What does it mean to take apart something that is already an amalgamation of many things—animals, mythologies, cultures? That question animates a new exhibition by Los Angeles–based artist Awol Erizku that opened on Thursday at Gagosian’s Park & 75 space in New York’s Upper East Side. For the show, titled “Memories of a Lost Sphinx,” Erizku is presenting six new lightbox photographs that deconstruct the various attributes of the namesake mythological creature.
These images are sensuous, rendered in incredibly detailed resolution. They feature a coiled black and yellow snake whose scales feel tangible, two images of a lion set against composites of the cosmos, a falcon with its wings spread as it lands on a glove, the back of basketball player Kevin Durant’s head, and a fuzzy tarantula as it approaches the ear of singer-songwriter Jesse Boykins III. The photographs are installed in a ground-floor space that is painted all black. At center, hung from the ceiling, is a rotating gold disco ball in the shape of the bust of Nefertiti.
The mythology of the sphinx originates in ancient Egypt, where the creature was depicted with the head of a man, the body of a lion, and the wings of a falcon. In the Greco-Roman tradition, the man becomes a woman who will eat anyone who cannot answer her riddles, as made famous in the tales of Oedipus. When the sphinx reached parts of Asia, it had a snake for tail. To all this, Erizku has added a tarantula.
“I wanted to make a poetic offering,” Erizku said in an interview held the day before the exhibition’s opening. “To me, the tarantula is something that you can find underneath the Sphinx or the Great Pyramids. But you never think about that when you’re just looking at these archival images of the Sphinx or the Pyramids. That was something I wanted to address, but in a very indirect way.”
The series came out of a visit to Egypt several years ago. There, he saw the Great Sphinx and realized “how challenging it was to actually make it very compelling image of it, one that you haven’t seen in the history books. So why would I approach it?” Or, as Erizku put it later on in the interview, “What does it mean for a sphinx to be deconstructed?”
Other artists before him have taken up the subject, most notably Kara Walker, whose 2014 sugar sculpture A Subtlety, depicting the Sphinx as a woman with African features, is considered a landmark piece. Erizku said his take on it is very different. “I’m not trying to one-up Kara Walker by any means,” he said, asking, “How do I add to the conversation?”
Antwaun Sargent, a director at Gagosian who organized the show and a longtime friend of the artist, praised Erizku’s latest body of work for its complexity. While Sargent said it’s about “the apparatus of a photograph” and using “the language of advertising,” it also deals with far more than that. “It’s about what can photography do, as opposed to what should photography do,” Sargent said.
Erizku considers the show to itself be a riddle, one which he is reticent to divulge too much information about. The show’s title, “Memories of a Lost Sphinx,” may offer one clue, however, as do the ways the artist thinks through what is imagined about sphinxes and their true realities. There was “a space between what I saw in Egypt and what I wanted to see, what I thought I was going to see,” he said.
The expectations of what he expected to see when he arrived in Egypt, Erizku said, were based on how he learned about the figure as part of his education, in particular how it is discussed in art history, which valued the Greco-Roman interpretation over that of the ancient Egyptian one, where the creature originated.
“Seldom do we think about how Egyptian art has influenced that the whole history of Western art way before that was realized,” Erizku, who was born in Ethiopia and moved with his family to New York when he was a kid, said. “Because we’re not taught that in school, we only go to the Western influences. That’s a conditioning. For me, it’s important that I go back to pre-colonial history in order to tap into these richer contexts, richer histories and legacies, some stolen which I then have to recontextualize.”
As art history is traditionally taught in the West, a survey of Egyptian art typically precedes one focused on Greco-Roman art, which is often considered the pinnacle of creativity in the ancient world. That makes ancient Egyptian art “Blackness for its utility in a white world,” Sargent said. “That is the history. That’s how I was taught. That’s what’s also important here. You have an artist from the Continent engaging directly with the cultural heritage in a contemporary and thoughtful way.”
Sargent and Erizku have known each other for almost 10 years, having first met when Sargent asked to interview Erizku for an article for Complex magazine. They quickly became friends and have continued to collaborate in various ways of the years. “This show would not happen if it were not for Antwaun,” Erizku said. “This show is many years in the making, and it only made sense to do with somebody like Antwaun because I knew he would champion my imagination as opposed to giving me parameters before I even start thinking about what the exhibition is going to look like.”
Because of their friendship, there was a level of trust present when Erizku offered a concept related to thinking through the mythologies related to the sphinx. The artist wasn’t quite sure how the resulting images—or even the exhibition—would turn out. “There’s a human quality to his approach that I think allows me to be open,” Erizku said. “I think more than anything, this is a conversation among two friends playing out in the public space.” That conversation has been ongoing for almost as long as the two have known each other; the show is simply one culmination of it.
Still, these are images that resist easy legibility—they are intended to intrigue and provoke thought. “I want to stretch the imagination, specifically of young Black artists,” Erizku said.
To that, Sargent responded, “You walk up on an Awol image, and you have all of these signs and symbols transacting and transpiring. They’re not easy images, and you have to sit with them.”
This new body of work grew out of a similar series done for the Public Art Fund, in which his images were displayed in 350 bus shelters across New York City and Chicago. This unusual exhibition method, with its accessible format and its illuminated format, made Erizku want to explore creating a series of photographs that could be printed and installed as lightboxes.
“When he shared that he wanted to do a lightbox exhibition,” Sargent said, “I go, ‘Where in New York do we have a space where the art is viewable 24 hours a day?’ Where can you have this immediacy, this interaction, and publicness that a lightbox sort of demands?” That led them to Gagosian’s Park & 75 location, a street-level space on Park Avenue that was formerly a deli. (The gallery has been hosting shows there since 2014.) “It has a different sort of engagement because the public is already built in in a way,” Sargent said.
Erizku recalled going to see shows at Gagosian’s Madison Avenue location, just a couple of blocks away from Park & 75, and feeling like he didn’t belong there.
“That’s not the sort of thing that I want to harp on, but it is true,” he said. “The fact that these images are going to live 24/7 in this neighborhood in some way will do its work, right? Hopefully, it will be a way of expanding and rethinking Blackness—and rethinking the images that we’ve been conditioned to look at. Just think about how many images we’ve seen on our timeline of Black bodies being brutalized. In this post-2020 moment, I think it’s important to negate those type of images as much as we can. At least that’s one of my missions, to remind people of the beauty and the complexity of Blackness. Every show that I do is a proposition.”