By Tibebeselassie Tigabu
Cairo, an artwork that embodies the dichotomy of the ancient, contemporary, social and political life of the capital of Egypt, received critical acclaim from the art world. Painted with ink and acrylic on canvass this piece explores the unified mass of the Egyptian revolution, ancient civilization, remnants of colonial architecture and contemporary layered architectures.
This is the work of the highly-acclaimed Ethiopian American artist, Julie Mehretu, who will showcase her works for the first time in her birthplace, Addis Ababa, from July 8 to August 6 at the Modern Art Museum Gebre Kirstos Desta Center.
“This is a landmark exhibition because it features the works of Julie Mehretu—an artist of immeasurable talent. It is no exaggeration to say that Julie Mehretu is one of the leading painters of her generation and indeed our time,” Dagmawi Woubshet (PhD), the curator of the exhibition, said in a press conference that was held this Thursday at Gebre Kirstos Desta Center.
With physical layers of images, Julie’s works put infinite historical, architectural narratives of cities, struggle, existence, capitalistic dreams and war remnants.
Renowned for her large-scale art works, her narratives interconnects the Italian futurists, the Russian constructivism, and abstract expressionism to eastern calligraphy.
Julie was born in 1970 in Addis Ababa from an Ethiopian college professor and an American teacher. Julie attended her early childhood schooling in Peter Pan Kindergarten located around Olympia area until she was seven years old. They immigrated to the US in 1977. She studied at the University of Chiekh Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal (1990-1991) where she learned Wolof language and studied batik making with local artisans. She also earned her BA from Kalmazoo College in Michigan (1992) and an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design (1997).
This show is entitled “The Addis Show” and, according to the curator, Julie did not hesitate coming here to showcase her works; rather she was excited with the news. Dagmawi says that this is a homecoming show since Julie never presented her works in Addis Ababa. “We called it The Addis Show because we wanted to capture different elements. On one hand, this is her homecoming show in the country of her birth where she can share her labor and her talent with the country. There is some sort of novelty in it,” he said.
According to Dagmawi, Addis Ababa’s art scene is booming and this exhibition is expected to open doors for Julie so that she can witness the art scene and form future collaborations. “So when you have an artist of her caliber coming to Ethiopia to stage the show, it is not just simply because she has the attention of the arts community and the media here but also the international arts community,” Dagmawi said. “I think it will fuel the kind of momentum in the city and also the country in terms of fortifying the arts community; the incredible art community that exists here,” he said.
Talking about the curatorial process of this exhibition, one of the main questions was to look for a place that can accommodate her works since most of them are huge.
Once they secured this spot, they sent her a blueprint of the space and the studio in order to arrange pieces both large and small-scale works that can fit in the area.
Looking at the space, they understood that they could fit between 15-19 pieces so they chose 17. Though the place can accommodate the selected pieces, according to Dagmawi, one of the huge pieces forced them to look for an alternative side door.
This exhibition consists of Julie’s private collection which she mostly painted after she became an established artist. However, three of the art works are from her early collections. In addition to that, Julie’s new works, which were never exhibited elsewhere, will be displayed.
Julie has had numerous exhibitions in prestigious museums and galleries all over the world and organizing this show was not an easy endeavor, according to Dagmawi and Elisabeth Woldegiorgis (PhD), director of Gebre Kirstos Desta Center. The issue of budget was one major problem since there is no gallery in Addis that can afford to pay for the transportation of her art works. Her 17 pieces that will be showcased in this exhibition arrived this week on Wednesday. According to Dagmawi, the transportation cost is USD 58,000.
This exhibition is a collaborative effort of the US embassy, Julie’s financial contribution and Marian Goodman Gallery. It was not only the transportation cost that was a problem and according to Elisabeth, getting insurance for the works was a hurdle. Her work is ensured with six million dollars. According to Elizabeth, Julie’s insurance company sent a 28-page list of criteria that the museum should fulfill to be insured. The criteria include availability of a sprinkler and a humidifier and proximity of fire stations. “It is one of the challenges that come from a western museum because we work in meager conditions. The fact that she said ok says a lot about her,” Elizabeth said.
The museum was able to hold an exhibition of another renowned artist, Olafur Eliasson, back in 2015 and they were able to pull it off with local staff since his works were more of installation. This time around Gebre Kirstos Desta was not able to fulfill the criteria of the insurance company but with a push from Julie’s side the company agreed to insure her works.
In addition to her show, there is a lineup of events including a workshop with selected MFA students of Ale School of Fine Arts and Design and panel discussions with architects, curators and artists on relevant issues. In addition to that, this program will also bring Wangechi Mutu from Kenya and Teju Cole, a Nigerian American writer and photographer, from the US as part of the symposium.
A critical voice of her generation, Julie contests narratives such as “pseudo capitalism”. She also challenges the idea of the America’s plan to build the biggest embassy in Iraq. “The extreme capitalist colonial place in the middle of the worst dysfunctional condition,” she said of the embassy in her interview with Bomb Magazine.
One of her works depicts a typology of various stadiums in the world by putting stadium plans, built or unbuilt, and signage from various places. “I am intrigued by the stadium. It’s become the arena for everything that happens and that we consume. Having spent time in Istanbul, Germany, Australia and then back in the States, I was really interested in how our whole experience of viewing the world,” she said in the same interview.
With deep knowledge of architectural language and history she is deeply immersed in European abstraction and draws inspiration from Chinese calligraphy and also Ethiopian illuminated manuscripts.
Julie is known for her unique insight of capturing city life, vibrancy, civilization, influence, dominance and its continued existence. In 2000, Julie was awarded a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award. She was the recipient of the 2001 Penny McCall Award. On September 20, 2005, she was named as one of the 2005 recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as the "genius grant."
In 2007, while completing a residency at the American Academy in Berlin, Julie received the 15th commission of the Deutsche Bank and Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. The body of work she created, Grey Area, was composed of six large-scale paintings, completed between 2007 and 2009 in a studio in Berlin.
Her works are found in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown Manhattan in New York City. Although located in a private office building lobby, her 23' x 80' mural commissioned for the new Goldman Sachs tower in New York City (2010) is viewable from the sidewalk windows.
In addition, the US Department of State named Julie a recipient of its 2015 Medal of Arts in recognition of her internationally acclaimed work and her impact in promoting cultural diplomacy. Julie is one of seven artists who received the recognition.
She has also earned the number five spot in Artnet’s Top Ten Most Expensive Women Artist. Her 2001 work “Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation” sold for UD 4.6 million at Christie’s in 2013.