For his latest body of portraiture, Awol Erizku hired 33 young Ethiopian sex workers to pose in hotel rooms around Addis Ababa. “New Flower: Images of the Reclining Venus” (2015), the resulting series of large-format C-prints now on view at the Flag Art Foundation, New York, features 11 of those portraits and engages in a deliberate conversation with art history, as Erizku and his models reimagine works like Manet’s Olympia and Ingres’s La Grand Odalisque. Erizku confronts the ideals of beauty celebrated in European painting and the museums that feature it by focusing on the black female body.
Challenging the tropes of classical painting is a well-known aspect of Erizku’s multifaceted work. The Ethiopian-born, New York-raised conceptual artist garnered much attention for his photograph The Girl With a Bamboo Earring (2009), a playful take on Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Erizku’s revisions of such canonical figures, as exemplified in the “New Flower” series, work against the relative scarcity of black figures in contemporary art and historical museums. Most often, though not always, his models are young black women, which has led to comparisons of his work to that of black feminist artists Mickalene Thomas and Renée Cox. However, the Yale-trained Erizku is less preoccupied with feminist politics than he is with investigating and alleviating the tensions between Western art and blackness.
Like many artists of his generation, Erizku maintains an online presence that has become an extension of his practice. He has curated exhibitions on Instagram, such as “Found Flowers” and “Found Hoops,” compiling feeds by searching for images tagged #flowers and #hoops. For each exhibition, Erizku made his normally private Instagram account public during regular gallery hours, Tuesday through Friday, before locking it again on the weekend.
He has also produced work in the form of music mixes. For the premiere of his film Serendipity (2015)—in which he smashes a bust of David and replaces it with one of Nefertiti—at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, last May,he collaborated with MeLo-X on a two-part mix, and he enlisted DJ SOSUPERSAM in the production of The New Flower Mixtape for his current show. Like the Instagram series or his posts to Tumblr, the mixes place elements of Erizku’s museum-friendly work in a more populist context while extending his study of race and representation. Clips from lectures by painter Kerry James Marshall on the importance of the black figure in art are sampled on the tracks.As his experimentation with art-historical tropes continues, Erizku creates interventions that not only respond to history but also make space for new possibilities.
Awol Erizku’s solo exhibition “New Flower: Images of the Reclining Venus,” at the Flag Art Foundation, New York, through Dec. 12.