THE (WHITE) RULES DO NOT AP­PLY

Mul­ti­me­dia artist Awol Erizku wants his art—and mu­sic—to ip con­ven­tions. Mar­i­anna Cerini talks to the artist as he pre­pares for his rst solo show in Asia

Hong Kong Tatler - - Life | Art -

wol Erizku is work­ing on the mix­tape for his next show when I call him in his Los An­ge­les stu­dio. The 29-yearold mul­ti­me­dia artist makes what he calls con­cep­tual mix­tapes for all his ex­hi­bi­tions, and he’s cur­rently de­bat­ing whether to in­clude a record­ing by ex­per­i­men­tal pro­ducer Yves Tu­mor of a New York am­bu­lance rush­ing past 42nd street and Times Square over­laid with drums. Amer­i­can rap­per Rich the Kid’s Plug Walk is also on his radar, as are a cou­ple of songs by Ken­drick La­mar. “I prob­a­bly won’t de­cide the fi­nal tracks till a few days be­fore the show,” he says. “I al­ways try to think of the view­ers, but also the place—what kind of city, mu­seum or gallery I’ll be pre­sent­ing in. It’s a con­stant work in progress.”

In this case, the place is Hong Kong, where Erizku’s first solo ex­hi­bi­tion in Asia is now draw­ing fans to Ben Brown Fine Arts. Ti­tled Slow Burn, it fea­tures a group of seven new light works that draw on both his pre­vi­ous ex­per­i­ments with neon and the iconog­ra­phy of Hong Kong’s own neon-lit streets and sky­line.

It is Erizku’s first show ex­clu­sively fo­cused on this spe­cific medium. “Hong Kong is an in­cred­i­bly con­densed me­trop­o­lis,” he says, “and lights are such a big part of it. There’s neon ev­ery­where. I found that quite in­ter­est­ing, as it’s some­thing we’re los­ing in the States. I re­mem­ber that as a child in New York, I was used to my lo­cal bode­gas and liquor stores hav­ing neon light­ing out on their store fronts, but that’s dis­ap­peared over the years, or shifted into LED light­ing, which doesn’t quite hold the same aes­thetic value. Part of me wanted to com­ment on that through this show. But I also wanted to ex­plore light works in a deeper way.”

Neon is just one of Erizku’s artis­tic in­ter­ests. In his short but re­mark­able ca­reer—he landed his first New York gallery show be­fore he had earned his Mas­ter of Fine Arts de­gree from Yale—he has branched out from paint­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy into sculpture and video in­stal­la­tions. Be­sides the mix­tapes he makes for his shows, he DJS, too, and some 18 months ago launched his own mu­sic la­bel, Tra$h Money Record$. In the age of the multi-hy­phen­ate tal­ent, he’s a poster child for cre­ativ­ity.

“I like to try dif­fer­ent things,” he says. “The way I’ve set up my stu­dio here in LA re­flects that. On one cor­ner you have a turntable-equipped DJ booth; be­hind a par­ti­tion is where I have some pho­tos. The rest of the space has a mix of dif­fer­ent pieces and works, and I’m now build­ing a res­i­dency room where my mu­si­cian friends and I record. When I come in, I just walk around and pick one thing and then the other. I’m here and there all the time.”

What his eclec­tic body of work shares is a fo­cus on chal­leng­ing the white aes­thetic that dom­i­nates art—“which is what pushed me to­wards art in the first place,” he says. “This re­al­i­sa­tion I had in high school that there weren’t many peo­ple like me, or my sis­ters, or my par­ents, rep­re­sented through his­tory. Nor many vis­ual artists be­sides Basquiat and a few oth­ers I could look up to and feel un­der­stood. I wanted to change and chal­lenge that.”

Born in Ad­dis Ababa, Ethiopia, Erizku grew up in the

South Bronx, New York, and moved to Los An­ge­les in 2014. He stud­ied paint­ing at Cooper Union and grad­u­ated from Yale with an MFA in pho­tog­ra­phy, and was set on ad­dress­ing is­sues of race, iden­tity, pol­i­tics and cul­tural his­tory from the very be­gin­ning of his ca­reer.

In Erizku’s early pho­to­graphic work, he re­placed fig­ures in fa­mous paint­ings with black sub­jects. His 2009 work Girl With a Bam­boo Ear­ring, a take on Dutch painter Ver­meer’s fa­mous Girl with a Pearl Ear­ring for which Erizku had one of his sis­ters sit, caused a sen­sa­tion and landed him rep­re­sen­ta­tion from a New York gallery at the age of 24. Later, his short 2015 film Serendip­ity, which fea­tures the artist smash­ing a bust of Michelan­gelo’s David and re­plac­ing it with one of the Egyp­tian queen Ne­fer­titi, was a big hit when it was shown at New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art.

