Before the Grammy’s this past Sunday, Beyoncé announced her second pregnancy (with twins) via Instagram. She later revealed several more photos, exposing more of the overgrown floral scene. It was quickly confirmed that the artist behind these photos was Awol Erizku.
Since the release of the baby announcement heard ‘round the world, Erizku has shied away from the spotlight preferring to let his work speak for itself. It’s the most liked photograph on Instagram, ever, so there isn’t much left to say. But the humble artist is so much more than just the photographer behind the Queen Bee’s exciting news. Awol Erizku’s long body of work is shocking, timely and deserving of the wide praise it’s receiving, especially in the face of the exclusionary political atmosphere swirling around the world.
Beyonce looked the ethereal part of Mother Earth, surrounded by flowers and greenery. In a behind-the-scenes candid shot released on her website, Beyonce.com, it appears she was sitting on top of an Awol Erizku sculptural Porche readymade that was installed last January at the artist’s solo exhibition Bad II The Bone at Night Gallery. At the time, the gallery said of his work:
Erizku’s colorful and tactile assemblages are formal investigations on this specific urban environment, and the interplay of socially-charged markings and climate that contribute to the look of the city. Growing up in the Bronx, Erizku lived in a housing complex overlooking a basketball court frequented by local gangs. Through that upbringing he developed a sensitivity to the social and political implications of markings found on the street, and a fascination with the intertwining of formal and political elements in visual culture. In his work, ingredients taken from street art, gang turf markings, and day-to-day urban life are combined to respond to current events, often subtly and satirically referencing art history.
The surfaces of Erizku’s paintings are built up with casually-scrawled words and numbers, multiple layers of color, and “buffing”—the method of blocking out existing spray paint on the street. Creating layers of house paint and spray paint, Erizku references turf markings from his current neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles. He works at an architectural scale—the experience of viewing his paintings parallels an encounter with the side of a building that has been repeatedly re-painted. The recurring political motifs and assertive scale of Erizku’s work are underscored by the urgency of his titles. Say It Here, While It’s Safe and Black Americans Killed by Police in 2014 Outnumbered Those Who Died on 9/11 are two examples of how Erizku’s work seeks to catalyze social engagement and appeal directly to the viewer’s political awareness.
Erizku was born in Ethiopia, raised in the South Bronx, earning a Yale MFA via Cooper Union undergrad and working with photographers like David LaChapelle. Much like Beyonce herself, Erizku has embraced the power of his voice on social media. He cleverly operated his own Instagram account like gallery, keeping it private except for most standard gallery hours when it “opened to the public”. His recent art show at Nina Johnson gallery, I Was Going To Call It Your Name But You Didn’t Let Me, was a series of ubiquitous imagery, though slightly altered in each painting.
The installation was set to music playing throughout the gallery. Erizku has sudden fame through his collaboration with a globally recognized musician seems destined. He’s has tirelessly worked in various mediums to make his art universal, to integrate black art into the contemporary and historical art world. He wants to have artistic dialogue devoid of the connotation of “black art”. He told Vulture, “There’s an aspect in my work that I want to be universal. I never go into my studio and say, ‘Well, this is strictly for this group, and I don’t want this group to get it.’
Art that has been classified as historically significant has generally underrepresented minorities. Erizku has challenged our experience of viewing Old Masters and other classic paintings. As he once said, “There are not that many colored people in the galleries that I went to [growing up] or the museums that I went to. I was just like, when I become an artist I have to put my two cents in this world.” Girl With The Bamboo Earring recreates Vermeer’s famous portrait, Girl With The Pearl Earring with a photographic portrait of a contemporary black woman and her jewelry.
The Carter Family has long supported Erizku’s work. In his 2014 show, The Only Way is Up, he referenced Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby” lyrics to name a sculpture referring to Donald Judd’s Stacks. Erizku sculptural re-build of Judd’s minimalist work consisted of basketball hoops placed in the same ladder formation as Judd’s iron boxes. The xxx work was aptly titled, Oh, what a feeling, Fuck it, I want a Billion. Alongside this art show, Erizku dropped a mixtape. He does this with most of his exhibitions, a contemporary, quotidienne way to announce or invite people to his art show. The mix tape features hip hop songs, including Beyonce, and reaches into the critical art world with audio from excerpts from Kerry James Marshall’s lecture at the National Art Gallery. (The American artist just had a retrospective of his works at Met Beurer.)
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In the Beyonce photos that broke Instagram like buttons across the world, Erizku is boldly announcing a new era, positioning one of the most powerful black woman on the globe in an iconic position traditionally reserved by the art world for white women. Yes, Beyonce is a Venus for the Black Diaspora;. Yes, it speaks to Erizku’s quiet genius to use as his muse a female musician who works relentlessly to give a voice to people of color.
Awol Erizku as that example will lead us to expanding our eyes for those artists who are having a real conversation with our society and culture, working for our improved humanity. As he said in his own words “How can I put my thoughts in without being just another voice that’s just saying ‘Black Lives Matter,’ hashtag this, hashtag that, how can I reach deep into someone and make them understand the pain that a lot of people are feeling…. as I grow as an artist, I’m not going to be answering questions as much as challenging ideas and preconceived notions and just [letting] the audience interpret what they want to. There have been a few people that have come up to me like, ‘Yo, I saw XYZ crying,’ or they themselves were crying and they were touched. That is so powerful. I wasn’t trying to do that intentionally, but the fact that it resonated means I got my point across.”