pianist Jason Moran to create music which, in the same way as her painting, explores complex geographies and histories.