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Published  02/02/2022
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Julie Mehretu: Cities in the maelstrom – an essay

Julie Mehretu: Cities in the maelstrom – an essay

Julie Mehretu is known for her vast abstract paintings referencing everything from capitalism and globalism to climate change. In this essay, we consider Mogamma, her four-part work looking at places that have been sites of public unrest, and explore the history and influences that shaped it

Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts) Part 1 (detail), 2012. Ink and acrylic on canvas, 180 x 144 in (457.2 x 365.8 cm). Collection Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, UAE. Photo: Ben Westoby. © Julie Mehretu.

by YASMEEN SIDDIQUI

Julie Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa in 1970, the eldest child of an Ethiopian college professor and an American Montessori teacher. Fleeing the political violence of a military junta in Ethiopia, she moved to the US with her family when she was seven years old. She studied at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, before completing a BA in art at Kalamazoo College, Michigan, followed by an MFA at Rhode Island School of Design. She now lives and works in New York City.

Recognised for work on a scale that affords room for planar, bird’s-eye, and axiometric incisions to splice surfaces, Mehretu’s monumental abstract paintings are a mine of shapes, lines and intersections. They are puzzles for the energy they capture and the elusive quality of worlds she maps.

What happened and what will happen in these spaces that so many have seen and written about? I take Mehretu’s lead, extracting and leveraging narratives from her forms and formulations. Already, she clearly and directly references the writings of Italo Calvino. I will look back a little further. Mehretu’s line, its speed, and the collision of forms cue histories of painting and the world of books, as I believe she wants her audience to do.

***

Not long ago, four paintings hung in one of the rooms in an exhibition of Mehretu’s work. These four – from an expansive array of dozens of paintings that together indicate her study of, and engagement with, colonialism and architecture, the worlds that crowds inhabit and the binds that tie architecture and spectacle – dominate my experience.



Julie Mehretu. Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts) Part 1, 2012. Ink and acrylic on canvas, 180 x 144 in (457.2 x 365.8 cm). Collection Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, UAE. Photo: Ben Westoby. © Julie Mehretu.

Before me is Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts): Parts 1-4 (2012). The series takes its name from the government building in Tahrir Square, Cairo, a building that formed a backdrop for the protests against the regime of the then president, Hosni Mubarak, in early 2011. Looking up and around, it is impossible to pull away from Tahrir Square even though you are aware that buildings and places from other cities figure in the work – for instance, Meskel Square in the artist’s birthplace, Addis Ababa; and an elevation of Independence Square and Sidi Bouzid’s Palace of Martyrs, Tunisia.

Over the course of years, Mehretu has experimented with a format, a call-and-response enactment that is a hallmark of history painting. Her touch, her marks and their lines leave an imprint. They are immersive, understated, violent and muted. She builds windows, lenses to better see what was there and anticipate what is coming.

This gigantic ink-and-acrylic-on-canvas work was first shown in 2012 at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany. The setting, an exhibition titled Collapse and Recovery, under the direction of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, soon fell from relevance in the aftermath of revolution, as efforts were rendered impotent, dysfunctional. In 2012, everything had seemed possible.

Hindsight is 20:20. We watch power, which in that historical moment and setting was the military, reconfigure and slide and morph to ensure they inhabit a medley of social and political persuasions. To insinuate themselves in the protestors’ rhetoric. To appropriate hopes for salvation, humanity and fairness.

Since that charged moment, we persist in returning to thinking about maps and bodies. These paintings built of metaphors for the apparatus that dictates how bodies behave, how we interact is a stark reminder of the relentless effort of resistance and enthusiasm needed to reinvent and re-imagine through an abstracted stream-of-consciousness daydreaming.

***

Egypt’s people’s revolution took form in 2011. And then there was regression. After marching forwards, clocks reverted, keeping time with the aims of a longstanding ruling class. Power is nimble, able and motivated to adjust and reframe a stance to appeal to many, to maintain the upper hand. Thousands of Egyptians walked to Tahrir Square demanding to be seen and addressed through a new constitution, democracy. Mubarak stepped down, and the military, waiting in the wings, stepped in. Military as nation. Compulsory service formalises this sensibility and outlook.

