Mogamma: Part 3 was made by Julie Mehretu in 2012 as part of a series Mogamma: A Painting in Four Parts shown at Documenta 13, Kassel in the summer of 2012. The series takes its name from the government building in Tahrir Square in Cairo, a building which formed a backdrop for the protests against then President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in early 2011. The Mogamma was constructed in the 1940s and designed by the Egyptian architect Kamal Ismail; it was an administrative centre which became a symbol of the country’s government bureaucracy.
In this monumental painting, which is over four and half metres tall and three and a half metres wide, Mehretu creates a palimpsest of architectural drawings of the Mogamma, as well as of other public buildings and squares associated with public unrest, including Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square and New York’s Zuccotti Park – the site of the ‘Occupy’ protests that took place the year the painting was made. Mehretu worked with a team of assistants to research and accumulate images of these sites and to derive plans and elevation drawings from them using computer programs. The digital images were then projected onto the surface and traced over. They overlap and intermingle, denying the viewer the possibility of comprehending the architectural situation as would be possible in a drawing produced by an architect for a client. Although parts of the architecture can be picked out and recognised in different areas of the canvas, viewers have to abandon the desire to fully master what they see.
After the tracing, Mehretu covers the surfaces of her works with other kinds of drawing and painting. Using a brush, she applies clusters of dabs which swarm and billow in cloud-like formations. She hand-paints swooping coloured lines which stand out from the pencil and areas of black paint, giving the work a dynamic compositional structure; and silkscreens grids of grey pixels and transparent coloured shapes, such as the yellow triangle in the top right corner of this work. These coloured areas, while recalling the language of modernist abstraction, are also derived from her memory of images of flags and banners held aloft by protestors in the sites.
A complex memorial to sites of state oppression and communal resistance, the Mogamma paintings also deny the viewer a focus for, or overt subject of, mnemonic activity. Offering fleeting glimpses of recognisable spatial situations, it nevertheless refuses to anchor the viewer in a secure space, and indeed through its scale creates a different kind of environmental situation and experience. Mehretu explains her motivations for using images of architecture as her subject matter: ‘I think architecture reflects the machinations of politics, and that’s why I am interested in it as a metaphor for those institutions. I don’t think of architectural language as just a metaphor about space, but about spaces of power, about ideas of power.’ (Quoted in Brian Dillon and Joan Young, Julie Mehretu: Grey Area, exhibition catalogue, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin 2009, p.29). As for what her transformations of images of state institutions amount to, the critic T.J. Demos wrote in the catalogue of Mehretu’s exhibition at White Cube, London in the spring of 2013 (in which this painting was shown) that the paintings ‘open up a third space of conceptual and visual potentiality, where systems defy a coherent plan or unified cartography’ (see White Cube and Marian Goodman Gallery 2013).
Douglas Fogle and Olukemi Ilesanmi (eds.), Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting, exhibition catalogue, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 2003.
Mark Godfrey, ‘Julie Mehretu: Black City’, in Jeffrey Deitch (ed.), The Painting Factory, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 2012, pp.110–16.
T.J. Demos, ‘Painting and Uprising: Julie Mehretu’s Third Space’, in Julie Mehretu: Liminal Squared, exhibition catalogue, White Cube, London, and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York 2013.