Q&A: Julie Mehretu, Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts)

By Faith McClure

Julie Mehretu, who will speak at the High Museum on April 21, makes large-scale paintings that combine the visual languages of architecture, mapping and gestural mark-making to form highly composed invented worlds.

With emphasis on the dizzying complexities of 21st-century living, Mehretu’s works reference a broad spectrum of systems—global interconnectivity, geopolitics, social networks and urban-planning—which are visualized through articulated line work in negotiation with explosive painterly abstraction.

Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts): Part II, one of two paintings in the High’s collection, belongs to a four-part series that investigates architecture of the public square as a site for political, ceremonial and mythological projection. Inspired by the events of the Arab Spring, the title is drawn from “Al-Mogamma,” the name of the central government building in Tahrir Square in Cairo, which was birthplace to the political uprisings that swept the Arab world beginning in 2010.

Combining images of Tahrir Square along with renderings of other city squares where uprisings have occurred—the Red Square in Moscow, Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana, Assahabah Square in Darnah, Libya—the Ethiopian-born artist questions the interpretations of these locations as historical and contemporary sites of political conflict and social change.

Faith McClure: What resonates for me with your Mogamma series is the emphasis you place on the value of public space—public space as a First Amendment space, as an organizing space, a desegregating space, a place where democracy can be publically exercised.

When I think about architecture in terms of power and influence, which your work addresses, the go-to forms of that—at least in the Western mind—are maybe European basilicas and cathedrals that are so sublime but also very ominous and foreboding. But the psychology of urban spaces as a realm of influence—and in your case, the public square—is much more elusive. How were you thinking about ideas like this when you were forming the Mogamma paintings?

Julie Mehretu: That’s a good question in several ways. One, there are these social and mythological and political projections we put on those kinds of spaces, a lot of them you just mentioned. We have these ideas that we ascribe to with a kind of social desire, and we follow it in a faithful way. In a sense, you can almost think of that kind of space or those types of projections and the desire we have for that kind of space as having that kind of fanatical type of religious, ceremonial desire. Not in the case of religion or that type of action, but social action or social change and how that can manifest. I’m interested in the real projection of that and what pubic space can be—the first amendment rights you mentioned—and what can really happen in those spaces. 

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 that can happen in those spaces [versus] what really does get achieved, what real social change does happen.

So, I’m really asking the questions of the contradictions that exist between the projection and desire of a kind of action that might have worked in the past and might not necessarily work in the moment. And you see it now, post Arab Spring, and the fallout of what has happened there in various countries, and you see it in a kind of delusion of the Occupy Movement here in the United States. And then how quickly those spaces and actions get co-opted by other forms.

FM: I was reading about Gordon Matta-Clark for a review last week, and I started thinking about your work in the way that he was kind of building through “unbuilding.” It’s like you’ve climbed inside the architecture like he did as a means of deconstructing it and its symbolic values.

JM: Nice, yeah, and I think it’s interesting, especially in the context of the [public] square, and any of the public spaces, like Tahrir Square, a lot of the buildings that surround the squares, that create the container for that space, actually have very specific uses and were built with a very specific agenda… usually very far away from what the building ends up being this container for. That’s also just another kind of interesting consideration in the conversation, you know? 

FM: I like how you approach such complex political frameworks through what seems like a larger lens of interiority. Maybe that’s really just a painter’s point-of-view, but I think of your works as being somewhere in between someone like Mark Lombardi and his Topographies of Power, where there’s this very definitive system you’re trying to understand, combined with someone like Kandinsky who was so interested in mapping out that infinite interiority or inner subjectivity. In this way, it doesn’t seem like political critique is necessarily your primary agenda. Your lens seems wider than that—like you’ve panned back so far that you’re actually looking as space-time objectively, like looking at the chaos of the earth from an aerial point-of-view. A lot of your work seems almost above or beyond political critique because your framework is so macro and expansive.

JM: It’s interesting the way that you bring that up because I was actually just thinking about this recently. My earlier work from maybe 2000-ish to about 2006 was made much more from that further perspective, this kind of long-view perspective that you’re talking about, where there was this effort to try and make these pictures that were kind of looking at the totality of these situations, where many events could take place, and you have this kind of distant perspective from within that.

The paintings now I feel like they’re much more immersive, especially over the last five years, the paintings I feel have become much more about this immersive experience, where they’re completely to the edges, where the architectural drawing might seem like something you feel like you have to move into or more minute in a certain way. But as you approach the painting, there are areas where you almost feel like you can step into it, and then where the marks and the architecture and the erasure glom together to create these other forms that come out at you. So, to me, there’s this sense, because of their scale, they still require you having to physically negotiate with them and move through them, and travel through them, but it’s not as if you can ever get a full perspective, like a sense of this being the entire system, and I think in earlier paintings you really could.

FM: You’ve referred to them as being time-based, how you can only experience one train of thought within them at a time, frame by frame, because of their enormous scale.

JM: Yes.

FM: At some point—maybe it was in the Brooklyn Rail or in BOMB Magazine—you mentioned in an interview that you think of frenetic mark-making as a form of social agency. I really like the pairing of those ideas together. What exactly does that mean to you?

JM: Yeah, thank you. In the past, in earlier works, [the marks] were much more like little characters that play out these narratives, and [in this way] the frenetic mark-making could act as a kind of social agent within the actual social space-time of the paintings. They could participate in the shift of the picture and the shift of what can happen in the picture, and they create maybe the space and the structure as well as digest it and undermine it, so they’re constantly part of an evolution of a third space that evolves from the two of them interacting with one another.

