The Ethio-American artist of abstract expressionism
Julie Mehretu is a critically acclaimed artist who was able to offer new insights into human existence through multi-layered architectures and abstract compositions. Her creative artworks embody a dichotomy of ancient, contemporary architectures; structure of human hierarchy and other political, social and economic commentaries. Born in 1970 from an Ethiopian father and an American mother, Julie migrated to the United States when she was seven years old. She studied at the University of Chiekh Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal and earned her BA from Kalamazoo College and MFA from Rhode Island School of Design. She has exhibited her works in many prestigious museums all over the world receiving critical acclaim and awards. Some of the awards include the Berlin Prize in 2007 from the American Academy in Berlin, a John D. and Catherine T.Mac Arthur Foundation “Genius” award (2005), and the American Art award from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2005. She has also received the US State Department’s National Medal of Arts. Julie showcased her works in Addis Ababa starting July 8 at the Modern Art Museum Gebre Kirstos Desta Center. In addition to exhibiting her works, she was also part of a symposium entitled “The Artist’s World: A Conversation”. The symposium brought together Wangechi Mutu, Teju Cole, Berhanu Ashagrie and Robel Temesgen. She also gave a public lecture describing her art works. Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter who was also a moderator of one of the panels compiled the Q&A session. Excerpts:
Question: This show has been labeled as Julie’s homecoming which takes us to the theme of home. In today’s world the concept of home has become a contested idea defined as abstract, evolving, elusive or associated with intangible relationships? How do you define home? How relevant is the theme of home in your art works? What does home do to you or, in other words, what does home provide you with in terms of content?
Julie Mehretu: A lot of people kept asking me this question about how it feels to have this homecoming show? It is interesting because Addis has always been my place of birth; has been the home of my family, the original home of my family and relatives.
It has always been a huge part of my narrative but this is my first time as I am interacting with the city and with this community. In that sense, it is a very new experience. It is something that holds a lot of meaning because of the relationship. I think that is a very complicated idea. Addis Ababa is a very early home and a deep part of who I am culturally. But it has always been a complex negotiation of who I am as a person living in the United States.
It has been incredible being here and to have this relationship and conversation. Also, I was able to develop a new idea of a place and to have this different type of adult relationship with it.
Actually, home has nothing to do with what I work on or how I approach it. In fact, if home is something that is comfortable, work is in many ways pushing for something as uncomfortable as possible. I have always thought that working is constant change of place or time. That happens even metaphorically within a studio. People say all sort of things about how home can be wherever you are. For me home has nothing to do with a particular place.
Can you tell us about the mural you painted for Goldman Sachs and whether it has some sort of relationship with the 2007 economic crisis?
Before the economic crisis of 2007 I think a lot of people thought they knew about Goldman Sachs but they did not really know much since Goldman Sachs was one of the most secretive banks that existed in that landscape. So it was very powerful. No one knew that the building that they were moving into was a Goldman Sachs building and they did that during the crisis. Eventually, we were able to understand the role of Goldman Sachs not just as a bank but as its relationship with the government.
So when I took on the project we were on a very different landscape where in the United States people were celebrating the economy; however, the market was kind of difficult to deal with. Like I said if a bank wants to buy a painting from a museum or any other institution they are able to. I make big paintings that fit on big walls so what interested me was the site and the possibility of what they could offer me as a painter and what I could do with my work.
That is why I took it on. At one point, when we were working in Berlin, officials from Goldman Sachs came to visit. I thought they were there to cancel the commission since the crisis was insane. I was really trying to make a sense of what took place that year. I didn’t really understand what happened until I finished the book entitled “The Big Short”. I was trying to make sense of what was going on at that time. In that regard, there was no time that I didn’t want to take on the project. I don’t hide my political beliefs whether it is politics about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or any other. None of that is hidden from the board. I didn’t have a sketch or an idea. I just had images and I had a proposal of what the painting could be. So it was really this time-based experience that helped me in making the painting. The whole process was complicated and difficult including installing it on the site. It is not open to the public; but can be seen from outside. Hopefully, it will be open to the public one day. It is all part of a machination of this bigger system which I am a part of and my work is part of.
Do you ever feel censored? Do you limit yourself? What is your advice for young Ethiopian artists who are constricted with limitations?
I definitely come from a position of privilege in being able to make what I want to make, say what I want to say and be what I want to be. In the United States I feel that I learned a lot from artists that I meet and visit in other places. We invent ways to be critical or to bring up questions while being incredibly poetic. So for me I have always felt that I have been pretty inspired by whom I have met and what I have learned. I don’t think that I have any advice to give but I can learn a lot from you. I think that there is something potent about abstraction. You can put certain symbols and embed things in abstraction. I don’t know if I am answering your question but I intentionally work with abstraction because it is illegible. And it’s hard to sensor something that you can’t really read and understand.
You were in Berlin when Germany was divided. As an abstract political analyst, how was the time for you? Did the architecture affect both you and your work?
