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Julie Mehretu: “A potent space for the radical imagination”

As her solo exhibition at carlier | gebauer enters its final weeks, we catch up with acclaimed artist Julie Mehretu to discuss how her multi-layered canvases reflect societal violence and inequality.

Image for Julie Mehretu: “A potent space for the radical imagination”

“Abstraction is a vehicle that I became constantly drawn to and immersed in without really understanding why.” Julie Mehretu, Metoikos (in between paintings). Courtesy of the artist and carlier | gebauer. Photo: Trevor Good. © Julie Mehretu

One of the most acclaimed artists working today, Julie Mehretu captures the violence and inequality of our contemporary world in her multi-layered canvases. We met her to discuss her current exhibition at carlier | gebauer gallery, which runs until November 13.

How does it feel to have left the US for the first time since the pandemic?

It feels amazing to be here. You have these ideas of the distance and suddenly after a seven-hour trip you’re in a cab driving to a hotel. It surprises me how fundamentally close we all are, even though we’ve spent a year and a half apart.

You’ve been praised for rejuvenating abstraction by introducing the social and political to the medium. How natural a progression was that for you?

Abstraction is a vehicle that I became constantly drawn to and immersed in without really understanding why. I think a big part of being an artist is to make sense of oneself, and I was reluctant to work within the language of representation and figuration. It was only through years of working that it became clear: the space and possibility and opacity that abstraction affords is one of the reasons it interests me. It is a potent space for the radical imagination.

The use of found images as a basis to your paintings was quite a seismic shift in how you worked. How did that come about?

There was a projection of a photograph of a bombed building when I came into the studio, and the photo had slipped and was out of focus. As I walked across the room, the blurred image conveyed the haunted lost face I was looking for. Then I started to investigate in Photoshop how to blur the photographs, leaving the light, the colour, the gesture visible, but still blurring the images.

Your enormous painting ‘Howl, eon (I, II)’ reveals the atrocities of the westward expansion into North America. With its scale and complexity, mapping colonial history and its contemporary legacy, are you reaching the limits of what you can do with painting?

It’s hard to think about the limits, because at every edge there are all these fissures and breaks on the way there with sociological potentiality. The year I painted it, there had been many extrajudicial police killings and uprisings the year before, and the public had taken a very different tone with the candidacy of Donald Trump and his nationalist, nativist project. The violence taking place was felt in a visceral way, and it was within these contradictions that I began working on ‘Howl’.

With the election of Biden, is there greater hope for racial equality in the US?

I think that is a structural issue. To negotiate and make a change, you need to completely readdress systematic issues and policies that create racism. I was moved by the massive uprisings last summer and by the immense care a lot of institutions are showing to make changes, but we need serious and dramatic changes that haven’t taken place yet. Right now, it’s going the other way with conservatism in the courts and nativist nationalism.

Were you shocked by the recent abortion bill in Texas?

I am shocked but not surprised. I was devastated when Ruth Ginsburg died because I knew there would be no way to keep the balance of the Supreme Court. These are the issues that the right in the US has piled upon itself and turned into major concerns for the Republican Party. Soon people will realise what they are losing by supporting these barbaric, archaic ideals.

You donated a major artwork to Art for Justice, which raised millions at auction. Can you tell us about the project?

Its real agenda is to end mass incarceration. This is something that shouldn’t really exist – it is ridiculous. I don’t think we will abolish prison entirely, but over time I think there will be an intentional shift away from locking up millions in cages.

Of course, you don’t focus solely on the US. ‘Ghosthymn (after the raft)’ was painted in response to anti-immigration rallies in Europe…

My interest was in the history of colonialism and that desire for expansion for survival. Most people who went to the colonies were completely disempowered and disenfranchised; they were leaving to find a better life. And in that effort, you have the shocking story that Théodore Géricault painted in ‘The Raft of the Medusa’, with its acts of cannibalism and struggle for survival on the journey to the African colonies. What I found shocking and contradictory is that you see those same kinds of images daily now, coming from the Mediterranean and Caribbean, where everyone on the raft is dead and there are two survivors trying to get the raft across.

The new show at carlier | gebauer is called Metoikos, the ancient Greek term for migrants without rights…

Yes, most of the paintings come from images that show border disputes and patrols or migrants and anti-immigration rallies. This seems to be the condition of our time and will not let up. Our form of imagining solutions is only a form of perpetuation of this situation – holding people in camps and trying to send them back. I think climate is going to change that even more, and with increased migration, the condition of being a ‘Metoikos’ will be one we might all find ourselves in.

Julie Mehretu: Metoikos (in between paintings) Through Nov 13, carlier | gebauer, Kreuzberg

Image for Julie Mehretu: “A potent space for the radical imagination”

Born in Addis Ababa, artist Julie Mehretu today lives and works in New York and Berlin. Photo: Josefina Santos

Julie Mehretu is known for her large-scale, layered canvases addressing the most immediate issues of our time, from climate change to migration and global capitalism. Born in Addis Ababa, today she lives and works in New York and Berlin. Her work has earned her numerous accolades, including the MacArthur award, known unofficially as the ‘genius grant’, and the US State Department’s Medal of Arts Award for cultural diplomacy. An important mid-career survey of her work opened at the LA Museum of Contemporary Art in 2019, before touring to the Whitney in New York and the Walker Art Center in Minnesota.