A MAJOR PAINTING by Julie Mehretu is on view in the contemporary art galleries at the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA). A symphony of line, color, and form, “Looking Back to a Bright Future” (2003) is on loan from a private collection for two years. The painting is part of the museum’s Guest of Honor program, an effort to broaden the selection of works presented at DIA by accepting a series of loans for temporary display.
Established in 2012, the Guest of Honor initiative launched with the loan of Vermeer’s “Woman Holding a Balance” (c. 1664). The painting by the Dutch Baroque artist was exhibited as a public thank you to residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, the three surrounding counties where a 10-year property tax supporting museum operations was passed in August 2012.
“We usually tie in how the work relates to aspects of the DIA’s collection, or try to bring in works by artists not represented in the collection, such as Vermeer and Mehretu,” Pamela Marcil, the museum’s director of public relations told Culture Type.
The Mehretu loan marks a new phase of the program, the first in a series of Guest of Honor selections by African American artists organized by Valerie Mercer, curator of the museum’s General Motors Center for African American Art. The development ties in with the museum’s Reflecting Our Community initiative, a concerted effort to diversify DIA’s attendance with the goal of mirroring the region’s racial and ethnic demographics by 2020.
The development ties in with the museum’s Reflecting Our Community initiative, a concerted effort to diversify DIA’s attendance with the goal of mirroring the region’s racial and ethnic demographics by 2020.
RECOGNIZED FOR HER LARGE-SCALE, abstract paintings, Mehretu’s canvases are complex explorations of time, space, history, and geography. She builds up layers of acrylic paint and narrative content, such as map grids and abstracted images of war, which she then overlays with mark making using pencil, pen, ink, and more paint.
She lives and works in New York, but has a connection to the state of Michigan. Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when she was in elementary school, Mehretu moved with her family to East Lansing, Mich., where her father taught at Michigan State University. She later earned an undergraduate degree from Kalamazoo College, before pursuing an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design. In 2007, DIA presented Mehretu’s “City Sitings.” The solo show was the inaugural exhibition marking the museum’s grand reopening following a six-year renovation and gallery reinstallation project.
Mehretu’s “Looking Back to a Bright Future” sold at Christie’s London for more than $3.4 million on June 30, 2015. According to DIA, the painting “evokes a sense of speed, dynamism, struggle and potential associated with the early-20th-century utopian promise of a better future. This painting highlights the idealism of new urban planning in postcolonial Africa. Drawings resemble schematic maps of planned neighborhoods, atlas markings of dots refer to economic centers and colorful irregular shapes suggest countries in Africa. The density of imagery implies the range and complexity of issues facing African nations competing for a brighter future in the global economy.”
Plans are underway to present additional works while the Mehretu painting is on view. The museum says Mercer is working on the following loans: Robert Duncanson’s “Land of the Lotus Eaters,” an 1861 painting owned by the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati; 1930s-era street scene painting by Archibald Motley, and Henry O. Tanner’s “Resurrection of Lazarus” (1896), which is in the collection of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. The museum also plans to borrow a work by contemporary artist Sanford Biggers, whose solo exhibition “Subjective Cosmology” was recently presented at another museum in the city, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.
When DIA announced Mehretu’s painting was on display, the museum’s director Salvador Salort-Pons said: “Artists from diverse backgrounds tell stories that are often not highlighted in traditional art museums, and we are committed to elevating these stories and sharing them with all of our visitors.” CT
Accompanying the artist’s 2007 show at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, “Julie Mehretu: City Sitings” features five new Detroit-related works from her City Sitings series. “Julie Mehretu: Liminal Squared” complements the artist’s first major solo exhibition in London at White Cube gallery. The show presented new and recent paintings in a specially constructed environment designed by architect David Adjaye in collaboration with Mehretu.