Months pass without substantive change, pushing citizens to return to the square, demanding elections. The long defiled and tortured Muslim Brotherhood wins. Its members spit at the police state. President Morsi, who replaced Mubarak, expands the reach of the government, ensures his for ever rule, provoking, again, a return to Tahrir to demand his resignation. The military, led by General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi launches a military coup and Sisi becomes president: the army holds power with an iron grip. Sisi is re-elected in 2018. Constitutional reforms are back on the table, and, in 2019, we witness the people’s return to Tahrir. The resistance is quiet now, the police state in command. These are the many twists and turns that Mehretu maps.

***

The painting Mogamma spans four panels that measure 457.2cm by 365.8cm (15ft x 12ft). They are tall but not her tallest. The entire work is a result of a consistent and plotted application of layers: architectural drawings of building facades, silk-screened geometric patterns, ink applied as lines at the forefront of her mind and as shadows refusing to be sublimated. These rapid marks confound the insistent verticality of the base image, building facades, and the work’s place on the wall, hanging there, in front of us. Are these elevations, the facades that gird her paintings, meant to help prevent us succumbing to vertigo? Or are they cynically indicative of the apparatus of surveillance. Colour, formed as line and shape, pronounces how to scan the surface when looking ahead: Euclid’s straight lines for infinity, ellipses, a circle, a triangle, rectangles like plasters dressing wounds, and quadrilaterals in red and green act as sutures in place, keeping all intact.

***

The founder of the futurists and proto-fascist FT Marinetti started writing manifestos in 1909 and then novellas, driven by early 20th-century concerns when colonial powers were becoming desperate to hold on to places and their resources to remain viable, productive and relevant as the global economy was fast changing beyond recognition into something else, something modern. In the embers of western imperialism’s heyday (that took form though it was losing sight of who came before, the medieval empires – Arab, Persian, Central Asian), a variety of European and British colonialisms were breathing their last gasp. In concert with the fading Ottomans, Italian expansion into North and East Africa struggled to maintain control of resources and borders. These sites, historical and spatial – social – ground Mehretu’s life story and this body of work and, perhaps more broadly, her approach to painting.



Julie Mehretu. Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts) Part 2, 2012. Ink and acrylic on canvas, 180 x 144 in (457.2 x 365.8 cm). Collection High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA. Photo: Ben Westoby. © Julie Mehretu.

Visual inflections within the futurist manifesto accord a cascade of images that situate Marinetti in a mosque. But it is not a mosque where he sits and that he meanders through when formulating his doctrine. The lamps strung above, acquired from merchants in Alexandria, have been brought to Milan, to his family’s apartment. A displaced room and a brewing nationalism blast in concert with Marinetti’s romanticised memories of his formation in Egypt, a period when the country was occupied, though not annexed, by the British, and independence movements globally were gaining steam.

Soft diplomacy and a global interest in authoritarian rule anchored a shifted realpolitik: to feed on fears of the other; to leaven the anxiety around demand for access to the materials needed for building fast cars, planes, trains. These social forces charged intellectuals, artists and art advocates across the world to situate and describe and position the charismatic Marinetti and his offshoots in England, the United States, Japan, South America, and, importantly, Russia, to reset social compacts. Literature and art. Aspects of an insidious effort that continues to leverage political and social efforts to sustain the status quo according to the goals of materialism. A perverse, painfully captivating novella, Marinetti’s The Untameables (1922), a book of depraved truth-tellers, drills into the heart of pertinent societal rifts. Themes relevant to analysing the impulses and orderings authoritarians continue to understand well and animate effectively.