FM: In that same conversation, you said something like “these marks couldn’t exist with just rational thinking.” Painting is so impossible to talk about sometimes in this way, and every painter has his or her own way of figuring out that language. Philip Guston has this really beautiful way of expressing it where he said he always felt like there was a third hand or a third presence while making the painting.

 JM: Oh, I’d love to read that.

FM: But I was wondering, if it’s not rational thinking that’s making the marks, then what is it—how do you describe what’s happening?

JM: Well, I think that in the process there’s several things happening, like I’m constantly playing with these various sides of making, one where you’re trying to make sense of what you’re doing and understand with some kind of rational perspective what’s happening in the work, the intention of the work, who am I in the work, why am I interested in this and what’s really informing this—you ask these questions and you try to use rational means to make sense of that.

Then there’s the process where in order to generate work and to make work in the way that I’ve always made work, I really follow a much more intuitive form of knowledge-making and trust in the process…in terms of what it takes to make stuff, and to be able to make and get my head out of the way. 

Then usually after that process, I go back and try and make sense of what I’m doing, what’s interesting, what’s happening, what’s going on with my hand. So, there are all these places there, this conversation that keeps going back and forth into one another. I mean, you can’t really put it into words, but a lot of what I’m interested in in the work [is?] this emergence. I think what you said about Guston calling it a third hand is interesting. I think about it almost like this third space, new space, some other new form that is emergent in the process of making but also in the process of looking and interacting with the painting. So, if you actually spend time and look at painting as a kind of time-based experience, a time-based media, then you can really participate with it and have this other form… where this emergent space exists. And especially with the Mogammas.

 FM: With regard to the Mogammas, I was thinking about how after 9/11 there was an emergence of poetry into the mainstream as a way of dealing with the horror that had just happened, and looking at it through the poetic lens was a way of accessing the expression of the emotion without having to be obligated to any definitive conclusions or resolutions which, of course, were impossible. I think about abstraction as being on that same spectrum where, you know, as a painter you’re kind of feeling your way into what it feels like to be in these places but without having to make a finite conclusion. Does that make sense? 

JM: Totally. And I think in many ways that’s the role of the artist and of creative thinkers, whatever they be. I’ve said this before, but Chinua Achebe says “The role of the writer is to create the headache.” And I think it’s really true, it’s the place where, you know, you have to question and challenge notions and understandings and makes sense of things, and sometimes you don’t have the appropriate language at the time, and sometimes it happens through abstraction, but the proper questions and challenges take time. And yeah, I think that’s the role of being able to think creatively and outside of it. You have plenty of pundits, plenty of people who are trying to sort out the politics and the truths of the situation, and I think there are so many untruths that deserve attention within that as well. And other truths.

 FM: In going through interviews you’ve given in the past, one thing you mention repeatedly, and even in this conversation already, is a kind of prioritizing of self-awareness, a going inside yourself as a point of departure. I really value that personally, but I think it’s also interesting to consider the notion of self-awareness, especially for someone who makes the work that you make. You seem to want to go in both extremes simultaneously.

JM: Yeah… Another artist said recently—he’s a very good friend of mine…he said he likes to work in a way where he kind of wants to speak before he thinks, because with the way he’s working with [his] collages, there’s something symptomatic about the time and what’s going on with the work inside of himself and therefore a larger context for us socially. I think that, really again, that’s really the fundamentally deep roles of writers and artists and creative thinkers is this effort not just to make stuff but to understand who they are in this larger context of who we are and locate themselves somehow or another within that, whatever that might be… Whether it’s intentional or not, I think it’s a big role. It plays a big role in the creative process.

FM: My last question is an art world question. I was watching an interview with David Zwirner on Charlie Rose. Zwirner was talking about how when he first opened his gallery, it soon became apparent that operating on a singular profit model could never compete in the larger art economy, and so he turned to these big corporate finance gurus who consulted with him on how to expand his enterprise to one of multiple platforms. I guess I see you as operating in a similar model in that you work simultaneously with so many artist assistants making multiple works simultaneously. Do you think that model is required in order to compete for visibility in today’s art world?

JM: I completely don’t think that that’s necessary. And for someone like David Zwirner, he has also created his own empire in a way. But in terms of a practicing artist, I think artists need to do what they need to do and make the work they need to make, and whatever that means. Many parts of my practice are very isolated individual practice. There are times, when I’m working a specific piece, I need more people and it becomes a very different kind of project. And there are other times when I’m working with print shops and I’m traveling and I’m in different places and I get to collaborate with different printmakers and find other ways to make the work that I need to make. There are other times, where travel is a big part of my process and it is informative into [?] the way I think about work, but that’s because of my interest in the content of my work and in myself. I think an artist with the most individual, quiet practice can make some of the most important, complicated and necessary work of our time. I don’t think that there’s any kind of guiding principle on that at the moment or ever. 

I think it’s always been this way, whether you think of Renaissance painters, whether you think of painters like Rubens that were traveling and participated as diplomats between countries, and also had strong studio practices and had several studios, or very, very individual painters like Vermeer or Rembrandt who worked from within their own place. And I think you have that across generations, space, time, culture, place, where what’s important lasts over time.

 Original post on ArtsATL.com