Julie Mehretu’s Mysterious, Menacing Eye of Ra Descends upon Art Basel’s Unlimited
In Ancient Egyptian mythology, Ra was the all-powerful Sun God, creator of everything. The Eye of Ra, in turn, was a source of heat and light, a destructive force, a symbol of protection. It is also the subject of Julie Mehretu’s large-scale wall drawing, one of several pieces at Art Basel from Carlier | Gebauer, a Berlin gallery focused on contemporary art.
Mehretu’s Eye of Ra (2004) was also chosen for Unlimited, Art Basel’s exhibition platform for artworks that transcend the traditional art fair setting. The Unlimited collection, selected this year by New York–based curator Gianni Jetzer, ranges from video projections to monumental sculptures to performance art. Mehretu’s massive, freestanding wall drawing fits right in.
Befitting the mythological symbol that inspired it, Eye of Ra is ominous. Dark clouds of smoke, exquisitely rendered in ink, seem to explode out of the void, while curving lines and arcs suggest forceful gusts of wind. There’s a subtle hint of color—fire, perhaps—amid the puffs of ashy smoke, adding to the uneasy feeling that you’re watching a catastrophe unfold.
It’s a stirring work, one that’s very much in line with Mehretu’s practice. The Ethiopian-born artist, who now lives and works in New York, is known for examining life in the contemporary world—both the one we are born into and the one we build. Even when they’re smaller in scale, her layered paintings and drawings can be read as powerful meditations on the states of humankind, the urban environment, and man’s relationship to nature.
Unlike many of her best-known works, Eye of Ra doesn’t contain references to architecture or the city—Mehretu once called her works “story maps of no location”—but it does evoke mystery and chaos, creating a mild sense of panic. Are we witnessing a natural event, like a volcano’s eruption, or something caused by man, like a bombing or arson? Which should we fear more?
Julie Mehretu’s work is on view at Art Basel, Jun. 13–19, 2016.