Julie Mehretu Breaks Auction Record for African-Born Artist at Sotheby’s

Mehretu painted Walkers With the Dawn and Morningit as part of an exhibition created in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and its impact on the US city of New Orleans.

Julie Mehretu, the Ethiopian-born-American artist, has secured her place in history by setting a new auction record for an African-born artist. Her work Walkers with the Dawn and Morning (2008) sold for $10.38m (with fees) at Sotheby’s Now Evening Auction in New York. Mehretu’s abstract painting takes its name from a 1920s Langston Hughes poem. Mehretu painted Walkers With the Dawn and Morning as part of an exhibition created in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and its impact on the US city of New Orleans.

This achievement eclipses the record of South African artist Marlene Dumas, whose 1995 piece “The Visitor” sold for £3.17 million ($6.33 million) at Sotheby’s London. Mehretu, 52, was born in Ethiopia and moved with her family to the US in 1977 at a time of political unrest. Her success contributes to a pattern where women predominantly generate top prices for African artists at auction. South African artist Irma Stern and Nigerian-American artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby are joining her in this esteemed tier.

The surge of interest in contemporary African art, evidenced by a $15 million year-on-year increase in spending on work by African-born artists (totalling $63 million in 2022, according to ArtPrice), has prompted concerns about speculation, flipping, and potential price corrections. However, Mehretu’s market remains robust, as Hannah O’Leary, head of Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary African art department, emphasized the artist’s unwavering following.

Mehretu painted Walkers With the Dawn and Morningit as part of an exhibition created in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and its impact on the US city of New Orleans.
Mehretu painted Walkers With the Dawn and Morning was created in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and its impact on the US city of New Orleans. Photo Sotheby’s

While the last five years witnessed a surge in interest in figurative painting, O’Leary suggests a shift towards a more discerning phase. Collectors are increasingly drawn to mature artists such as Ouattara Watts and Seni Awa Camara, as well as modernists like Ben Enwonwu and Gerard Sekoto. Establishing new contemporary art museums on the African continent, including Zeitz MOCAA and the Norval Foundation, and active acquisitions by Western institutions like the Tate and the Pompidou further fuel this evolving landscape.

Julie Mehretu’s journey from Addis Ababa to Michigan and eventually settling in New York reflects a narrative intertwined with her Ethiopian and Jewish heritage. The recent record-breaking sale, which saw a 227% increase from its previous auction in 2015, underscores Mehretu’s enduring impact and the continued appreciation for her oeuvre.

In a significant milestone, Mehretu’s work entered six figures at the infamous Lehman Brothers sale in 2010, marking a pivotal moment in her trajectory as a prominent figure in the contemporary art scene.

Julie Mehretu: Mapping the Complexity of Identity and Space

Julie Mehretu, born on October 16, 1970, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is a prominent figure in contemporary art, celebrated for her intricate and thought-provoking works that transcend conventional boundaries. Mehretu’s artistic journey unfolds against diverse cultural influences and a relentless exploration of identity, space, and societal dynamics.

Raised in Addis Ababa, Mehretu’s early years were marked by a blend of Ethiopian and Jewish heritage. During her childhood, her family’s relocation to Michigan in the American Midwest laid the foundation for her multicultural identity. This early exposure to diverse environments would later find resonance in the complexity of her artistic expressions.

Mehretu’s formal art education began at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1992. Subsequently, she pursued her Master’s degree in Fine Arts at the Rhode Island School of Design, graduating in 1997. During these formative years, she played a crucial role in shaping her artistic vision, setting the stage for exploring themes central to her oeuvre.

Known for her distinctive style, Mehretu’s art defies easy categorisation. Her works are characterised by intricate layers of geometric forms, lines, and abstract shapes that converge to create visually immersive compositions. Through a meticulous process that involves layering and erasure, Mehretu constructs narratives that delve into the complexities of global issues, cultural identity, and the interplay between personal and societal spaces.

One of Mehretu’s notable breakthroughs came in the early 2000s when her art gained widespread recognition. The monumental scale of her creations, coupled with their intellectual depth, garnered international acclaim. In 2007, she was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, a testament to her innovative contributions to contemporary art.

Mehretu’s pieces often evoke a sense of movement and dynamism, reflecting the interconnectedness of individuals within a broader social and geopolitical context. Her works act as visual maps, inviting viewers to navigate the layers of meaning embedded within each canvas.

Over the years, Mehretu’s art has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions at renowned institutions and galleries worldwide. Her ability to engage with themes of displacement, migration, and the evolving nature of urban landscapes has established her as a leading voice in the discourse on contemporary art.

In addition to her artistic achievements, Mehretu’s influence extends to academia, where she has contributed through lectures and engagements with educational institutions. Her impact on the art world is not only measured by the critical acclaim of her work but also by the profound conversations it sparks about identity, globalization, and the evolving nature of artistic expression.

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