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Julie Mehretu

Updated on June 4, 2014
Portion of Mehretu's work at dOCUMENTA(13) in Kassel, Germany
Portion of Mehretu's work at dOCUMENTA(13) in Kassel, Germany | Source

Julie Mehretu's Artwork

Who is Julie Mehretu?

Julie Mehretu was born in Ethiopia in 1970 to an Ethiopian professor and a white American teacher. When she was seven her parents moved to East Lansing, Michigan from Ethiopia in order to escape communist dictatorship. From that point on, Mehretu has considered herself a mediator between cultures, worlds, and identities. She cannot embrace one aspect of herself without also looking at another; everything about her being is complex. Knowing this it is then easy to understand the intricacies of her work. Mehretu uses abstract layers in her paintings and drawings to illustrate stories of rebellion, the formation of identity, and global issues. At first glance her work may seem wholly abstract without anything to make sense of it; much like how someone may feel when they first look at her. Upon closer inspection is when all the details come to light and tell the viewer the story of the work.

Mehretu in School

Mehretu picked up American life fairly easily and excelled in school. As if her identity wasn't complicated enough, in junior high school she admitted to being gay, further pushing away people's expectations of her. She graduated from East Lansing High School and attended Kalamazoo College to earn her Bachelor's of Arts. During her junior year of college she studied abroad in Dakar where she attended the University Cheik Anta Diop. There she learned the art of batik-making and further developed her philosophies on intercultural worlds. When she returned to the states she attended the Rhode Island School of Design to earn her MFA. There she was heavily influenced by Micheal Young and where she developed her trademark style. She decided then that she wanted to use abstractions to tell stories and reflect her opinions and interests in world events, geography, people, history, architecture, and urban life.

Mehretu's Art & Mediums

Mehretu's work is known for being very large scale and is typically done on horizontal planes. Her work consists of varied black lines that move lively across the plane around assorted blocks of color. When the viewer takes a close look at the art they can see that it is made up of a variety of layered sources including; maps, other artists (such as Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, Albrecht Durer, and Jackson Pollack), photos of uprisings and riots, skies full of fire, skateboard graphics, computer graphs, comic books, architectural blueprints from the past and present, and many other references. The works are usually done in ink, acrylic, or pencil on paper, canvas, or Mylar. Her backgrounds are typically left white (or in some cases transparent) in order to allow the elements of the pieces to live and express themselves freely.

Julie Mehretu's Grey Area

Mehretu's Abstract Style & Influences

Mehretu's work seems to be greatly influenced by the anthropophagist movement as she collects materials from all of these sources and appropriates them to send out her messages. Her work speaks a lot about social and historical concerns, point out issues that have to do with power and globalization. While the work seems to focus on these broad global issues, it is at the same time very telling and personal; the pieces also speak about the formation of communal and personal identity. Through her work Mehretu hopes to, "'dissect my lineage and ancestry and effort to further understand the formation of my identity.'" (Dexter, Emma. Vitamin D: new perspectives in drawing. p.196.) Like the country that she lives in, Mehretu's work is a melting pot. She uses it to combat the struggles of what it means to outside of defined labels, categorizations, and cultures.

Julie Mehretu's Stadia 1 in the Renegade Delirium series
Julie Mehretu's Stadia 1 in the Renegade Delirium series | Source
Another piece from Renegade Delirium depicting a dense city.
Another piece from Renegade Delirium depicting a dense city. | Source

Renegade Delirium & Dispersion

Mehretu really started to be recognized in 2000. Two of Mehretu's first well known pieces are Renegade Delirium (2002) and Dispersion (2002). The composition of Renegade Delirium is meant to communicate the sensory realities of cities; it is crowded, busy, noisy, cluttered, everyone is on top of each other, there is agitation and foul smells. Everything is layered in the center of the piece with little venturing to the borders of the canvas; all of the elements are tightly confined. Dispersion acts as a follow-up reflection to Renegade Delirium. In Dispersion the elements of Renegade Delirium have ventured outward; avoiding the center and attempting to breakthrough the boundaries of the canvas. We see a world torn apart as the "characters" of the piece struggle to escape, while at the same try to learn how to live harmoniously with each other. Another known work of Mehretu's is Transcending: The New International (2003), one of Mehretu's biggest and well known works. The piece's first layers are made up of aerial views of Africa's capitals. It is then layered with urban architectural plans for post colonial Africa. Mehretu does this in order to illustrate post colonial idealisms that run throughout Africa and illustrate how it has warped the continent.

Objective Abstractions

The alternative and abstract realities created in Mehretu's work provide her audience with very insightful and valuable information and messages about issues dealing with the global community, controlling forces, and the power of both the individual and the community. As a multiracial American citizen, with no definite background culture or religion of my own, I can really relate to her struggle in understanding her personal identity. As conceptual as her work may be, the varied elements are the perfect representations for this struggle; anything literal just could not make sense.


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