***

Marinetti conjures social and political order while bearing witness to the British occupation of Egypt and the overwhelming power that scientifically and technologically advanced societies hold. His diatribes about culture and the museum, and his demands for their complete dismantlement, if not destruction, are legendary. And they bear resonance, echoes, in contemporary rhetoric about cultural institutions and their relevance as those marginalised scramble to reset the rules of engagement. He states clearly that Italy must not exist as an inn and museum for the world to trample through and ogle at, that there is nothing to be gained from this designation. It is an insight that flows from a life in occupied Egypt, as the child of a transnational Italian businessman. Marinetti calls for the complete sublimation of the roots of Italian superiority as a key to the embodiment of a supremacist stance. He believes that a vibrant, autonomous future for Italy requires that the intuitions of the past are sequestered in an irretrievable national subconscious, a backup disk buried in a time capsule.

Not from conjecture but in his writing, Marinetti attributes the political philosophy in The Untameables to Egypt. It is an allegory of nation, a story overflowing with sadism – moving to the tempo of conflict, landscape and personhood. Egypt’s coherence is his touchstone when deriving a metaphor of place, one ordered hierarchically. Wearing the shroud of the 20th-century cosmopolitan, romanticising the games of childhood, Marinetti wrote An Italian Sensibility Born in Egypt:

Often after we had wound in our knowing arabesquing processions under showers of rose petals and the sinuous melodic swaying of gilded censers toward the sweet face of the Madonna in her clouds of paradise I would lead 300 armed and shielded classmates to the systematic bloodying of the faces of 300 other schoolboy enemies of our shield and cuirass
During study hours the classroom seethed with hostile nationalities tossing insults at one another no respect among them and naturally Italy was defended criticized argued over hated loved so that later in the schoolyard we had a fight that summed up the struggle among nations and at the same time was a great poem to be lived and fought for

The contrast of latitude and longitude, which levels and disrupts Marinetti’s precise symmetry, the artificial balance of 300 bodies on either side, explodes in the spaces Mehretu enacts, as she interjects multiple simultaneous vantage points to assert countless violent disruptions, to redraw space in architectural, psychic, emotional, historical, and psychological terms.

***

While Marinetti wrote, his acolytes painted to address the ambitions of Italy in Africa. Leandra Angelucci Cominazzini’s biomorphic aerial view of Ethiopia, Indigenous Crops At Dessie (1938) shows a committed abstraction with impasto and free-form figures and mixed media, to inject a psychological quality into her work. Cominazzini’s exhibition record among futurist artists was second only to that of her good friend Benedetta, the wife of Marinetti. Other female futurist aero painters approached cities in ways that continue to resonate and provide methods for analysing pictures of space oriented from the air, assuming forms more dynamic than a bird’s-eye view, for their treatment of movement through the gestures of slim line and shape to punctuate the field with a palette markedly primary.



Julie Mehretu. Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts) Part 3, 2012. Ink and acrylic on canvas. 180 x 144 in (457.2 x 365.8 cm). Collection Tate London, UK. Photo: Ben Westoby. © Julie Mehretu.

The futurist Adele Gloria – sculptor, novelist, poet, journalist and fashion designer – would embed multiple perspectives in her paintings. The tension erupting between the double axes of Mehretu’s work finds visual, if not ideological, connection with Gloria’s work. Gloria’s Zanzur dall’Alto (Zanzur From Above) structures geometric partitions, alternating colour fields, textures of line, stripes seen from rooftops, white domes and minarets marked with palms, and a sequence of doors and windows at street level. She cuts through architectural layers to create a mental ordering that is akin to landing on the ground and hovering in the air. As opposed as their intellectual and political allegiances might be, colonial versus anti-colonial, Mehretu, Gloria and Cominazzini rupture architectures, casting city and landscapes to reorient the way of arriving in place.

