Watching Juie Mehretu on PBS
On Sunday October 11, 2009, Zoma Contemporary Art Center (ZCAC), a newly finished house designed and built by artist Elias Sime in around Old Airport area, screened video of an episode from the American Public Broadcasting Service series Art:21-Art in the Twenty–First Century. Though not familiar with Ethiopian audiences, the PBS series has been running since 2001 and now is in its fifth season spotlighting artists from various parts of the world. It appeared that that each of the four episodes presented three or four artists loosely grouped around a theme, documenting the artists in their own words.
The theme of the segment that we happened to watch was ‘system’, with questions: what new grammars and logics do artists invent in today’s supercharged, information-based society? Why do we find comfort in some systems while rebelling against others?
The four artists who received the focus were the Ethiopian-American Julie Mehretu, South Korean artist Kimsooja and American artists John Baldessari and Allan McCollum.
Before the screening, curator and director of ZCAC, Meskerem Aseged made a welcoming speech to the small crowd and said that the screening was being done in partnership with PBS with the intention to increase knowledge of contemporary art, create dialogue, and inspire creative thinking.
Meskerem briefly mentioned about knowing Julie Meheretu before she became famous when she was a small-time studio artist in New York and later meeting her in Dakar, a fact that she was visibly excited about.
In the video, Julie is seen working with her assistants in Berlin on seven large canvases for a show at Deutstsche Guggenheim. The works indeed speak with considerable passion. A remarkable suite of paintings that dealt with erasure and decay was seen.
To distill a complex message in sparse, simple terms is no easy task. Yet Julie speaks in an incidentally intelligent drawl, at once inviting and challenging. In the first second of the interview, she rattled off the following.
“My earlier drawings, paintings have this map like diagrammatic elements to them. As the works shifted to atmospheric, or painterly, I try to refrain from explaining what is gong on, there is no rational description or effort to articulate in words. I’m not trying to spell out story.”
Julie is also shown working on the biggest project of her young career: a 21 by 85 foot long mural commissioned by a major financial institution in lower Manhattan, to be completed during the most severe financial crisis sine the Great Depression.
The size of the work was a little overwhelming. One of Julie’s assistant spoke about the size saying it was three times bigger than they previously envisioned, something Julie’s studio in New York couldn’t accommodate. Hence, forcing them to take it to Berlin.
Putting the brush on the canvass, Julie says “In that process, I’ve been doing a bunch of water colors. It was one thing that’ was not working. I kept pushing color into the painting where there is intense action between all those different marks. So at one point, they started to assemble and the color came to work. I turn around and looked at it. It reminded me of caves in Kabul that Taliban left behind, that image of their absence. It’ almost pathetic in, suggesting in how sad and pessimistic you can feel in a political environment.”
There are clues of ambivalence about her identity in her work and speech.
“I’m Ethiopian-American. My big part of family Ethiopian but I lived in the states since I was six. Grew up in Michigan, I live in New York City. For most part I live in Berlin now. But when I move around the world, I move around as an American.”
And then she kept on talking about the incredible privilege of being an American and the sense of responsibility it entails.
Julie’s works belies her nuanced messages of social power struggle, feminisms and global, power–elite conspiracies, practicing a form of political action with these paintings. She says, “The earlier more analytic impulse was to use very rational but kind of absurd techniques or tendencies-mapping, charting, and architecture-to try and make sense of who I was in my time and space and political environment. But there’s only so much truth to a theoretical understanding of something. the action or behavior-or what happens organically and intuitively, rationally and spiritually, or majestically-in a world is a very different thing than what can happen in our effort to understand it. So there was more of an impulse to use those approaches, trying to make sense of these two sides of myself in the earlier work. And I developed a whole langue and body of work that evolved from that investigation. But the thing that kept it all together and that keeps me going is the painting-making the pictures and drawing. In getting lost in doing that, language is invented. And that shows you something you never thought you would know about yourself or understand.”
Julie’s abstract compositions reference modernist architecture, Google Maps, coliseum-like building, and defaced structures. She says,
“Trying to figure out who I am and my work is trying to understand systems. The thing that keeps me going is the painting and in getting lost in doing that a language is invented.”
Such clarity does not lessen the richness of the work. Instead it provides the necessary framework for comprehension and revelation.