It is inspiring when our world-class universities invite artists to have a seat at the table. On Monday, April 8, 2019, MIT organized a panel discussion centering on the artist Julie Mehretu and her work as part of its ongoing lecture series at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture. Nasser Rabbat, a renowned architectural historian and director of the AKPIA, welcomed the audience. The series focuses on art and the artist’s ability to respond to the violent conflicts that have engulfed the Middle East, particularly since the Arab uprisings that began at the end of 2010.
This year’s guest was Mehretu, who cites Rabbat’s 2011 article in Artforum, titled, “Circling the Square” as a major inspiration for her work “Mogamma (a painting in four parts).” Mehretu, a New York-based artist, with miriam cooke, professor emerita at Duke University and author of “Dancing in Damascus: Creativity, Resilience and the Syrian Revolution,” Asma Naeem, chief curator at The Baltimore Museum of Art and author of soon-to-be-published “Out of Earshot: Sound, Technology and Power in American Art, 1860–1900” and Deen Sharp, AKPIA@ MIT Post-Doctoral Fellow, co-editor of “Beyond The Square: Urbanism and the Arab Uprisings,” discussed Mehretu’s work in a broad context from within and beyond the art world.
Sharp made the opening remarks and introduced the panel. Each panelist was tasked with responding to Mehretu’s two artworks inspired by the Arab Spring: “Mogamma,” a huge four-piece work produced during the early days of the Tahrir uprising that forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down and “Epigraph, Damascus,” a six-panel reaction to the Syrian Revolution in its fourth year of mortal struggle against the ruthless regime of Bashar al-Assad. Sharp’s talk “Marking Moments: The Actually Existing Third Space of Julie Mehretu” traced the progression of Mehretu’s work in “Mogamma,” “Cairo” and “Damascus, Epigraph.” He outlined how her marks documenting the uprisings shifted to marks making meaning out of the social chaos. “Mehretu … illuminates how we can see outwards by looking within; how tensions, contradictions and difference can exist together; how absences can create the most powerful presence; how the smallest mark can be the deepest,” said Sharp.
Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa in 1970 to an Ethiopian father and an American mother. She grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, and now lives in New York. She is well known for her abstracted images of social interaction on the global scale.