Progression of Art
Empirical Construction, Istanbul
At the time of its making, Empirical Construction, Istanbul was one of Mehretu's largest works, at 10 x 15 feet, and the only one based on a single city. The painting reads as an explosion from a central point, which can be identified as a domed building, likely the Hagia Sophia - a former Eastern Orthodox church, later an Ottoman imperial mosque, and now a museum. The Hagia Sophia perhaps epitomizes the coming together of cultures: the capacity of Istanbul's architecture to reflect the historic influences of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires, as well as its unique position bridging Europe and Asia.
Against this background of its ancient past, the modernity and energy of the city comes across in bright colors and graphic shapes, arranged in a whirlwind. The whole is typical of Mehretu's interest in the transforming city. Some critics, however, read the dynamism in which the city is depicted, almost as if engulfed by a tornado, as a warning. According to MoMA, "The mad profusion of chaotic information provides alarming signs of an out-of-control city in a state of emergency."
The painting is made up of layers, as is again typical of Mehretu's work. The first comprises detailed architectural drawings of the Old City of Istanbul. The second consists of abstract marks made with ink, and then a top layer of brightly colored shapes and lines reminiscent of flags and corporate logos. Identifiable motifs include the star and crescent and Arabic calligraphy. For artist and writer Julia Clift, the combination of these layers describes both the human and the urban condition, upon which various forces (such as our emotions, religion, and the influence of corporations) impact even as they work within, an organized and intricate structure.
Elements from Empirical Construction, Istanbul, such as the flag motifs, went on to inform Mehretu's Stadia series of the following year. The series explores ideas of nationalism and public spectacle, and is visually similar to Empirical Construction, Istanbul.
Acrylic and ink on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Grey Area is a series of seven, predominantly monochrome, large-scale paintings, commissioned by the Deutsche Guggenheim and exhibited in New York in 2010. The paintings explore Mehretu's interest in the generation and destruction of the urban landscape, in which can be found the evidence and traces of lived history. The paintings were inspired to a large extent by Berlin, the city in which Mehretu created the works while undertaking a six-month residency. However, the artist also references other cities in a state of transformation, such as those affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The paintings in Grey Area have an under-layer of detailed drawing that demands the viewer's close attention if it is to be recognized and appreciated. This is more dominant in Grey Area than in other works by the artist, which are more colorful and have more emphasis on abstract geometric shapes. Accordingly, there was a large amount of precise architectural drawing involved in the making of the paintings.
The source material for these drawings includes the facades of nineteenth-century German buildings that were destroyed during World War II, a photograph of the bombed United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, an aerial image of the World Trade Center site after the 9/11 attacks, and dilapidated buildings near Mehretu's childhood home. On top of the drawings, Mehretu has added marks in ink and acrylic, but in places, these have been erased.
According to the Guggenheim, the Grey Area paintings "meditate on the idea of the modern ruin." The art historian Sue Scott has said of the series, "In these somber, simplified tonal paintings ... one gets the sense of buildings in the process of disappearing, much like the history of the city she was depicting." As such, there is a connection between Mehretu's artistic process of adding and taking away, and the impact of conflict on the urban environment, whereby cultural heritage might be successively built up and destroyed.
In Mehretu's paintings, as in landscapes of conflict, absences - areas of destruction and erasure - are as significant as areas where there is a lot of visual interest. The titles of the individual paintings, for example Vanescere [Disappearance] (2007) and Fragment (2008-09), are perhaps indicative of this thought process, while the name of the series "Grey Area" fittingly refers to a state that is shifting or difficult to define.
Ink and acrylic on canvas - Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin
Mural is an 80x23 foot painting located at the entrance lobby of the Goldman Sachs tower in lower Manhattan, commissioned by the firm in 2007. Mehretu took six months to decide that she would take on the project, as she had many exhibition commitments at that time. However her mind was made up during a six-month residency at the American Academy in Berlin, during which she was working on the Grey Area series of paintings (2007-9), and developed a new technique of selectively erasing her work in order to reveal the layers of drawing and painting beneath.
In Mural, Mehretu pledged to deliver "the layered confluences and contradictions of the world economy in a mural." As is common with Mehretu's work, the painting comprises multiple layers. The bottom layer is made up of architectural drawings that relate to finance, including an early Massachusetts bank, the New Orleans cotton exchange, the façade of the New York Stock Exchange, and a market gate from the ancient Greek city of Miletus. On top are geometric shapes of various sizes and vibrant colors, positioned along the canvas in a sweeping motion. The final layer - completed during two weeks spent re-contemplating the painting - is made up of small calligraphic black marks, arranged in formations that resemble moving crowds. The whole appears to evoke the flux of economic activity on a city with the directional arrangement of marks becoming coherent with the entrance into the building in which it was located, suggestive, perhaps, of ambition and progress.
As curator and writer Lori Zimmer points out, some viewers and critics take exception to Mural on account of its association with Goldman Sachs and, related to this, the high value of the commission ($5 million - of which around 80% was reportedly spent on fabrication). In the artist's view, however, we are all participants of the same capitalist system as Goldman Sachs. She does not see the bank as an "evil institution," nor did its involvement play a part in her decision to make the work. Rather, Mehretu was attracted by the particular space and the opportunity to make work at this scale.
The artist has described Mural as "bringing all my past work together and taking it to a new place." Furthermore, she said that "Working on that scale taught me a lot ... and it shifted something in my understanding of abstraction." She was also interested in the potential for the painting to become public art. Mural is positioned along the entrance route for employees and is also visible from the approaching streets, due to the building's glass facade. She worked closely with the architect of the Goldman Sachs building, Henry Cobb, who was enthusiastic about the role that art might play within it: "We both wanted the painting to completely fill the wall - to become the wall."
