Friday, December 2, 2011

Contemporary African Artist

Julie Mehretu

Julie Mehretu was born in 1970 in Ethiopia, the first child of an Ethiopian college professor and a white American teacher. They fled Ethiopia in 1977 and moved to East Lansing, Michigan. She studied at University Cheik Anta Diop, Dakar, earned a BA from Kalamazoo College, Michigan, and an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design.

Through her schooling Mehretu learned she wanted to make abstract paintings with a narrative content, one that reflected her interest in geography, architecture, history, and urban life. Mehretu's paintings and drawings refer to those elements of mapping and architecture. She uses architectural renderings and aerial views of urban grids that she layers to mask their visual reference. She uses wax-like surfaces that are built up over weeks and months in thin translucent layers. The layers build to a warm, deep layer that is her canvas for explosions of color, lines, and fire. 

Her works have earned her many awards and have appeared in numerous exhibits. If you were to compare her work to “traditional” African art you would not see the connection. In the past she has been asked, “Why don’t you make Ethiopian paintings?” She is from Ethiopian, however she considers herself American, having grown up in the US. That’s not to say she has forgotten her roots. Mehretu’s work is the epitome of interculturalization, which has been a focus in our class. From the age of seven, Mehretu has seen herself as a negotiator between cultures and expectations.

“I use all kinds of resources as guides for structuring the drawings that I'll project onto the wall. I use different types of comic books, different kinds of graffiti and tags, but also parts of baroque engravings like Dürer, Japanese/Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting. Different types of media are used to inform the process.”

Art:21’s feature on Mehretu, reveals this interculturalization and the influences that have helped define her work.

Pay particular attention to clip 5:18 to 5:47, and clip 11:06 to 11:47.

Though the lens of traditional African art does not fit with Julie Mehretu’s work, her oeuvre can be viewed through other lenses. Better frames of reference for her work are her gender and the aesthetics of her work. There is a certain care that she takes with in her work, it’s a slow, patient process that, in essence, is more about the process. This careful, nurturing process leads to a sensual build up of mark making that gives off a warmth and comfort that reflects her femaleness. 

I could not find a specific website that is solely hers, but the following sites provided a wealth of information for my research.


  1. I am happy to see that you chose to focus on Julie Mehretu and her work! I agree with you when saying that there is something quite significant about her role as a negotiator between cultures, it ties into the practice of interculturalization and I believe Mehretu is successful in its employment. Thank you for including the video segments as well!