Julie Mehretu’s Undercommons

Macarena Gómez-Barris| University of Southern California
“Never being on the right side of the Atlantic is an unsettled feeling, the feeling of a thing that unsettles with others. It’s a feeling, if you ride with it, that produces a certain distance from the settled, from those who determine themselves in space and time, who locate themselves in determined history.”
Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons.


In 2011, Ethiopian-born, East Lansing-raised visual artist Julie Mehretu painted Mogamma, a four-part series that references the Egyptian administrative building located at one corner of Tahrir square in Cairo. The immense work was featured at Documenta that same year and was successfully shown there. A year after Documenta, I experienced Mogamma at the White Cube gallery in London, where Mehretu—with David Adjaye—helped to create a special exhibition space that incorporated the series’ multidimensionality and performative elements. Since that viewing, I have grappled with the complexities of the meaning systems in Mogamma, paintings that name a precise locale in Egypt, yet do little to conjure specificity within the matrix of its abstraction.

In this essay, I argue that like Mehretu’s larger oeuvre, the Mogamma series possesses a density of gestures that reorders perceptions of the temporal, the spatial, and most significantly attaches itself to the lineage of cultural expression that Fred Moten has termed the Black Aesthetic. By placing the series in conversation with Moten’s work, drawing from Mehretu’s own interpretations based on an interview I conducted with her, and analyzing the paintings themselves, I have come to understand that the multisensorial and disorienting experiences of Mogamma transmit the visual as a transit point to other senses, and innovatively make bridges to other modes of expression. In particular, Mehretu’s forceful experimental visual language, surprisingly, makes room for aurality and performance, both modes that find expression through a Black radical aesthetic tradition.

Though Mehretu’s oeuvre is not usually placed within the longer arc of returns and recalls that is the genealogy of the African diaspora, there is certainly reason to feel and know it belongs there. The improvisation of lines, breaks, angry marks and imaginative gestures form architectures of meaning through sublime built environments that cohere into recognizable patterns just as easily as they drop off the canvas. Mehretu’s art, especially the Mogamma paintings, materializes the improvisational realm, visually capturing the affect of sonic riffs that bring together, in some instances, and widen, in others, the gaps between continents of historical experience.


In his ambitious work In the Break (2003), Fred Moten describes an epistemology of blackness within a genealogy of the Black radical tradition that “is an ongoing performance of encounter: rupture, collision and passionate response.” Moten tracks the sound cultures and social thought traditions of the African diaspora as irrepressible in their call to freedom. Performance, music, and language organize a set of relations that configure Black knowledge as a historical and contemporary project that is constantly and exuberantly moving towards the other side of this side of freedom. With the term “the Black aesthetic,” Moten names the diasporic cultural production that collects disparate Black movements, objects, authors, composers, and writers, tracing the commonalities of these expressions through their improvisational qualities. Taking his cue from experiments in jazz, literature, and performance to illustrate the freedom longings and “phonic substance” of the African Diaspora, Moten shows how experimentation for dispossessed peoples produces utterances towards freer conditions of possibility.

The Black aesthetic coalesces around the impassioned impulse to create anew, opening to the other side of the European Enlightenment, or to what Walter Mignolo refers to as the “darker side of the Renaissance” (1995). Articulating the long meaning of “the anguished cry” through multiple events and figures, exceptionally through Olauduh Equiano’s curses, Moten gestures to history’s exclusions, the catastrophe of slavery, the ruptures of memory and the accompanying cultural histories of dissent. Within the providence of the Black Radical tradition, social and political ontologies are forged as allegiances to particular notions of freedom. There is, however, no pretense of the permanency of these convergences. These encounters are formed as assemblages that will eventually fall away; as forces react, the cry is made again. What emerges is an unending creative impulse that collectively and trans-historically produces something else anew, as it does in the crevices of Mehretu’s art.

Moten theorizes improvisation and provides evidence of its poetics through an engagement with Derrida, Althusser, and the broader European theoretical tradition of post-structuralism. Similarly, Mehretu’s work encounters the genre of European continental abstraction to pursue fractures on the canvas ensconced in the presences and discontinuities of revolutionary potentiality. Mehretu makes visible the violence of unfulfilled promises and failed efforts through lines that undo their own symmetries, as disintegrations that reform into generative clusters of visual meaning. Shapes and lines chase each other as densities that fall apart as gaping geographies of unknown futures.

