Awol Erizku’s Public Art Show Explores ‘Afro-esotericism’

Photo: Nicholas Knight, Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY and the artist

If you drive past a bus shelter by June 20, take a closer look. You could spy on an image of a Muslim man in a Kobe undershirt kneeling in prayer next to a motorbike, or a still life with a toy cart, irises, photometer, and magnetic letters of the alphabet Amharic. These photographs are part of “New visions for Iris, ” the first public art exhibition of the Ethiopian American artist based in Los Angeles Awol Erizku. Commissioned by the Public Art Fund, the exhibition appears in more than 200 bus shelters across New York City (and more than 150 in Chicago). Erizku dedicated it to his one-year-old daughter, Iris.

“[Iris’s] the influence on this work is possibilityErizku says. “She’s American, she’s Ethiopian, and because I couldn’t see those kinds of images growing up, I wanted to make sure she did. The genre of images he refers to includes modern depictions of Muslim men, African symbols, and his own personal history. “To be honest, I’m ashamed that I didn’t know as much about my culture as I would like, and I wanted to give her these [references] early.”

Photo: Nicholas Knight, courtesy Public Art Fund, NY and the artist

Referrals are also entry points to conversations about religion, spirituality, race, identity, and personal history – conversations many of us have since the Black Lives Matter protests, the increase hate crimes against Asian Americans and the general upheaval in the city. has experienced over the past year.

“This exhibit is all about accepting fatherhood and having a daughter coming into this world in a very tumultuous year, and finding ways to spark some conversations as she grows up,” Erizku says.

E ”“ rizku became famous for his work which overturned European masterpieces with Afro-centric references, like his 2009 Girl with a bamboo earring portrait, who riffs on Vermeer A girl with an earring painting, and sound Series of portraits 2013 sex workers in Addis Ababa posed like odalisques by Ingres and Manet Olympia. His 2015 short film “Serendipity”, which was screened at MoMA, presented him breaking a bust of David and replacing it with that of Nefertiti. The 2017 maternity photos he took of Beyoncé – which referred to the motifs of the Madonna and Child and included original work he made the previous year in collaboration with his partner, the floral designer Sarah Linebergeralmost broke Instagram. But lately he has had a strong urge to move away from the Western philosophies and references he has been brainwashed with and create his own canon. In 2017, his anti-Trump “Make America Great Again exhibition » explored the power of Emory Douglas’ Black Panther logo. This led him to develop a new visual language he calls “Afro-esotericism” – an index of objects, symbols and people who are significant and influential to him: cowrie shells, African masks and statues, musical instruments, the Koran, flowers, etc. This reinvention is also in part a response to the popularity of his old work. His style has been copied many times, to the point that he feels he has lost ownership of it and is no longer associated with it.

Now, Erizku’s photographs capture the dramatic lighting and saturated colors of commercial advertising, designed to stop you in your tracks. He uses it as a kind of bait and switch. Instead of selling you sneakers, he invites you into his cultural universe.

He showed us some of the images from the series.

Photo: Courtesy of Awol Erizku

“The thread of Islam-slash-spirituality which is omnipresent in my work is particularly present in this corpus. For this exhibit I originally wanted to document prisons and show where men congregate to pray and find space for spirituality and religion in these spaces – that even in a physical prison you can still find freedom. inside. It was the big idea that I wanted to explore. We did a lot of interviews with chaplains and imams and just as we were ready to come in and take these pictures we were told everything was closed and we had no access. Even though the project was to evolve in some ways, the spirit of what I wanted to do is embedded in the images in a more metaphorical way of thinking.

Photo: Courtesy of Awol Erizku

“I have thought a lot about the ethical way to commemorate someone. Kobe passed away around the same time my daughter was born. I remember how dark it was that day and told my sister about how it felt to lose a family member. The last time I went to pray before the lockdown, the person in front of me was wearing a Kobe jersey. It made sense as a kind of commemoration for Kobe.

Photo: courtesy of Awol Erizku

“These magnetic tiles of the Amharic alphabet are those of Iris. I bought them for her when she was still in the womb because I knew she would learn from them at some point. My mother sent a poem [in Amharic] to Iris and tried to translate it but couldn’t capture the essence. I thought: I’ll just leave this poem as it is so she can learn the language and decipher it on her own.

From the left: Photo: courtesy of Awol ErizkuPhoto: courtesy of Awol Erizku

From the left: Photo: Courtesy of Awol ErizkuPhoto: Courtesy of Awol Erizku

“The falcon is a symbol and a gesture of freedom. It is more about the black man as the master of his domain. [In some images] the bird just hangs out, without any conditions. He’s right there.

Photo: courtesy of Awol Erizku

“I was mandated by GQ to document a series which, for lack of a better phrase, is about the fathers of the men we see in the news: George Floyd, Michael Brown, Terence Crutcher – men who have been in high profile shootings in the police these last years . To me it’s amazing that we live in a society where [police killings] are standardized. This is the hardest part. Taking on this project was to portray these men in a light that we don’t see them in the news. Everyone was in such different places in the grieving process. As a new dad myself, I really tried to figure out what they had to go through.

Photo: Nicholas Knight, courtesy of the Public Art Fund, NY and the artist

New visions for IrisIs on view until June 20, 2021. Although the exhibit takes place in all five boroughs, the images are most concentrated on 125th Street in Harlem and near 161st and the Great Hall in the Bronx – des areas that are personally important to Erizku, who grew up in the Bronx.

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