More ac­claimed works fol­lowed. For a pho­to­graphic project in 2015, Erizku paid sex work­ers in Ethiopia to mimic the mod­els in paint­ings by French mas­ters In­gres and Manet. His Make Amer­ica Great Again ex­hi­bi­tion last year at Ben Brown Fine Arts in Lon­don, Erizku’s most po­lit­i­cal show to date, was also a suc­cess. For it, the artist painted the gallery walls black, dis­played a door scrawled with the graf­fi­tied word “Trump,” the T as a swastika, plas­tered the logo of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Pan­ther Party onto the Amer­i­can flag, and cre­ated his own “Make Amer­ica Great Again” mer­chan­dise (in­clud­ing a tongue-in-cheek red base­ball cap).

“It was my way of grap­pling with this new re­al­ity we’re faced with,” Erizku says, “rather than merely be­ing just an anti-trump show. As a con­tem­po­rary artist liv­ing in Amer­ica, watch­ing what’s hap­pen­ing, it’s hard not to use the medi­ums I know to speak out and com­ment on things. But it was also a cel­e­bra­tion of the val­ues I do think make the na­tion great.”

Given the weight of Erizku’s prac­tice— whether it’s re­fram­ing canon­i­cal art or ex­am­in­ing mod­ern Amer­ica—it’s odd to think the hype around the artist took off, mostly, be­cause of an In­sta­gram photo. In Fe­bru­ary last year, he was re­vealed to be the pho­tog­ra­pher be­hind Bey­oncé’s vis­ual an­nounce­ment of her preg­nancy with twins (Queen Bey, kneel­ing in front of a gi­ant wreath of flow­ers and cov­ered in a light green veil, cup­ping her swelling ab­domen). The post broke all In­sta­gram records; to date, it’s been liked over 11 mil­lion times.

The me­dia frenzy that fol­lowed—pro­files in Van­ity Fair, Rolling Stone, the New York Times—pointed at a pre-bey and post-bey Erizku in a way the artist has called re­duc­tive. “I un­der­stand the draw a ti­tle like ‘Bey­once’s pho­tog­ra­pher says’ has, but I’d rather the con­ver­sa­tion be a lit­tle deeper than that,” he says. (Be­cause of a non-dis­clo­sure agree­ment, Erizku can’t dis­cuss the shoot with the singer.) “One thing I’m in­ter­ested in, though, is to see what will match and sur­pass that [im­age] and how it will shape so­cial me­dia cul­ture. What will be next, you know? In­sta­gram might not even be around in five years. So I’m cu­ri­ous in that re­spect. But I don’t want a post to over­shadow any­thing else I’ve done so far.”

Has the ex­pe­ri­ence changed his ap­proach to so­cial me­dia at all? “I’m sort of tak­ing a sab­bat­i­cal from it,” he jokes. “We are this ADHD gen­er­a­tion that’s con­stantly hun­gry for con­tent. We post, scroll, like, and I have def­i­nitely be­come wary about that. I pre­fer to fo­cus on the work in front of me in­stead of be­ing pre­oc­cu­pied with what peo­ple ex­pect to see on­line.”

The work in front of him—and the mu­sic that goes with it, I point out. “Mu­sic plays a huge role in the way I think of my work,” he agrees. “My ver­nac­u­lar is bor­rowed from it. The in­stal­la­tions or paint­ings or sculp­tures are vis­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tions for it. I ap­proach my ex­hi­bi­tions in the same way mu­si­cians ap­proach al­bums. There are al­ways a few pieces in there that I know are for sure go­ing to be the big hit, and then there are other works—what I call the deep cuts—that aren’t the friendli­est and will have you scratch­ing your head but might ul­ti­mately leave a real mark on you. Much like a record.”

The week be­fore our in­ter­view, Ken­drick La­mar was awarded the Pulitzer mu­sic prize for his al­bum Damn. I ask Erizku if the songs he men­tioned ear­lier are from the al­bum, and whether he thinks he’ll in­clude them in the mix­tape for Slow Burn. “Still play­ing around, but I think so,” he replies. “Not be­cause of the award, even though it’s ob­vi­ously ma­jor. I al­ways look for mu­sic that I feel re­flects the times the show is tak­ing place in. Sort of like a time cap­sule. Some of La­mar’s songs just work re­ally well in that sense.”

Does he feel work­ing across dis­ci­plines widens the reach of his work? “I sup­pose, al­though it’s not some­thing I do with a cal­cu­lated plan in mind. I want my work to deepen the con­ver­sa­tion on art and race and rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Peo­ple are em­brac­ing black­ness in a whole new way and within a new univer­sal con­text. La­mar’s win is a case in point. So is do­ing a neon show in Hong Kong that’s about iden­tity and ur­ban cul­ture and be­ing African-amer­i­can. I want to move the nee­dle.”

Slow Burn runs un­til July 7 at Ben Brown Fine Arts Hong Kong. ben­brown­fin­earts.com

LEAPS AND BOUNDS Awol Erizku at his most po­lit­i­cal ex­hi­bi­tion to date, last year’s Make Amer­ica Great Again at Ben Brown Fine Arts in Lon­don

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