***

It is almost 100 years since Marinetti published The Untameables, the story of black jailers under the command of the Paper People, who include a group of sadists: a teacher, a priest and a doctor. Pandemonium, time and space for torturous violence cast paths on which the novella’s characters travel in search of redemption. Marinetti’s mission from the outset, in the futurist manifesto and this story, is to reset social order according to a virulently aggressive, lustfully violent ethos. But who are the Untameables? Fundamentally depraved and ravenous, yet with signs of order and progress, these once revolutionaries fought alongside their jailers for freedom – theirs and others’ – but failed and returned to prison.

When they and the Paper People are captured, their mission to be redeemed and reborn in lake waters is aborted. Their salvation was the memory of rebellion, chaotic and fractured. Bracing against all logic, these characters upend social order and decimate expected relationships and connections, not unlike the idiosyncratic alignments that Mehretu forces on the physical, historical, sentimental space of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where memories of resistance and rebellion trick us into believing we are free. They are memorialised, made official holidays, whether 26 July, commemorating the Egyptian revolution of 1952, or the US’s celebration of independence on 4 July. In the heat of summer, when the people are restless, outdoors, gathering and remaking the crowd, we celebrate. We celebrate to forget.

Out of place, on a desert island, the Untameables, the jailers and the Paper People are punished. Solace, through a sort of salvation, is found in their slow forgetting. The teacher forgets how he would taunt his students with promises of sweets and visits to their mothers as rewards for focused study. Upon returning to school, the teacher would stomp on their necks. A multitude is murdered. The priest can no longer recall the repentant mother, into whose side he would press pins while her daughter, flanking his other side, confesses sins. The surgeon has a faint memory of the chamber of patients he tortured into song through their moans as he leads interns through experimental surgeries testing thresholds of pain. Stalwarts of social order maintained by their depravity, they are punished through a slow forgetting of their positions and pasts.

 ***

Isolationism, born from a nationalistic desire to fortify Italy, runs at odds with its burgeoning unification and the management of flourishing colonies in Ethiopia and Libya. Combined disdain and admiration for the wheeling and dealing of his father, who is involved in the Suez Canal project, is mirrored in the journey of Marinetti’s Untameables, a journey littered with imagery that restates history as a mirage. We read of an oasis made of bronze where the Paper People (ephemeral creatures of light) wait for their subjects, the jailers and prisoners. They wait on the top edge of a dune, a panopticon made of sand encapsulating all that empire must monitor.

***

Mehretu’s mappings indicate movement and touch over centuries, choreographed through layers read as considered chaos. Visual references are quoted from architectural drawings, the work of history’s artisans and architects. The lifecycle of places and the people within them are suggested by geometric marks and sweeping gestural expressions, grey plumes, and repressed exuberance in the shape of an ellipse or a line that by design continues on, is infinite.

The clashes and contortions of walls seen from the air or through the eyes of drones invite viewers to walk around and inside, to listen closely and notice if an arch is about to collapse or if a square might be raised, and to ask who will make all this happen. She reminds us of our role as witness, or at minimum, keen observer.

Radically flat and yet immersive, this painting in four massive panels tells the story of place and people, from the air. Air as host. Air being what encases bodies and buildings. From above and on all sides. Including against interior walls. Air as the ultimate container is an idea that weighs heavily on my reading of these paintings.

***

Built to accommodate a fraction of the number of civil servants the building eventually stretched to hold, and funded by the Soviets, the Mogamma in Cairo was inaugurated after the successful ousting of British occupiers in 1952 and before the beginning of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s seminal presidency in 1954. Soviet-style compounds and a 14th-century masterpiece, the Mosque of Sultan Hasan, inspired its architect, Kamal Ismail. Spanning one side of Tahrir Square, it served Cairo as a bureaucratic hub where licences and visas for millions were processed. Teetering on the edge of dysfunction, with more than 30,000 employees squeezing into the building, moving through Tahrir square, using the metro and buses and shopping, the building closed in 2021; and the civil servants moved to a new campus, outside the city. Mehretu’s painting memorialises urban density, and a period of physical interconnectivity that digs beneath surfaces and suggestions.

