Awol Erizku / Vernacular Crossing

by Dolores Pulella

Born in 1988, Awol Erizku is an American transmedia artist of Ethiopian descent who grew up in the Bronx in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. In recent years he gained notoriety especially in relation to his photographs that were published on Instagram in 2017 by the singer Beyoncé (reaching 8 million likes), but his work should be investigated far beyond this episode.

Erizku first studied at the Cooper Union University in New York until 2010 when he continued his education studying Visual Arts at the Yale University (2014). Since his time in New York City he has collaborated with artists such as Lorna Simpson, Margaret Morton, Christine Osinski, and David LaChapelle, whose influence can be seen in the much-talked-about photos of the famous American pop star.

Since 2009 Erizku started, through photography, an operation of iconographic reappropriation of the masterpieces of the great masters of the history of art between Renaissance and Baroque, with an eye for a strictly personal relationship with his own African heritage. With his historical rewriting Erizku does not want to limit the expression of a specific ethnic group to nor he wants to become its spokesperson, but rather he wants to document the culture to which he feels he belongs. The series of photographs in which the artist is insipred by the great masterpieces of art begins with “Girl with a bamboo earring”, which recalls “The girl with a Pearl Earring” (1665-1666) by Jan Vermeer, a painting also known by the title of “Girl with a turban”. The subject of Erizku’s photograph is a contemporary black woman who instead of the pearl wears a bamboo earring. The same concept is performed with Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” (1483-1485). Leonardo’s “Lady with an Ermine” (1488-1490) becomes a woman who holds a pit bull terrier in her arms. The series continues with the “sick Bacchus” (1593-1594) by Caravaggio, and a progression of historical and artistic topoi such as “the Madonna and Child” and the lying Venuses, including one with Beyoncé herself, the singer being the subject of several of the artist’s shots.

Some of these works were presented to the public in Erizku’s first solo show called “Black and Gold” held at the Hasted-Kraeutler Gallery in New York in 2012. From this moment on, he was on the rise and the second solo show arrived in 2014, a year in which the artist affirms his ability to work with different expressive media as well as photography, putting together different techniques and materials in order to reduce the distance between “High Art” and “Street Art”. The title of the exhibition “The only way is up”, is taken from a Quincy Jones album that Erizku’s parents used to listen to, but which gives the audience different levels of interpretation, like the exhibition itself, which presents a mix of various references to Hip-Hop culture, as well as Duchamp, Donald Judd and David Hammons.

On the 17th of May 2015, Erizku’s works are the protagonists of the exhibition-event “Serendipity” at the MoMA PS1 in collaboration with PopRally, where videos and photographs are shown. The photographs in particular represent a sort of still life, composed of contemporary objects and flowers, in which there are allusions to the Egyptian iconographic culture and especially to the sculptural busts of Queen Nefertiti. In an interview, to explain this predominant presence, the artist recalled an episode occurred over the course of his trip to Ethiopia: during a stop in Egypt, when he entered a pyramid he felt a visceral feeling and he understood that that land was really important for him.

In order to explain the process that saw the birth of another personal exhibition, his first in Europe, Erizku again recalled a feeling he had during a specific moment, that is when he heard Trump speak for the first time about the need to build a border, a wall to avoid Mexicans entering in the United States. It was at that point, he says, that he felt the need to do something, to express his disappointment as an American citizen who lives in California and has Mexican friends. From this idea he conceived the project “Make America Great Again”, the exhibition was held during the spring of 2017 at the Ben Brown Gallery in London, which, following the motto of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, could not fail to arouse a certain uproar, which today Erizku tends to play down, as he did for Beyoncé’s maternity photographs. He does not want to be remembered in relation to these two episodes that have attracted media attention, this is not the purpose of his work, which instead aims to give voice to his cultural background.

In 2018 Forbes magazine included Awol Erizku in the “30 Under 30” list as one of the most influential artists, and in 2020 his photographs will be exhibited as part of the first New York edition of the famous international photographic art fair Paris Photo.

Dolores Pulella

All images Awol Erizku studio © Courtesy of the artist