Up and Coming: In Ethiopian Hotel Rooms, Awol Erizku Puts the Black Figure on a Pedestal

  • Photo by Megan McIsaac for Artsy.

In 2013, artist Awol Erizku traveled to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to explore the nation of his parents’ birth. There, with the help of new acquaintances—namely, translators and pimps—he embarked on a photographic series of nude sex workers posing on the loudly printed bedsheets of hotels throughout the city. The female subjects assume familiar poses, reminiscent of Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque (1814) and Manet’s Olympia (1863), but where these late French painters once placed white reclining nudes, Erizku places black bodies spanning all body types and hairstyles. In contrast to pale Olympia, the warmth of their skin tones electrifies the saturated colors of these monochrome hotel rooms, and their expressions of vulnerability bring new life to their 19th-century counterparts.

  • Photos by Megan McIsaac for Artsy.

“Some of them are wearing their underwear, and it was that part, that last bit of dignity that I couldn’t ask for them to give up,” the 27-year-old artist explains in the loft that doubles as his studio, tucked into an industrial corner of downtown L.A.’s fashion district. “I think for them, as much as they want to make money, there’s also this pride that comes with being African, or Ethiopian, or whatever it is, that these women aren’t willing to let go. There was no price on that.”

  • Installation view of “Awol Erizku: New Flower /Images of the Reclining Venus” at The FLAG Art Foundation. 

Two years later, these images are on view in “New Flower | Images of the Reclining Venus,” Erizku’s new solo exhibition at New York’s FLAG Art Foundation that challenges art history’s overwhelming whiteness and eurocentricity. The insertion of black figures into canonical works by the likes of Ingres, Manet, Duchamp, and other white men has become a central theme of the young artist’s work since the 2010 debut of his Girl With a Bamboo Earring—a photograph that replaced the white subject of Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring (c. 1665) with a black one, and the pearl for a heart-shaped hoop, while striving to retain the cinematic effects of Vermeer’s sublime use of light.

“A woman of color as a reclining Venus is something that I haven’t seen much,” Erizku says. Historically, he says, with rare exceptions like the work of fellow artists Renee Cox and Mickalene Thomas, the status quo has relegated black women to the background, if not ignored them entirely. “This is about that maid that was offering the flower to the prostitute in the Manet painting. It’s taking that black figure and putting her on a pedestal.”

  • Photo by Megan McIsaac for Artsy.

Across photography, sculpture, painting, and film, Erizku’s transgressions of the traditional boundaries of media and culture reflect the many facets of his own artistic formation. Although he has been based in L.A. for a little under a year, his roots are firmly planted in New York; he was born in the South Bronx and attended Cooper Union for his undergraduate studies. In those early days, he was interning for David LaChapelle and often spotted around town hanging out with his camera and the hip hop group A$AP Mob. 

  • Photos by Megan McIsaac for Artsy.

Two years after graduating, Erizku went on to Yale’s MFA program, seeking new directions for his work. It was there, at his final crit, in front of a panel that included Richard PrinceLaurie SimmonsGregory Crewdson, and other “white, over-40-years-of-age artists that basically represent Yale School of Art,” that he first showed the contents of “New Flower.” As they discussed the pieces, he played an excerpt of a Kerry James Marshall lecture from the National Gallery of Art over a Rick Ross instrumental: “If I’m walking through a gallery and I see images of white figures, European paintings from the 14th century all the way to the present, and I don’t see any images of black people, I don’t veer out of my pathway to go and take a look at anything unless some other aspect of it, like a color or something like that, appeals to me.”

“The message is so clear,” says Erizku. “It’s what I’m going through as a young artist.”

  • Photo by Megan McIsaac for Artsy.

In re-contextualizing the iconography of so-called high culture with pop culture, art history with hip hop, he creates work so layered with disparate references that they take on different meanings with each audience. His application of Jay-Z lyrics to an artwork in dialogue with Donald Judd, for example, was likely lost on many art critics. In a series of sculptural forms taking cues from Duchamp readymades for “The Only Way Is Up” at Hasted Kraeutler in 2014, Erizku debuted Oh, what a feeling. Aw, fuck it, I want a trillion, a column of seven basketball hoops with gold-plated chain nets that takes its title from a line out of Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby.” “When I made this piece, I was thinking about Donald Judd with the “Stack” series and also David Hammons, obviously,” Erizku explains, thumbing through the slideshow on his computer. “For me, this became this metaphor. Why seven hoops and not 10? Well, seven is a lucky number, and I always look at the game of art much like the game of basketball, where it’s half luck, half talent.” The resulting piece is one loaded with overtly academic references and material metaphors for black culture, and finished with a sheen of the self-reflection of a young man fresh out of art school.

In L.A., Erizku continues to seek new collaborators and sources of inspiration, and to broaden his artistic lexicon in the face of critics too eager to classify his practice. “I love Kehinde and I love his work,” he says, referring to early comparisons with his fellow Yale MFA graduate Kehinde Wiley, “but people just like to jump on things so early.” In short, he has so much left to show. Following a recent film premiere at MoMA in May, his next project is the Duchamp Detox Clinic, a “roaming artists’ space” for which he’s creating new assemblages and two-sided, large-scale paintings. (Its opening date is yet to be determined.) Furthering the multimedia aspect of his practice, for “New Flower,” he and local DJ SOSUPERSAM have created a soundtrack that includes further Marshall remixes, with Drake, the Weeknd, and Young Thug. The Marshall lecture continues, “When you’re not represented there, that is a problem”—one Erizku hopes to rectify.

  • Photo by Megan McIsaac for Artsy.

Janelle Zara

New Flower | Images of the Reclining Venus” is on view at FLAG Art Foundation, New York, Sep. 17–Dec. 12, 2015.

Follow FLAG Art Foundation on Artsy.

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