Her predecessors, the futurist painters Barbara (born Olga Biglieri), Cominazzini and Gloria took to the skies to harness vantage points from above to hurl the viewer into turbulence. They made paintings to churn our stomachs. They worked in a period as politically charged as Mehretu’s.

Barbara wore Amazonia’s mantle, flying through skies, preferring the exposure of gliding for the complete contact with air that it allowed. At 16, in secret, she obtained a gliding licence at the flying club of Cameri, near Novara. She received her pilot’s licence two years later. She is recorded to have said:

One must observe the wind-cone. When you have managed to get into the flow, you start wondering how you will go back to the land. Nobody explains it, not even the trainer who merely says: “Look out! Small movements, millimetres. Come down, Soft, soft.” … I always went up as if it were the safest thing in the world. Flying had an extraordinary effect on me; it was a moment of liberation. I looked down and everything appeared strange to me. How beautiful it was!

Barbara’s first aerial pictures date to the period before her 1935 meeting with the larger-than-life Marinetti. Born of the experience of descent from the sky that she likens to the feeling of an iron fist pushing into one’s stomach, Città che Ruota (Revolving Town) is a dizzying view from above, circling the city with an elliptical gesture that forces all to spiral downwards, animating the canvas, and seemingly harkening to the futures in Mehretu’s painting.

***

In 1938, Marinetti saw, in the window of a framing shop, Barbara’s revolutionary treatment of space and the city in the painting Vomito dall’Aereo. He invited Barbara to join the futurists and then show in the forthcoming Venice Biennale. Though at first reluctant to accept Marinetti’s endorsement, she took hold of this opportunity to innovate the use of line on canvas, abstract elliptical shapes, clash triangles and poles, and contrast light and dark to manifest architectural details that elicited psychosexual readings: women in air, drawing from the skies to transform landscape and city, imbuing the bell tower with more than directional phallic potential and power.

Always in balance when viewing the canvases of Barbara and Mehretu is a confrontation with the plane and the involvement of the viewer’s body in reading form. Barbara’s works were shown at Rome’s Quadrennial in 1939, at the Mostra d’Oltremare in Naples in 1940, and at Venice in 1940 and 1942.

In 1942, Barbara painted her last futurist work, Battaglia Aerea (Air Battle). Italian colonies in Ethiopia and Libya were fuelling growth and inspiring criticism. Symbology began to morph. In her iconic work Sintesi Aeropittura del Duce, Mussolini’s helmet overtakes the picture, alluding to his colonisation programme. The plane, no longer a symbol of victory, plummets to the ground; a trail of black smoke lingers. Barbara who had come to be known as a radical painter in complete harmony with the disruptions characterising the movement: aesthetically, personally and philosophically parted ways with the centre of power.

***

Mehretu is documented as a reader of Italo Calvino. He is a touchstone here for his attention to storytelling, his love of fables and folklore, his theories on writing for the future framed by lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, and his last unwritten thoughts, consistency. Mehretu’s lines and markings evoke him:

In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or grey or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain. (Calvino, Invisible Cities, 1972)

The Mogamma is an abandoned shell, and it will not be the only one. It belongs to a square of buildings, a pastiche of styles; it is a place to meander, gather and express solidarity in the face of expanding authoritarians. The square, designed through use, according to decisions made without a plan but in response to apparent need, abides by a truth that is told through the people who inhabit it and periodically rename it: Maydan al-Hurriya (Freedom Square) in 1952, Tahrir (Liberation) in 1954, to be reborn as Sadat Square and, most recently, as Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square).



