Art has always acted as a way of communicating your emotion and identity which words cannot describe. Art has been expressed through many mediums that range from architecture, painting, and handicrafts to theater, dance, and photography. On a larger scale, art represents a place or community’s cultural and historical identity. Individual art was also hugely influenced by the cultural aspect of society in the olden days. However, due to the impact of globalization and the interconnectivity of human activity and information across time and space, Art in the 21st century has become increasingly personal.
“You’re not just this person who’s from your own specific experiences, but the collective experience of what makes you who you are because of time.” -Julie Mehretu
Julie Mehretu, born in 1970 in Ethiopia, examines our communal relationship with place and identity through abstract landscapes. Through a significant number of layers and widely anarchic mark-making Mehretu’s work contemplates the sociopolitical history of specific locations suggesting their architecture, geography, topography, autobiography, and iconography. The artist is known for her signature visual language of dots, lines, symbols, and shapes that suggest the urban experience one has when looking down from the bird’s-eye view. Mehretu invests hours in researching the materials relevant to the place, which includes maps, historical and contemporary signages, architecture, and historical images, which she then marks in her signature multi-layer abstract map. Her art indicates our experiences and examines the impact of migration, capitalism, and climate change and their consequences on the community and individuals.
The Empirical Construction, Istanbul, is Mehretu’s one noted work based on a single city at 10 x 15 feet. The painting seems to be erupting from a central point mimicking a dome structure, the famous Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sofia symbolizes the merging of cultural and historical influences of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. The painting consists of many layers forming complex, abstract images of the city’s history. The first layer includes detailed architectural drawings of the ancient city of Istanbul. Against the scene of its ancient past, the top layer consists of abstract marks of the modernity of the city in bright colors and graphic shapes. Similarly, flags, corporate logos, Arabic motifs, and calligraphy are also seen around the canvas. The layers explore the relationship of humans to the urban scenario of the city in which forces such as religion, history, and culture play a significant role in our lifestyle. Some critics also elucidate the painting as the city’s cry for help.
Photographer and ‘visual activist’ Zanele Muholi from South Africa, documents the lives of black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people in South Africa. The LGBTQIA+ community has to face discrimination and violence despite the equality assured by South Africa’s 1996 constitution. In a society where ‘corrective rape’ and honour-killing are very prominent, Muholi has to deal with the death of women whom she has photographed. Despite the risks, Muholi hopes to nullify the negativity attached to queer identity in African society through portraits that are democratic and representative of South Africa’s homosexual history.
In Muholi’s ongoing project, Faces and Phases, powerful portraits of around three hundred lesbians are shot in a plain or patterned background. In the portraits, each participant looks directly at the camera, challenging the viewers to maintain their gaze on the photographs. Muholi writes, “The viewer is invited to contemplate questions such as: What does an African lesbian look like? Is there a lesbian aesthetic, or do we express our gendered, racialised, and classed selves in rich and diverse ways?” Notwithstanding the violence and hate crimes experienced by black queer individuals in South Africa, Faces and Phases form a growing community archive. In “Visual Sexuality: Only Half the Picture (2004)”, the artist tries to be the voice of the LGBT community without ousting their anonymity. Similarly, her other projects such as “Innovative Women (2009)”, “Trans(figures) (2010–2011)”, “Of Love & Loss (2014)”, “Isibonelo/Evidence (2015)”, “Somnyama Ngonyama (“Hail the Dark Lioness”) (2012–present)” embraces the beauty of queer people of color.
Dale Lewis, born in 1980, is an exciting young voice in the British community. The London-based artist is hugely influenced by classical Renaissance composition combined with his personal encounters and sharp sight for everyday human drama. His works are inspired by a sense of depravity observed on the streets of East London and reflect the realities of contemporary urban life from his immediate surroundings: social immobility, gang violence, class divides, family life, 9-5 jobs, and others. His works are a satirical, good-natured but brutal sense of humor and treat violence and injustice as ‘dark comedies’. Dale Lewis in his interview, describes his art ‘Eurovision’ as very personal “I got very badly beaten up in Brighton, it was the night of the Eurovision song contest. By the time it finished, I was walking home with someone else and we got set up by around 15 people to the point of having to go to the hospital. So, this piece was about the night I got beaten up on the day of Eurovision, so every time the Eurovision contest is on, I think of that fight.”
Art in the 21st century has become a way of expressing themselves through the artist’s unique personal styles. Contemporary art depicts issues ranging from powerful and sensitive to humorous representation. Art today does not have a single point of view; they are often contradictory and open-minded and are often abstract and expressive forms and styles, mostly using vibrant colors and bold brushstrokes. Artists go beyond their comfort zone to produce art that rejects recognised values and traditional techniques.
Aperture. (2015, 4 21). Zanele Muholi’s Faces and phases. Retrieved from Aperture: https://aperture.org/editorial/magazine-zanele-muholis-faces-phases/
From the series Faces and Phases. (n.d.). Retrieved from ICA Boston: https://www.icaboston.org/art/zanele-muholi/series-faces-and-phases
GYULEVA, V. (2019, 9 28). Meet the artist who absorbs memories, and then presents it as a work. Retrieved from DATEAGLE ART: https://dateagle.art/dale-lewis-interview/
Kanter, D. (2020, 2 25). Julie Mehretu . Retrieved from The Art Story: https://www.theartstory.org/artist/mehretu-julie/#
ZANELE MUHOLI. (n.d.). Retrieved from Yancey Richardson : https://www.yanceyrichardson.com/artists/zanele-muholi