LOS ANGELES — Admittedly, Awol Erizku is perhaps best known for his smug photo of a pregnant Beyoncé, which in 2017 was the most liked post in Instagram history. And Erizku has taken many other memorable celebrity images, including young groundbreaking poet Amanda Gorman for the cover of Time and “Black Panther” actor Michael B. Jordan for GQ.
But in a recent interview at his sprawling studio in downtown Los Angeles, Erizku, 33 – wearing Doc Martin boots on his feet and a floppy hat over his dreadlocks, as Ethiopian pianist Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou played on the speakers – said he considers himself an artist first, one who also works in painting, sculpture and video installation.
“It’s something I’m adamant about,” he said. “I am not a photographer for hire.”
The desire to bring Erizku’s work to the attention of the wider art world is part of what fueled Gagosian director and curator Antwaun Sargent’s desire to give him the Park Avenue space. of the gallery for an exhibition on March 10.
“Awol is one of the black avant-garde photographers who says that limits don’t apply to the realities or the conditions in which we make images,” Sargent said. “It’s a refreshing perspective to have, especially when it comes to photography’s overwhelmingly white history.”
“How are we as an art world to ignore this?” Sargent continued. “You have photographers in Lagos, London, Johannesburg, New York and Los Angeles who create images that defy easy categorization and emphasize black desire, black beauty and black community. For me, it is significant. »
Erizku’s exhibition, ‘Memories of a Lost Sphinx’, features six photographs of light boxes in a black-painted interior with a mixed-media sculpture that reimagines the Great Sphinx of Giza as an amalgamation of Egyptian, Greek, and Egyptian influences. and Asians. There’s also a golden disco ball, “Nefertiti” – Miles Davis,” in the form of the Egyptian queen.
“I deconstruct the mythological components that make up the Sphinx,” Erizku said. “It’s important to me to create confident, powerful and downright regal images of black people.”
Sargent has known Erizku since interviewing him for Complex magazine about his “The Only Way Is Up” exhibit in 2014. Erizku said he felt an immediate comfort with him, feeling “for the first times, I didn’t have to explain the work”.
Born in Ethiopia and raised in the South Bronx – Erizku describes himself as “projects” – he got into trouble in middle school and said, “Art was the only way out for me”.
A draftsman and doodler, he went to the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, started out doing medical illustrations and took a camera to Cooper Union, where in 2010 he earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts.
During her third year at Cooper Union, Erizku riffed on Vermeer’s “Girl With the Pearl Earring,” creating the “Girl With the Bamboo Earring” photograph, featuring a black woman in a large shaped earring. of Hearts, which caught the public eye (one edition sold at Phillips Auction House in 2017 for $52,500).
From there he went to Yale, where he studied with photographer Gregory Crewdson and earned his MFA in 2014. Erizku was particularly inspired by the work of artists like Richard Prince, Jeff Wall, Roe Ethridge, Marcel Duchamp and David Hammons – “the ones who worked outside the margins,” he said.
But early on, he mastered the world of social media by treating Instagram like his gallery, selectively opening up his feed to the public at set times.
In 2012, he took part in a collective exhibition at the Flag Art Foundation and then had two personal exhibitions at the now closed Hasted Kraeutler gallery in Chelsea before joining Ben Brown in London and Hong Kong and then the Night Gallery in Los Angeles. It is currently not represented.
“The artwork has aesthetic appeal – you want to look at it,” said collector Glenn Fuhrman, Flag founder and longtime supporter of Erizku’s artwork. “But there’s always a lot more going on below the surface.”
Some members of the art world have already noticed this. Public Art Fund, in 2017, showed Erizku’s work on Wi-Fi kiosks in the five boroughs as part of the “Commercial Break” exhibition.
In 2019, curator Allison M. Glenn included Erizku on her “Small Talk” show at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark. “The power of her practice is that she has multi-point accessibility for many different people,” Glenn mentioned. “It takes recognizable symbols and moves them around. It is the history of art. That was the paint job.
Last year, Public Art Fund featured 13 of Erizku’s photographs on bus shelters across New York and Chicago in an exhibition called “New Visions for Iris” which included a still life dealing with mass incarceration and a portrait by Michael Brown Sr.
“It’s part of a conversation about art history,” said Daniel S. Palmer, curator of the fund, “from Old Masters to contemporary imagery of our current moment.”
The Gagosian exhibit is significant, Sargent said, in part because it expands the notion of what black art can be at a time when black portraiture has become the rage of the market.
“The art world has flattened the ways Blackness works,” Sargent said. “Doing exhibitions like this helps expand beyond an overemphasis on figurative painting,” though he noted that figurative work is valid.
He added that it was a way to carry on a conversation “beyond some of the fashionable black-figure notions”.
Sargent pointed to the long-awaited recognition of black photographers such as Anthony Barboza as well as Ming Smith and the 1960s band Kamoinge, recently featured at the Whitney. “We have to use every strategy to make sure our images are seen and appreciated,” he said, “because frankly the art world didn’t care.”
Presenting Erizku in the Gagosian Park & 75 space — a storefront visible from the street — gives the exhibition significant accessibility. “With more black artists than ever, there is still a problem with museums and galleries attracting these audiences to see the work of members of their community,” he said. “There are a lot of barriers to getting into the art world.”
Erizku often incorporates wildlife into his images – he has photographed hip-hop star Nipsey Hussle with a horse, Michael B. Jordan with a hawk and a wolf; Gorman with a bird (now chirping in a cage near Erizku’s studio window). He said he was inspired early on by Joseph Beuys’ radical 1974 performance – ‘I love America and America loves me’ – in which the German artist spent a week in his dealer’s gallery , fenced with a live coyote.
Erizku’s labor costs are low for a major gallery owner like Gagosian, with pieces selling for between $40,000 and $60,000. But Sargent said it was essential for top-notch galleries to showcase fresh perspectives. “If we are honest in saying that we want to ensure that all voices are represented in the art world, we seriously need to provide platforms for artists who think in ways that deviate from traditional notions around the art world. creating images,” Sargent said.
To some extent, Erizku has bypassed the Guardians, considering he’s been presenting his own shows on social media for years. His main interest, said the artist, is to be able to communicate and elevate black images, whether it’s actress Viola Davis, African masks, nail salon hands, Ethiopian sex workers or basketball player Kevin Durant.
“I want to be remembered for black imagination,” Erizku said, “for pushing the boundaries of black art.”
Awol Erizku: Memories of a Lost Sphinx
March 10-April 16, Gagosian Park & 75, 821 Park Avenue, Manhattan. 212-796-1228; gagosian.com.