Awol Erizku: "Beauty is a universal language"

05/24/2017 09:41 am ET Updated May 29, 2017
Awol Erizku. Ben Brown Gallery. Photo Elena Cué

When US artist of Ethiopian origin Awol Erizku (1988) was growing up in the Bronx, neither the Art History books he studied nor the museums and galleries he visited contemplated black identity, whose differentiation would have depicted a distorted reality. Erizku studied art at Cooper Union in New York, and went on to complete an MFA at Yale. Sculpture, photography, painting and video installation are his way of living and being in the world. Erizku uses visual arts and music to help ensure that art history no longer overlooks the importance of the African aesthetic and culture. To do this, he recontextualises and reinterprets iconic works by some of the great masters, like Botticelli, Caravaggio or Vermeer, replacing the figures with models from his autochthonous culture.

We met at the London gallery of Ben Brown, where Erizku's paintings are being shown for the first time in Europe. The artist suggests we talk as we make our way around the exhibition.

Does this exhibition “Make America Great Again” aim to use your art as a denunciation?

The conversation about this exhibition was happening in my studio a year and a half before Trump got elected. I was working on this piece, the first one for the show, and as he came to power my pieces got more and more complex. I was working on each one separately, exploring materials and building on the vernacular style I’ve always used. The exhibition is not the beginning or the end. It’s the continuation of something I’d already done in the past and a glimpse into how my work will evolve in future. It’s had less to do with Donald Trump that with the natural evolution of my work. The elements in the work found inspiration in that moment, his rise to power. Everything he stands against looks a lot like me, my race, the community I belong to, so it felt natural to fight back.

The black panther, which appears in a number of your paintings, is the logo of the revolutionary Black Panther party. Why did you decide to use this powerful logo in many of your paintings?

In America it has a very visceral power for those that identify with it. We see it in the context of the civil rights movement, but never in this fresh way that allows you to think about it differently. For me, having the influence to show this image and make it circulate, is what constitutes my power as an artist to give it more power. This is something that also helps combat what Trump’s trying to do: to write off people who he doesn’t think make America great.

Awol Erizku. Photo:Elena Cué

And what part of this party’s ideology do you wish to appropriate by using this logo?

I’m interested the sense of unity, of community with its strong bonds for sticking together. I think there’s strength in numbers. It’s about fighting back against someone who brings so much negativity to the community. I also want to inspire my generation to look back to the past to find what was successful in this movement and to apply those methods to current political movements such as black lives matter.

Do you feel comfortable explaining your work?

I felt the need to explain this work because it’s too new. This may be my last interview. If I don’t, it may be misinterpreted. A lot of the ideas may be written off because people don’t understand them. These old critics may not know how to even talk about these works, so it’s up to the artist to do that work as well. But I think I’ve done enough by now to decode some things, and hopefully by the next show people catch on, know what it means and can read the work better.

An example is Awol Erizku: New Flower. Images of Reclining Venus which you presented in the FLAG Art Foundation. This group of photographs were taken in Addis Abeba of a series of African women in the characteristic positions of the Venuses and odalisques of western art. What was your aim in this work?

I grew up studying western art, especially European art. That’s what you learn in school. And I always felt like I’d never seen enough, say, eastern art to balance it out, to know what people of my heritage did. To a large extent this history has been expropriated and, in a sense, “whitewashed” in text books. My mission now is to go back and find moments in history where a certain civilization has borrowed from African or Egyptian culture. Picasso, for example, borrowed so much from African culture and from its masks. During my childhood and adolescence I saw things in different contexts. If Picasso did it, it’s fine art, the highest form of art; but when you see an African mask outside of the Whitney, or even when you see it in a museum behind a vitrine, it’s labelled “primitive art” …. I think a lot of younger curators are now well aware of that and they’re addressing these issues. I’m doing my part as an artist by talking about it and hopefully educating people who didn’t know about that.

