– Autumn/Winter 2006

Towards Abstraction: Indeterminacy and the Internationalisation of Julie Mehretu's Paintings

Lauri Firstenberg

In the new millennium, scholarship is divided in debate over ineffectual cultural, ethnic, geographical and national discursive taxonomies. Post-black, post-Chicano, post-identity, post-everything. These postulates can be identified as direct responses to a phenomenon in America's recent cultural and political history: the backlash against multiculturalism of the 1990s.

The semantic nightmare of the 'post-identity' faction offers the field an experiential and psychosocial impossibility.1 However, this sect is on to something. The ongoing polarisation of theoretical models for cultural production and posturing is cyclical and infertile. Contemporary paradigms of difference are muddied by a rupture between regionalist allegiances rooted in a discourse of specificity, and an internationalist bent based on fluidity, interconnectedness and identification with global culture and exchange. The 'post' advocates back an honest effort to extend and implode existing typologies in the discussion of models of representation and difference. The post-identity attempt at articulating a movement beyond the parameters of biography, geography, nationality or ethnicity must, however, be articulated and understood through specific artists' practices rather than through totalising misnomers and paradigmatic proclamations signaling the end of a moment or movement. Postcolonial models of engagement never rely on the proponents of exoticism, mythology and spectacle to lag too far behind, but always assume them, ready to reclaim hierarchy and polarity in matters of aesthetic citizenship.

What are the terms that approach an open and flexible concept addressing the concerns dominating contemporary international art, particularly the displacement of the identity concept of difference? From the regional to the global to the transnational, what lexicon signals a space of contradiction that addresses the tension between homogenisation and difference in the constitution of subjectivity? What visual language represents a model of production that questions

  1. See Post Identity, a humanities journal established in 1997, published by the University of Michigan, whose mission statement is to examine 'the narratives underlying individual, social and cultural identity formations that investigates the relationship between identity formations and texts; and argues how such formations can be challenged.'

  2. Paul Gilroy, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture beyond the Color Line, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000, p.12.

  3. Thelma Golden, 'Post...', Freestyle (exh. cat.), New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2001, p.14.

  4. Ibid., p.15.

  5. Homi Bhabha, 'Beyond the Pale: Art in the Age of Multicultural Translation', in 1993 Biennial Exhibition (exh. cat.), New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993, pp.62-63.

  6. 'Painting Platform. Julie Mehretu in conversation with Lauri Firstenberg', Flash Art, November/December 2002. All quotes from Mehretu are from the same source.

  7. Paula J. Massood, Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.

  8. P. Gilroy, op. cit., pp.12-14.

  9. Thelma Golden, 'What's White?', 1993 Biennial Exhibition, op. cit., p.35.

  10. H. Bhabha, op. cit., p.65.

  11. Kwame Anthony Appiah, 'The Postcolonial and the Postmodern', In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, pp.140-41.

  12. Fredric Jameson, Syntax of History, vol.2 of The Ideologies of Theory: Essays, 1971-1986, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988, pp.195-96.

  13. K.A. Appiah, op. cit., p.142.

  14. Ibid., pp.142-43.

  15. Ibid., p.149.

  16. P. Gilroy, op. cit., p.2.

  17. Ibid., p.4.

  18. Ibid., pp.5-6.

  19. Okwui Enwezor, 'Black Box', Documenta 11 (exh. cat.), Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2002, p.45.

  20. Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005, p.xv.