Julie Mehretu. Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts) Part 4, 2012. Ink and acrylic on canvas, 180 x 144 in (457.2 x 365.8 cm). Collection Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX. Photo: Ben Westoby. © Julie Mehretu

The city Ersilia, in the thoughts of Calvino’s Kublai Khan, is a place of exactitude. It is rational, algebraic, personified through mapping movement to materialise a place that can be moved; he calls it a spider city. At this point in the story, in his exchange with the adventurer Marco Polo, he believes it important to quell his expansion and enrich and lighten the cities under his command:

Ersilia’s refugees look at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that rise in the plain … They rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other. Then they abandon it and take themselves and their houses still farther away. Thus, when travelling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away; spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form. (Calvino, Invisible Cities, 1972)

Calvino pivots, rendering place by Kublai Khan and then Marco Polo. What they see and its valuation form a double image. Societies entirely distinct in terms of wealth and design as well as climate and aroma litter the planet. While these men exchange stories, they sometimes play chess. There is an existential exchange revealing especially useful perspectives for this meandering through Mehretu’s paintings, specifically those named for cities.

Kublai Khan concludes through the positioning of castles, bishops, knights, kings, queens and pawns on black and white squares that there is no value to the square, that the wood, whether ebony or maple are both, simply, wood. Marco Polo invites a different look, a closer look, at the wood and shows it is made of rings that embody a complexity of data oriented by time, location, conditions. It is a tool, formed of eclipses. These lines and curves become Mehretu’s nomenclature, her lexicon that forms a syntax, enough to emote fraught histories of place.

Across the square of Mehretu’s Cairo is the neoclassical Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, dreamed up by the Egyptologist Mariette Pasha, designed by the French architect Marcel Dourgnon, built by an Italian company, and opened in 1902. The decision to relocate the museum collection, the world’s largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities, to Giza, where the Great Pyramids are located, was made before it became a chamber of tortures run by the military in 2011 and 2012. Japanese investors are footing the bill to ensure the great treasures are safely and conveniently located for tourists.

Mehretu’s Mogamma in four panels is shapeshifting into a reliquary, a homage to dynamism and past possibilities before cities as turbulent, dynamic, centres of change and variety were flattened and denuded, scrubbed clean. The new museum building is scheduled to open in 2022.

***

Mogamma indicates a place that billowed in smoke. Plumes of haze and ash rendered in ink and acrylic on her 2014 canvas titled Invisible Sun (algorithm 4, first letter form) indicate an investment in conjuring the energy of revolution and in its quelling. Ash and debris swirl, an earthen maelstrom. A dirge. She marks what was later lost at Tahrir Square.
 
The spiral movements that Barbara and her futurist aerial painter cohort rendered on canvases and writers brought to life in words were born of a churning ethos, a craving for upending mores and structures, political, psychological touchpoints that had been until then the hallmark of growth and development. Inspiring these images were words. Edgar Allan Poe’s mythical whirlpool.

Storied after a real place, in the Arctic to the west of Norway, A Descent into the Maelström (1910) tells of a man who recalls, in horror, a violent episode that occurred at sea during a fishing expedition with his brother. An indifferent observer tells the story. The whirlpool spins fast enough to dislodge time. A broken watch keeps the brothers from returning home before the storm they anticipate. They remain too late at sea, and their boat is caught. It is a tale of overcoming power and familial attachment. To survive, they must outsmart a vision of nature aligned with God’s power. The brothers and boat are dragged to the sea floor. A sole survivor washes up, and fellow villagers and fishermen find him. He is unrecognisable. His hair, changed from black to white over the course of a day, renders him foreign. It recalls Moses, who returns aglow, whitened after being in the presence of God. Poe’s survivor has triumphed over nature, if not the crowd. The townspeople believe the brothers are buried at sea.

***

Architecture piles up to bounce off Mehretu’s surfaces. A neo-Baroque palace, Qasr Kamal al-Din, designed by Slovenian architect Anton Laščak, was until recently the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A neo-Mamluk-style palace built for Ahmed Khairy Pasha in 1874 was most recently repurposed as the original campus for the American University in Cairo. The university has since moved outside the city.

