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Mehretu, Juliefree

(b Addis Ababa, 1970).
  • Elizabeth K. Mix

Ethiopian painter, active also in the USA. She received a BA from Kalamazoo College, Michigan (1992) and an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design (1997). Mehretu simultaneously references and breaks from the history of abstract modernist painting in her works, which combine multiple layers of drawing and painting, and are embedded with appropriated cultural references ranging from corporate logos and architectural structures to art history, comics, and graffiti.

Julie Mehretu: Dispersion, ink and acrylic on canvas, 2.29×3.66 m, 2002; image courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and White Cube Gallery, London

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Works such as Dispersion (2002; see 2006 exh. cat., p. 81) first suggest topographical drawings combined with geometric coloured shapes and swirling lines in a controlled chaos that simultaneously deconstructs and regenerates. Her work has been influenced by a range of art historical sources: a Baroque theatricality (alluded to specifically in The Seven Acts of Mercy (2004), inspired by Caravaggio (see 2006 exh. cat., pp. 132–3); Italian Futurism’s anarchistic revolution fueled by speed and technology; and the utopian social visions of Russian Constructivism. Geometric shapes associated with Kazimir Malevich are referenced in Excerpt (suprematist evasion) (2003; see 2006 exh. cat., p. 95) and Zero Canyon (a dissimulation) (2006; see de Zegher and Golden, p. 28). Mehretu’s work also contains gestural lines reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism. Mehretu frequently references such architectural spaces as airports and sports arenas, where diverse public groups gather but are carefully monitored. Moreover, her work sometimes references yet transcends specific catastrophic events such as the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Mehretu’s mixing of eras, sources and locations was termed ‘a new form of history painting’ by Douglas Fogle (see 2003 exh. cat., p. 5). When news is transmitted constantly through satellite television and the internet, mere illustration of world events is unnecessary; rather cognitive dissonance, information overload, and the political impact of globalization and post-colonialism are implied. Mehretu said, ‘I am interested in the multifaceted layers of place, space, and time that impact the formation of personal and communal identity’ (see 2003 exh. cat., p. 5).

Julie Mehretu: Congress, ink and acrylic on canvas, 1.83×2.84 m, 2003; image courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and White Cube Gallery, London

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In Mehretu’s process, which she terms ‘drawing into painting’ (see 2003 exh. cat., p. 17), drawing is embedded into successive translucent or transparent paint layers, then partially ‘erased’ by sanding the surface. It is significant that historically drawing was simultaneously fundamental to planning a painting and a marginalized medium in its own right; a hierarchy that Mehretu redresses in her work. While the blurring of media, the use of appropriated cultural references, and the layering are post-modernist in nature, the work simultaneously expresses a modernist, formalist orientation to visual composition, especially in works such as Congress (2003; see 2006 exh. cat., p. 107) and Stadia (2004; see 2006 exh. cat., p. 119; see also Stadia II, 2004), which contain orthogonal lines moving to a single vanishing point—a homage to Renaissance mastery of perspective that visually and conceptually contrasts the expressionistic elements. Mehretu’s viewers, who must move back and forth in examining the work, enact Mehretu’s challenge to locate oneself in space and achieve a sense of individuality in a hyper-mediatized society. Mehretu has referred to these works as ‘psychogeographies’ (see 2003 exh. cat., p. 12). Still, the work is personal, a ‘self-ethnographic’ project (p. 11) referencing Mehretu’s Ethiopian geographer father, her American mother, the family’s flight from Africa during political upheavals, and the artist’s subsequent movement through different cultures.


  • Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting (exh. cat., text by D. Fogle, Minneapolis, MN, Walker A. Cent; Los Angeles, CA, REDCAT; Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.; 2003)
  • Julie Mehretu: Black City=Ciudad Negra (exh. cat., text by L. Chua and others, León, Mus. A. Contemp., 2006)
  • M. C. de Zegher and T. Golden: Julie Mehretu: drawings (New York, 2007)