Ink and acrylic on canvas - Goldman Sachs Building, New York City
Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts)
In this series, Mehretu brings together architectural drawings of public spaces where uprisings have occurred, including Tahrir Square in Cairo, Red Square in Moscow, Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana, Assahabah Square in Darnah, and Zuccotti Park in New York City. These images overlap with one another to such an extent that they can only be identified in particular areas of the canvas. On top of these layers of drawing, Mehretu has added brush marks, lines, and shapes inspired by the graphic design of protestors' flags and banners.
In these works, she is exploring public space as a site of political conflict, ceremonial significance, and social charge without necessarily drawing a conclusion. According to Flaunt Magazine, Mehretu uses artmaking as a way of drawing attention to, if not coming to understand "an unconsidered realm that flourishes with the dark matter that lives between individuals and groups, paint and ideas, the canvas and activism." For her, there is a direct link between architecture and politics: "I don't think of architectural language as just a metaphor about space, but about spaces of power, about ideas of power."
The pieces reference political events that are part of Mehretu's personal experience, including the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement in the United States. She is particularly interested in exploring the contradictions between the expectations and the reality of those events, seen in relation to the spaces in which they occur. The artist notes, "There are historic sites where that type of action has taken place and those sites are ones that are used in the paintings, but also there's this kind of desire and symbolism ... [versus] what really does get achieved, what real social change does happen." This idea is very significant to Mehretu, who sees it as having shaped her upbringing: "I was born in the midst of the utopianist gestures on the continent of Africa ... there was a very different perception of and sense of possibility of what a place could be, but that completely fell apart ... The failure of this optimism composed most of my life."
The title of the series comes from the name of the government building in Tahrir Square in Cairo, "Al-Mogamma," which was a key site of the 2011 revolution in Egypt and the uprisings in the Arab world at that time. The word "Mogamma" also means "collective" in Arabic and has been used to refer to multi-faith spaces. Here, it perhaps references the function of the series as "a memorial to collective sites of communal resistance," as explained by the Tate Galleries.
Ink and acrylic paint on canvas - Various collections
Mehretu made this work following a trip to Tahrir Square in Cairo, which was the scene of popular demonstrations in 2011 that saw President Hosni Mubarak (whom she describes as "the most visible dictator of my entire life") step down from power. For the artist, this was a poignant moment of both optimism and uncertainty. The need to process these emotions, brought about by real world events, was her driving inspiration in this work.
In Beloved (Cairo), Mehretu explores the "tension and contradiction" within that historic moment. She depicts the Egyptian city caught in a desert wind, its features stretched out as if pushed and pulled by external forces. The work is neither a map nor an illustration, but an expression of the movement and life of the city that exists in a state of change.
Mehretu's devotion to her subject matter is demonstrated by the level of detail across such a large work (the canvas measures 24 x 10ft), and is reflected by her chosen title. The subject matter is close to her heart as it relates closely to the experiences in her own youth, of the decolonizing of parts of Africa and the Arab/African spring.
She has commented: "I was born in the midst of the utopianist gestures on the continent of Africa ... there was a very different perception of and sense of possibility of what a place could be, but that completely fell apart ... The failure of this optimism composed most of my life, but with the Arab/African Spring, it felt that there were new possibilities."
The artist sees this tension as characteristic of political history, describing it as "this weird entropic cycle of utopian ideals and the impossibility of that ... the moment of imagining what is possible and yet not knowing what that is." Museum director Kathy Halbreich concurs, in saying, "Without being pedantic, or politically naïve, or ideological, [Mehretu's work] deals, I think, with anxiety - the promise and despair we live with now."
Ink and acrylic on canvas - The Broad Museum, Los Angeles
This work is made up of architectural drawings of building elements (such as columns and arches) and buildings in Damascus, over which Mehretu has layered additional marks with paint. These sprawl across the canvas in the manner of landscape, albeit not geographically faithful but made up of abstracted elements.
Although the style of Epigraph, Damascus is characteristic of the artist, the result is particularly black and dense. The frantic marks that obscure a large portion of the underdrawing immediately connote chaos, suppresion, and violence. The overall impression is reminiscent of a map or aerial photograph that might be used to chart or demonstrate the effects of war.
The effect of this dense mark making in the upper layers could be to urge the viewer to seek the original drawing underneath, as if looking amongst the ruins of a disaster. This association is fitting in light of the ongoing violent conflict in Damascus that theatens and has already destroyed much of Syria's tangible cultural heritage. Epigraph, Damascus does not depict the city at any particular historic moment but appears to respond to or echo the question of what kind of city might emerge from this war.
The title suggests that this is the artist's summation of Damascus. She perhaps sees this state of flux as characteristic of the city, which has changed architecturally and culturally, in response to conflict, since the 13th century BCE. To an extent, this could be said of any city that is subject to the unpredictability of natural and human diasters. According to author William Kherbek, the combination of controlled architectural drawing and chaotic markmaking in Epigraph, Damascus demonstrates the way in which cities are always destined to depart from the neat visions of urban planners and architects, to reflect unknowns.
Mehretu is particularly interested in uncertainty with respect to political history - "this weird entropic cycle of utopian ideals and the impossibility of that ... the moment of imagining what is possible and yet not knowing what that is." In this sense, Epigraph, Damascus might be understood as showing the city in the midst of a dramatic and violent transformation - its conclusion yet unknown.
Photogravure and aquatint on six panels