Communicating these dissonances through the visual, Mogamma ruptures the very genre and aesthetic of modernist abstraction. It is in the dissonant elements, in the places where discontinuities, breaks, and fragments are visualized and simultaneously unsettled, that Mehretu’s work exemplifies a longer arc of the Black aesthetic. These gestures resonate within a deep radical aesthetic project produced foremost by the African Diaspora, but encompassing a much wider search for freedom. Liberated from the figurative anchors that might otherwise mark and reproduce difference, Mehretu is able to represent the energies of the multitude through broad choral architectures of visuality. These reverberate on the canvas and echo beyond the gallery space.

Mural (2010) is a work of eighty feet long by twenty-three feet high installed and exhibited only at 200 West Street in New York. A film by Tacita Dean that portrays the artist at work was part of her New Museum exhibition Five Americans.1 Here, the vigorous and passionate performativity appeared as a complex embodied intentionality. Perched on top of a scissor lift to reach the heights of the canvas, Mehretu is shown painting mobile shapes through powerful sweeps of organized condensation that dissolve again in later frames. Her markings and scratches incorporate indeterminate mappings, which themselves open up to multiple frames of interpretations. Ultimately, however, Mehretu’s visual traces lead us back the realm of the improvisational, and to the hybrid spaces of fugitivity.

In the Undercommons (2013), Fred Moten and Stefano Harney write of the organized assemblages of human life that shape their own forms of social poesis. The authors detect histories of escape that can be located in early maroon communities and the sound culture repertoires of the African diaspora. These are not merely sites of dispossession, but of reclamations as landscapes of fecund exchange. As resistant assemblages, there is movement away from “policy and planning,” or colonialism in its myriad formulations, into the less detectable sites of freedom. Moten and Harney describe territories that escape surveillance, spaces that have never fully been captured by the enclosure, and instead have created their own logics of subterfuge against the transactions of finance, administration, the racial state, and the logics of global capitalism. Drawing upon the Black Radical tradition, Moten and Harney suggest a mode of being that is not discernible by Foucault’s notion of power from above, and instead operates as another kind of knowledge scale that is constituted and archived through soundscapes, aesthetics, and social worlds that are forever in flux. If Moten and Harney articulate the sensibilities of the undercommons in written form, then Mehretu provides an invigorated expression of its densities on canvas. Mehretu’s aesthetic expressive qualities imagine radical potentiality that lies beyond what is known and, moreover, outside of that which is governable.


Mehretu sketches social life otherwise through the dense germinations of the public square. The Mogamma paintings (2011) aesthetically invoke the uprisings and deferred revolutionary potentialities of Tahrir Square, as a physical and historical site, but also as a constellation of longings, revolutionary desires, and social contingencies (see author’s interview with Mehretu). Mehretu’s visual gestures explode onto a canvas that holds in tension an imaginary of global/local change as a tangible reality. However, and this matters, she is not proscriptive about what it means to escape, reorganize, or redirect policy and planning while living and visualizing in the undercommons. There are no guarantees to where these articulations will lead, as Stuart Hall so astutely reminded us with his body of work.

For the making of Mogamma, Mehretu rented a separate studio in New York that would fit the 15-foot paintings. This was not a new scale for the artist since she had worked over a two-year period on Mural in Berlin. The large painted panels that comprise Mural reference the furious and enlivened urban scapes that are global in their “sources and focus on the architecture of commerce, speculation of finance and global exchange.”

What is notable in Mogamma is the color palette that is muted and differentiated from the bright, speedy financial transactions that are depicted in Mural. In the latter work, Mehretu expresses the vernacular of every day life and the unleashed revolutionary potentialities of the Cairo public square, as well as the public squares of twenty-eight other cities of historic importance.

As a real place in real time, Mogamma centralizes the bureaucratic needs of millions of Egyptian citizens as a twenty-floor building and a sprawling administrative site. Daily, low-wage workers inhabit hundreds of labyrinthine passageways and miniscule offices. Mehretu describes how “with everything that has taken place during the Arab/African spring, there was a constant fear of what would come next.” She sought to explore and question “what had happened in these revolutionary spaces, the incredible enthusiasm, but also the skepticism and the fear of backlash and co-option.” (Interview with author).

