I first saw Awol Erizku’s work in Los Angeles. He relocated there after completing his MFA at Yale in 2014. The exhibition featured many of his motifs, aesthetic and political, that he has translated into photographs, installations and sculptural assemblages. The centrepiece was a work called Ask the Dust, a collaboration with the floral designer Sarah Lineberger. It comprised a salvaged tomato-red Porsche 914, flowers bursting out of its hood and trunk. It gave me a spectacular sense of joy.
“It is intimate and universal. No-one in our times has made motherhood look so epic”
At this point, Erizku, then twenty-seven, was definitely making art that was “Instagrammable”—conscious of bright pop colours and flat still life compositions—but with substance, aware of art history and its limitations, and concerned with creating his own vision, living as a black muslim man in America today. Politics are never far from the appealing surfaces of his work. In 2016, Erizku was starting his journey in the art world—Ask the Dust was being shown at a pop-up space run by Night Gallery; he’d been at group shows at the FLAG Art Foundation and at Ben Brown Fine Arts in London (the gallery now represent him). He’d cast his sister in his riff on Vermeer: Girl with a Bamboo Earring. He’d shot for Vogue and the New Yorker. But to most, he was still unknown.
No-one at this point in their career could expect to get a call from Beyoncé—and especially not to capture her at one of her most monumental moments, as she prepared to announce to the world her pregnancy with twins. When the first photograph from the shoot was released on 1 February, 2017, the Internet (understandably) imploded. With more than eleven million likes, it is now one of the defining pictures of one of the world’s most famous stars. Referencing European painters like Botticelli, Beyonce is reimagined as Erizku’s Madonna; framed by flowers, wholesome, natural and sexy—she embodies the matriarch ideal. It is intimate and universal. No-one in our times has made motherhood look so epic.
“With more than eleven million likes, it is now one of the defining pictures of one of the world’s most famous stars”
The picture became so famous—leading to countless copies—that it has perhaps eclipsed Erizku’s other work since. Undoubtedly it’s brought him infinite opportunities, not least financial—but he’s reluctant now to revisit the image. It points to a wider problem when artists collaborate with celebrities, like a band with a smash-hit song, the audience wants to you play it again and again. His current exhibition in the Bronx, where the artist grew up, looks inwards and quietly questions how artists are pigeon-holed in different ways, whether it’s because of where they come from or what they do.
Doing such a high profile work catapulted Erizku into the mainstream conscience, but he’s still got ambitions of his own. He’s continued to work quietly in LA. As he told Rolling Stone back in 2017, “I’d like to leave this Earth better than I found it. That’s just the journey I’m on, so I’m just gonna try to make the best art that I can with the time given, and try to up that every step of the way.”
Awol Erizku, Smokes of Anomy
Until 29 June at 1338 Franklin Avenue, #1C, Bronx, NY 10456VISIT WEBSITE