The sit-in at Tahrir began on 25 January 2011 and brought the square and its buildings into the global public news arena. Citizens of all stripes, Islamist, Christian, secular, traditional and feminist, gathered to protest at Mubarak’s stiflingly corrupt almost 30-year presidency. The square felt contained, framed by still photos and moving images transmitted across screens of all sizes, like a terrarium of desires for past wrongs to be acknowledged and redressed. Demands were heard and watched, journalists stationed throughout, power looking on from all sides of this panopticon. The pastiche of vistas was framed by belle époque apartment houses on the eastern edge of the square, and the bare-bones headquarters of the Arab League, which Mahmoud Riad built between 1958 and 1960.

Over the course of the protests and demonstrations, the camera went higher in the sky to capture the arteries feeding the city. The numbers of protestors increased exponentially. Citizens returned and reinscribed the city, flowing in from all sides, pouring towards the square along boulevards connecting Tahrir to Garden City, Wast al-Balad, Bab al-Louq, Bulaq, and Zamalek via the Qasr al-Nil Bridge, in effect rewriting the logics and politics of the colonial Haussmannian axes that had been managing urban flow.
 
Two parts of a whole, “mael” and “ström,” make the Dutch word that Marinetti reads in Poe. It is a word central to Poe’s story and Marinetti’s proto-fascism. A natural phenomenon, this prince of storms marshals ruptures to utterly different effect in the heroic paintings of Mehretu.

Marinetti’s interest in the story, which was widely circulated soon after his riveting futurist manifesto was published, resounds through the vortex that he and his cohort represent in language and painting. The futurists were to redefine expressions of the speed needed for change, the violent casting aside of attachment, and prescribed social order, calling into direct question human motive and purpose. They were to repeatedly undermine social bonds for their easy replacement while readily accepting changes tied to the machine, science and progress. Spectacle, choreographed by God or king, was subordinated, overcome.

Mehretu’s work helps resuscitate our study of art histories and invites the retirement of well-worn art historical tropes that focus on Marinetti’s place in the 20th-century avant-garde, in futurism. Her paintings collapse nationalism. With their conflation of Tahrir and other city centres, including Addis Ababa, she reminds us of the past when Italy committed to extending into the future their 19th-century campaigns to control Ethiopia, the birthplace of Mehretu and of her father, back generations

The worlds Mehretu re-maps craft surfaces that hold multiple realms and vantage points. She draws from techniques elaborated by Calvino who saw cities as temporary, made by drawing strings between points to erect intricate inhabitable spatial forms. He wrote with an exploratory urge, as did Barbara, the revolutionary thinker and artist who came before him. Barbara painted to convey what it is to soar and spiral across surfaces and into squares. She knew the themes Poe had written about: the power of the storm and the velocity of his maelstrom that stopped time, left a brother dead at sea, and rendered another unrecognisable, the crowd unable to comprehend what was right before them, for a simple few changed details – the changed colour of their neighbour’s hair. In Mehretu’s Mogamma, allowance is made for ember and ether to flow through surfaces, never settling on the facades that layer to compose her paintings. The effect is a porous quality, suggesting the ephemeral nature of place and, critically, the traces of its inhabitants, the mutability of the crowd.

Between its early reception in London and Kassel to its most recent appearances in Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York and Minneapolis, Mehretu’s Mogamma has morphed and swirled and assumed new relevancies. From a seemingly rational and analytical study of the square, these sites of resistance and revolutionary impulse have become a hazy spiral of memories of revolution that sustain feelings of being free. They are like the temperaments and personalities of the psychotic Untameables, whose identities fade as they are extracted by authority from real space, left with only the memory of physical action and interaction, rebellion. Mehretu’s cross-hatching of latitude and longitude, her twists and spirals, layering of places and architectures, hurls us into a story of a storm. We are in its eye.

•  Julie Mehretu’s HOWL, eon (I, II) (2017), created as part of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s new art commissioning programme, is currently on view at SFMOMA.

Her mid-career survey exhibition is on view at The Walker in Minneapolis until 6 March 2022. The tour began at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, travelled to The High in Atlanta, Georgia, and The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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