With me I find that I am somewhere and I am absorbing. I am saying this in retrospect. I observe a place and it informs me and affects me. I learn a lot about the place and my surrounding. During my stay in Berlin, I was the student of the city in a way and immersed in it. I am critical of the space while I was learning a lot from it. I was amazed by a lot of what was happening there. Berlin is in some ways one of the freest places I ever lived in and in another way it is one of the most controlled places I have ever lived in. So there was a lot going on for me internally in that space. There was my own personal landscape and there was the landscape of the place. I would digest it and somehow filter it. That affects and changes people slightly in terms of composition. It is only in retrospect that I see the effect; how I think, am or be. But I think it is because it fundamentally changes who I am. It is not causal in a certain way.
Your art is layered and touches many points. Is there any point of limit for your audience regarding political, social, economic topics? And is it difficult to navigate through diverse topics and address them simultaneously? How do you navigate all these themes?
I think you live in various topics which are profound and multifaceted. That is basically who we all are. In the end it’s a painting, it is an object. It is one of the most limited things. It is in a finite object that I am putting this energy into. Sometimes it is months of energy and other times it is a short amount of time but something occurs there and it becomes something that you have an intentional interaction with. For me there is a clear limit as to what that is, and what it can do in the world. It affects one person in a really profound way that can be seen as a reverberation. When you talk about exhaustion there are moments when the work shifts, changes and fundamentally falls apart under you. So yes it does exhaust itself at a certain point and this is a practice for me. Sometimes they are the most ephemeral works and sometimes consume more time and are exhausting. The level of openness and the possibility of what you can bring into your practice are important. These are the different things that I bring up that inform me and inform how I am working. Still the practice is very simple. It is really a mark on a piece of paper or canvas.
You have visited Ethiopia many times but it is for the first time you are exhibiting your work here. Were you waiting for an invitation?
Basically you are saying is what took me so long (laughs). Everybody knows where you are from; I think a lot of people who are biracial and have a parent from certain place share similar experiences as me. We left here in difficult moments. My parents just build their house and five months after we moved in the house we had to leave. After that my father lost his passport and until 1991 he could not come back. So we did not come back but I could have—probably as an American—however, for him it was a serious loss of his homeland. His father passed away and he could not come. All of that was a big part of our fabric as a family and who we were. He worked in other places on the continent. The work he has been doing in Ethiopia continued in Zimbabwe and I lived with them. I have also lived in Senegal. I had this deep connection to the continent because I was from here. Until my father’s reconnection with Ethiopia, it was really kind of super -comfortable. We came back for the first time with him I think 15 years ago and after that several times with my family. My grandmother was here. She passed away a few years ago. Many aunts and uncles are here. It was kind of intense. Family reconnection played an important role than almost anything else in building my relationship with this country. This is the first time I have been able to have a relationship with the country independent of my family. I am here on my own terms as an adult who lives and works as a half Ethiopian from the United States. Coming back here and being able to engage is interesting because in the past years I have developed a close relationship with artists, activists, filmmakers and people who have been working and living in the United States and have come back recently. Dagmawi Woubshet is one of those. He made this invitation and I was excited. If I have had been asked before I would have been excited then too but that is really what made it possible. So it took a while but its ok.
Were there moments you lacked inspiration. What do you do in those moments? What do you think your exhibition will bring for the artists of this country?
There were a lot of times when you don’t know what to do. The first time I moved back to New York I didn’t know what I would do next. I knew I wanted to explore and I looked at all these other places. I have been living in Berlin and the work I made in Berlin is a big mural and then coming back to New York I really wanted to live in New York because it has been my home for a very long time since the early 1990s. I wanted to engage with the city differently. But there are moments were I find myself completely at a loss. It is through the practice of working on my projects which usually lead me to something else to investigate. The main aim of this exhibition is to be able to bring the work here so that people can see it. There will be an engagement and people will participate in the conversation and dialogue with an artist.
Your art works are very huge and consume a lot of time. It also needs consistency and commitment. How were you able to develop that consistency?
There are several things. I have been able to get a lot of support since graduate school. Support is a form of affirmation and that affirmation contributes in confidence building. I think it’s really hard to work without that. I admire those artists and writers who have none of that support. They do not have publishing houses but continue to write. They are investigating, searching and committed. That takes an incredible amount of courage and I have been able to have the privilege of having had that other form of support that was encouraging but also is an insistence and a commitment to the possibility of making it to have its own bombast in a way.
Are you cynical of the world? Do you think change is possible with all the occurrences taking place in the world?
I don’t think disillusionment is a new thing. I think it is as much of a repeat pattern as are the social actions we see. Inventing is a commitment to imagining something. That form of imagination is not like believing in Disneyland. It is a very different profound kind of deep commitment. Who I am and how we participate and engage with the world is the issue. Part of that is being a student and being an agent in that. Because of that I do imagine and am committed to the possibility of progressive evolution of our systems. One architect said in a symposium that the government is us. All of these are a construct of us. It is all of us that make all of this and there is a lot that is not in our power but there is also a lot that is in our power. It is a complicated vast space to be negotiated but I also think it is daunting. I don’t feel pessimistic, I mean I love living (laughs).
Your large works are more masculine and the little works are feminine. Is that deliberate?
It is interesting you say that because I almost feel the opposite. I feel like the history of gestural abstraction has really been dominated by men, and mostly by white men. Earlier paintings are works that mimic more of the minimalist and has its very delicate way of working. If you were to put a gendered idea on it, I would almost read the opposite but that is so subjective.