Julie Mehretu’s Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts) has received a good deal of attention since it appeared at Documenta in 2012. As the press duly noted, Mogamma is the mammoth Egyptian government building—half Chicago Merchandise Mart, half Albert Speer—that dominates Tahrir Square in Cairo. The four vast paintings took as their subject matter both the Arab Spring of 2010–11 and that most politically volatile of urban spaces, the city square. “I think architecture reflects the machinations of politics,” Mehretu has said, and the geographically specific example of Tahrir provided her with a gateway for connecting a field of abstractions (human engagement, exchange and shared agency) to a field of events (from the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak).1
All this is clear from external materials, but the paintings themselves do not spell it out. What the viewer sees are Mehretu’s familiar, entrancing flurries of open marks, fine line drawing and colored confetti moving across adjacent canvases like a summer squall. Up close can one make out the underpinning of architectural line drawings. But given that each canvas is 15 feet high, only the bottom quarter or so can actually be seen up close; the upper reaches slip away into generalities that the viewer can only trust are similarly grounded.
- Mehretu in Augustin Pérez Rubio, “Tracing the Universe of Julie Mehretu: a Choral Text,” in Julie Mehretu: Black City (Hatje Cantz, 2006), 29.