At the London White Cube gallery space, the four Mogamma paintings faced each other to produce the feeling and spatial orientation that replicated the public square. To rupture the modernist symmetry of a square, however, the paintings were organized in the shape of a diamond, intentionally producing a different viewer orientation in relation to art objects. Mehretu’s aesthetic sensibilities extend to the experience of the work, as she wanted there to be a “seeping-in” from the edges of the gallery that would be apprehended by the viewer. Indeed, it takes hours to absorb its multi-scalar complexity.

While impressive on the first viewing, Mehretu’s Mogamma is decidedly slow art that requires elongated time to take in and to register the breadth of its subtleties.

In Queer Phenomenology (2006), Sara Ahmed imagines bodily and object orientations that disrupt and reorder social relations where their interaction “offers a new way of thinking about the spatiality of sexuality, gender, and race.” In these new orientations, bodies are turned towards the objects around them and directionality matters. The subtle effect and intent of Mogamma provides the ability to connect to what Mehretu describes as the “feeling of the reverberations of the corners of the room, pulling toward the center of the canvas.” This queer orientation is what Mehretu calls “a non-confrontational space, where you have to turn to engage with a painting rather than pass it by altogether or confront it head on.” Subtle as it may be, this reorientation intensifies sounds in the gallery and intensifies the meaning of being in relation to the public square. Into the diamond void, Mehretu brings the bustling sounds of what transpires below the Mogamma building.

As a child of Africanists, born in Ethiopia and raised in the United States, Mehretu’s own psycho-geographical connections inhabit multiple histories that are constantly intermixed and intermeshed with the decolonial objects she creates. When she first began the sketches for Mural, she was making the previous body of work for the Guggenheim show titled Grey Area while living in Berlin. As Mehretu says:

Something about being in Berlin reminded me of Addis Ababa, certain parts of its architecture. And it reminded me of home and spending time with family on Sundays. The constant fissures and broken parts [in the work] are evident everywhere in Berlin. This history hasn’t been broken up; it’s there still. The parts of German history are evident everywhere. And after living there is really when I started using erasure in the work.

Mehretu describes how Ethiopia produced its own version of modernism that overlapped with, yet remained distinct from, Soviet and European modernisms. Indeed, the central motifs of Mogamma, as architectural presences and absences on the canvas, only emerged after Mehretu understood the geohistorical connections between the European and African continents, their mnemonic resonances and contact histories, and the flow of designs between them. Mehretu suggests that studying and living amidst the post-Soviet architecture of Berlin, a city with little overt reference to Africa, “freed her” from having to fill in all of the canvas space. Such absences are essential to the visuality of Mogamma, where pieces are literally broken up. Though the work quickly comes together and coheres for the viewer, things also fall apart.

In fact, the original title for the exhibit that showcased Mogamma was “Things Fall Apart,” invoking Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel of the same title. Told through the eyes of a boy protagonist, Okonkwho returns from exile to find a changed village under the control of white missionaries and a colonial government. The violent rupture of British colonialism undoes native claims on land, and the boy’s own sense of himself crumbles in front of disintegrating cultural norms. Without these moral and psychological moorings, Okonkwho comes completely undone. Despite its taboo as an individualist act, the protagonist commits suicide, to the moral condemnation of the author. Though the exhibit was eventually titled “Liminal Squared,” the force of the undoings and ruptures that this classic novel depicts are so present on the canvas as to call forward its description of the multifaceted effects of colonial violence. These paintings are not finished, says Mehretu “until the condensation and falling apart happens in several cycles” (interview).

The paintings reference the enormity of Julie Mehretu’s own physical and affective labor, and her own vantage point works to unsettle the orders of colonial power. The architectural breaking and falling apart produces imaginaries of travel, as a kind of unravelling and a permanent becoming. These are visual explorations of the sonic that echo between distances and locales on the canvas. To see what Mehretu sees, and to hear what Mehretu hears, requires new visual and aural maps. These delineations move quickly, incompletely between Detroit, Addis Ababa, post-socialist Eastern Europe, and Manhattan. They traffic not in commodity transactions, but in the soundscapes of the African diaspora.