New Flower: © Awol Erizku / courtesy of The FLAG Art Foundation

What was it like being a child in the USA with African and Muslim origins?

I didn’t grow up in the suburbs. I grew up in the projects, and so all the stereotypes associated with those places were the things that I experienced, such as seeing the police outside my house every day, seeing people getting shot. One of the many things I remember is what happened when me and my sister were going to school. Someone was going after the drug dealers that lived on the basement floor, someone wanted them dead. As we came down we saw the whole lobby destroyed by fire, blacked out, with bullet holes in the door and I remember thinking it was the same shit we saw in the movies. When you grow up seeing these things, you think about what they mean.

And how did you experience 9/11?

As a boy I used to go to the mosque for school, and so did my sister. But after the attack we couldn’t go any more because of how Muslims were treated in America. It didn’t matter where you were, the moment you identified yourself as a Muslim it made things difficult. I was about 15 or 16 at the time and all those things had an impact and helped shape me into the artist I am now. I think one of my many duties as an artist is not just to educate but also to find a way to have these conversations and show people that religion and race and all these topics are more complex, they can’t be summarised in a couple of paragraphs. That’s something I try to do with my work.

Before completing your Masters in Fine Arts at Yale you had already displayed your work in a gallery. How does such an early success affect an artist?

That’s a very good question. I remember all the attention I got when I was about 22, how exciting it was that people were buying my work. Granted, it was cheap, but still. I realised very early on that people were interested in my work but also ready to jump at the opportunity to categorise me and put me in a box. So going to the fine Arts school was a chance to put all my ideas together and take things to the next level; to wait for all the attention to die down a little then go out again with the right mindset. In the studio one day I may be working on a still life, then another day a sculpture.

Do you think it was a motivation to work harder to show that you can do other things?

When you’re in a certain position you want to prove – not just to yourself but also to others – that it’s not just a coincidence. That’s part of the process. I’m not going kick back and go to the beach.

Awol Erizku. Beyonce

In today’s world images, communication and social media have become overwhelmingly important. How did you feel about your artistic photo of Beyoncé pregnant becoming so popular? It’s a record on Instagram, 10 million likes!

Yes, your reaction is the same as how I feel. It’s insane. As an artist you’re not supposed to be content with those things; you acknowledge it, you embrace, soak it in, but then think “that’s great, what next?” You’ve got to keep moving. But yes, I’ve never had that kind of impact before.

It’s exceptional.

My feeling was that there was someone very powerful at play. Not to get too spiritual, but it’s one of those things that you can’t predict or plan for. When they happen I can’t get cocky about them. I feel fortunate and very blessed to have had that impact.

That photograph is very characteristic of your style

What’s crazy is that the photo is so famous now that when I look at it, it almost feels like I didn’t take it. I think of all the things I want to create during my time on this Earth, and I think I was fortunate to have taken that photograph.

When people arrive at your inaugurations you are usually playing music as a DJ. How important is music to your artwork?

It’s fundamental. There’s not a day that I don’t play music in the studio or in my car. There’s hardly a time in the day when I’m not listening to music. It fuels me. New music means new memories, new ideas. That’s why part of my studio practice involves spending over two hours a day finding new music so that when I’m in the studio I have something to play, something new to work off of. So yes, it’s crucial to my work.

Awol Erizku. Foto: Elena Cué

I’d like to talk about your film Serendipity in the MOMA, in which you destroy a bust of David with a mallet and replace it with Nefertiti. Could you tell me about that?

When I grew up we were told that the canon of beauty, idolised beauty, was a white male or female figure. Not seeing myself represented in that was really aggravating. Smashing a David sculpture in the MOMA and replacing it with Nefertiti is a political statement. There’s a lot of symbolism in that. After that, I thought of how to evolve that image. So I made works like this and the rest is history.

You seem very sensitive to beauty.

Beauty is a universal language. Even if you understand nothing in art, you can still see the beauty in it, and I use that as a device to get the viewer to engage with the work. That’s important.

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