2017-04-10 17:59:03
Beyoncé’s Pregnancy Photographer Is Opening an ‘Anti-Trump’ Art Show

LOS ANGELES — By one measure of success, the 28-year-old artist Awol Erizku has possibly already peaked. In February he was revealed to be the photographer behind Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement, which quickly became the most popular Instagram post ever with over 10 million likes.

The image shows her kneeling in front of a floral wreath so large it looks like a throne.

But Mr. Erizku, who landed his first New York gallery show before he earned his M.F.A. from Yale, said that sort of record-breaking is not the attention he craves.

“It would have meant so much more if I had gotten recognition from the Whitney this year,” he said, speaking of the Whitney Biennial — “this thing that every great artist I admire has had.”

This is just one sign of how thoroughly the artist (pronounced AY-wol eh-RIZ-ku) operates within the traditional biennial-obsessed art world, even as he manages through social media and other platforms to reach a much broader public. He D.J.s here and there and makes mixtapes to play during gallery shows to “make my peers feel welcome.” At his Los Angeles studio recently, Mr. Erizku showed his new artwork while listening to Jim James, Future and Kodak Black.

That new work is heading to Europe for his first gallery exhibitions there: His defiantly anti-Trump show “Make America Great Again,” at Ben Brown Fine Arts in London, opens on April 20, and his more playful “Purple Reign,” at Stems in Brussels, opens a day later.

Inspired by Future’s mixtape of the same name, “Purple Reign” resulted from Mr. Erizku making a photograph, painting or sculpture in response to each song on the mixtape. The London show, on the other hand, is the artist’s most political statement to date, with gallery walls painted black and themes from earlier works — “my vernacular,” he calls it — reprised to pointed effect.

There are the basketball hoops, which he uses as stand-ins for the black male body. There are the numbers that reference Los Angeles gangs or slang, like a new corrugated steel piece spray-painted with the number “12” for police. “It’s a little Cy Twombly-ish, but if you go to any kid on the street they will know what it means,” Mr. Erizku said.

You can also see a Trump-era development: the image of a black panther, which he has lifted straight from the logo of the Black Panther Party, now roams throughout his work, climbing an American flag or clawing a bed of roses. It also appears atop the slogan “Make America Great Again” on a red baseball cap that the artist is selling “to have something affordable in the show.”

As for the use of the panther image, “I don’t want to take something so powerful and cheapen it by using it too much, like wallpaper. I want to give it more power,” said Mr. Erizku, who speaks rapidly, enthusiastically. “I’m putting it out there because I’m black and I’m Muslim and this is everything Trump has tried to stand against.”

“I don’t think this show is anti-American, but it is definitely anti-Trump,” he added. “All the people he’s hating on do make America great.”

Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the artist grew up in the South Bronx in what he calls a working-class family. (His father’s history as a janitor figures into new work at Ben Brown in the form of an actual mop bucket placed in front of one painting.) He said that he never considered being an artist until he found himself bored in a high school art history class and realized it was because of the surfeit of white bodies in the art. “We were looking at the painting ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ and at that moment I felt I wanted to be an artist so I could bring more people who looked like me, my mother and my sisters, into history.”

In college at Cooper Union, he took a step in that direction: He posed one of his sisters in place of Vermeer’s Dutch sitter, hair tucked in a similar blue-and-gold scarf, and called his photograph “Girl With a Bamboo Earring.” Its inclusion in a group show at the FLAG Art Foundation helped him land representation by a New York gallery when he was only 24.

Later works riff on contemporary greats as well, like the basketball hoops with gold-plated nets he lined up on the wall to mimic Donald Judd’s plexiglass “stacks.”

Mr. Erizku’s 2015 film “Serendipity,” which debuted at a MoMA PopRally party, features a pedestal holding a bust of Michelangelo’s “David.” He smashes the bust and replaces it with one of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti — “My way of saying ‘black lives matter’ in a way only I knew how,” he offered. He designed a Snapchat filter for the work’s premiere, so a project logo appeared on videos taken there.

Mr. Erizku also likes to curate shows on Instagram, and has announced in the past, with equal parts Duchampian wit and millennial chutzpah, that his feed would operate like a gallery and be closed to the public at night. He calls social media “yet another tool — an extension of my work, an extension of my studio.”

He returned to photography for a 2015 solo show at FLAG, for which he paid sex workers in Ethiopia to assume classic poses of models from Ingres and Manet paintings. Stephanie Roach, FLAG’s director, described this project as the opposite of exploitative: “He empowered the sitters, allowing each woman to interpret the pose differently and respecting their individuality. He captured these women with such beauty and integrity, like he did with his sister and Beyoncé.”

In 2014, he moved from New York to Southern California, where his girlfriend, Sarah Lineberger, has family. A floral designer, she has collaborated with Mr. Erizku on projects, including an installation in which every orifice of a red Porsche was bursting with flowers.

She also worked on the Beyoncé shoot, he confirmed. Mr. Erizku declined to discuss other details because of a nondisclosure agreement, except to say that he didn’t see that shoot as a commercial project apart from his art: “It was a collaboration. Beyoncé didn’t say, ‘Hey, this is what I want; do this.’”

He added, “She was inspired by the things I had done and wanted to do something with me.”

He flashed a smile. “That’s bigger than getting into the Whitney in a lot of ways,” he said.