Despite the abstract elements in play on a large canvas, much of Mehretu’s work—and the Mogamma series in particular—is grounded in specific local and historical realities. In an early interview with art curator Olukemi Ilesanmi in 2003, Mehretu remarked: “What I really like about using different types of sources is their precise relationship to the social and cultural construct of where we are” (Mural). Thus, the artist invokes the present and specificity, without needing to be attached to the literal painting of it. In these ways, she projects onto European abstraction an undoing, a constant referencing and echoing of the African continent and its ruptured fleeing into decolonized futures.

The diaspora locates the places where movement has produced a soundscape of struggle and contingency, indeterminacy and connection as undoing what we know and how we know it. Mehretu’s vigorous gestures imitate these gestures through a revised and hybridized vision that imagine links between post-socialist cities, urban spaces of eruption, and the New World—bridges between the then-and-now into a future that is not science fiction. This spatial, aural, visual and temporal turning away towards other imaginations and forms of fecund creativity are at the very heart of Mehretu’s decolonial and diasporic gestures.


In our interview together, Mehretu made reference to Edouard Glissant’s formulation of opacity that I will attend to briefly since it produces yet another frame for the work. Though there are many ways to link to its potentiality, Glissant describes opacity as seeing and not seeing or the structures of visibility embedded within the complex dynamics of the interaction between colonizer and colonized. Glissant argues against a reductive humanism, where “humanity is perhaps not the ‘image of man’ but today the ever-growing network of recognized opaque structures” (1997 Translation). As Celia Britton has noted (1999), Glissant’s approach is one of unequivocal militancy that fights against transparency everywhere-- against the transparency of financial systems, against enclosure and police surveillance systems, against the logics of neoliberal capitalism.

Glissant’s calls for “the right to opacity,” as more fundamental than the right to difference, a point Alex Weheliye has also made in relation to Black sonic techniques. What Glissant and others call forth is opacity’s fundamental role within resistant cultures. They point to aesthetic texts and plans that cannot be easily accounted for, easily read, or understood. Out of these indelible resistant spaces, new cultural and political arrangements are formed.

For Mehretu, like Glissant, opacity equals radical potential. The energetic marks themselves have a sort of social agency. These enormous paintings require the labor of several people to hoist intricate canvases onto barren gallery walls. Once hung, they are not immediately transparent or easily decoded by the viewer. They often require long viewings to chart what she charts, to redefine mapping altogether. Complex surfaces, depths, and dimensional shapes evoke heterogeneous cartographies supple scales, firing in tension, animated by lines both straight and unruly. Are we in planetary time? Or sensing the time of the past-present falling apart into the future? With her, do we inhabit these spaces or are we somewhere else altogether?


Mehretu’s fissures and gaps push experimentally “in the break” of the Black radical aesthetic by evoking absences, and other times drawing in presences that imagine dense networks, incomplete revolutions, and flickering spaces of possibility. Mogamma ruptures the linearity of distances and proximities, the transparency of neoliberalism, and modernist commitments to figuration. Against the grain of European abstractionism and contemporary art critique, Mehretu visualizes the Black radical tradition, possible worlds that negotiate submerged spaces of struggle and social life beyond it. Mehretu’s undercommons let us know, beyond any trace of a doubt, that the now and its futurity are not diminished by violence and its financial transactions. They are enlivened instead by the gestural and imaginative histories, while always marking an improvisational beat.

Macarena Gómez-Barris is Associate Professor of American Studies & Ethnicity, and Sociology at the University of Southern California. She teaches on cultural movements in the Americas. Her first book was Where Memory Dwells: Culture and State Violence in Chile (2009). She is co-editor, with Herman Gray, ofTowards the Sociology of a Trace (2010). She is working on a titled Aesthetics of Extraction: Visuality in the Ecologies of South America.


1 http://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/view/tacita-dean-five-americans .

Works Cited:

Achebe, Chinua.1959. Things Fall Apart, New York: Anchor House Books

Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, Durham: Duke University Press

Bretton, Cecilia. 1999. Edouard Glissant and Postcolonial Theory: Strategies of Language and Resistance, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press

Glissant, Edouard. 1997. Poetics of Relation, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

Moten, Fred. 2003. In the Break: Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota

Moten, Fred and Steve Harney. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, New York: Minor Compositions

Mignolo, Walter.1995. The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality and Colonization, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

Wehehilye, Alexander G. 2005. Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity, Durham and London, Duke University Press