Art dealers have always wanted to look edgy and exotic, yet how instantly today their powerful branding assimilates subversion into conceptual formulae. That paradox is embodied in the current holy grail of our richest private galleries – non-white artists who make convincing, monumental work referencing global political tensions, bringing a frisson of threat into the sanitised white cube of western art market display.
Opened last week at White Cube, Bermondsey, Ethiopian-born Julie Mehretu’s first London show fills Jay Jopling’s South Galleries plus the 9m x 9m x 9m space, and centres on the enormous “Mogamma: A Painting in Four Parts”, completed after the Arab spring revolutions. Densely layered, these canvases combine drawing, abstract gestures, blocks and arcs of bold acrylic colour with hundreds of images taken from different urban squares that have been nodes of upheaval and revolution. Their complex visual narratives demand to be read as metaphors for how architecture and geography, Mehretu says, “reflect the machinations of politics … spaces of power, ideas of power”, and build social identity. Al-Mogamma is the name of a government building in Cairo’s Tahrir Square; the word mogamma means “collective” in Arabic, and traditionally refers to a multi-faith place that has a mosque, synagogue and church.
Across town, at Hauser & Wirth, Trade Routes is a group show about global cultural exchange, featuring expected names – Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher – and fresh talent from several continents. The gallery’s neo-classical Piccadilly space is transformed into a conceptual version of a Middle East bazaar: Bettina Pousttchi’s photographic installation of Islamic architectural ornamentation is applied directly to the gallery’s windows, Rachid Koraïchi’s tapestries covered in Arab calligraphy hang from the ceiling, Monir Farmanfarmaian’s large-scale mirror mosaics – “Installation of Seven Elements” – refract light on all sides, while, in the “American Gallery”, Adel Abidin’s video of sultry blondes serenading us with Arab ballads praising Saddam Hussein satirises cultural expectations on all sides.