As a painter and sculptor, Awol Erizku is best known for his art debut exhibit titled Black and Gold at Hasted-Kraeutler gallery in 2012, featuring black figures in classic art-historical portraits. His Girl with a Bamboo Earring become an art world sensation for spinning Johannes Vermeer's famous Girl with a Pearl Earring. His strong arts education—a BA from Cooper Union School of Art and an MFA from Yale’s Visual Arts program—makes him a force to be reckoned with, while his Bronx-raising and high schooling with rapper A$AP Ferg granted him street cred. He can talk about being an insider to the art world while simultaneously being an outsider and vice versa. His works don’t suffer from it though, they are in fact powered by it. His portraits are powered by colorful characters and backdrops while his sculptures are a nod to conceptual masters.
After graduate school, Erizku went on to assist the likes of David LaChapelle and Lorna Simpson. His aesthetics reference cultural trends like hip-hop and basketball, while his works maintain an intersection between Pop art and minimalism. Earlier this year, he showed films and photos at MoMa’s PopRally. NBD. His work continues to evolve and disrupt. Here is an interview of the two of us talking about art controversies, art school hang-ups, and working with mixed mediums.
Kilo Kish: How old are you?
Awol Erizku: 27
And, you’re from where?
That’s a weird question now, because I still think I’m a New Yorker, but when people write about me, they say “LA-based artist.” So I guess technically I’m from New York but I was born in Ethiopia and came here as an infant.
You recently received backlash for your New Flower: Images of the Reclining Venus exhibit at The Flag Foundation for Art in New York, where you photographed commercial sex workers in Addis Ababa and posed them in traditional art compositions.
Oh, hell yeah. As if I was going to go photograph prostitutes and that was cool. They [Ethiopia] don’t really want anything negative leaving the country.The sex workers issue is something that needed attention. I did the research and I went there to photograph it. When the show was up, I got a threatening email from an attorney saying, “This is the damage of this work... I’m going to speak to the ambassador” and all this shit. I knew it was going to happen. I made the work in 2013, I just held onto it. These girls are real. They’re living a real life and I didn’t want anyone threatening them because if they can get ahold of me, they might be able to get ahold of the girls.
I know you do stuff that relates to race a lot. And I know it gets annoying to constantly have the conversation about it, and people always saying, “So you’re a black artist that makes art about blacks.”
Exactly, exactly, that’s the worst thing.
Yeah, just because you choose to put black subjects in your art. The purpose of that is that it should be normal.
Exactly, it shouldn’t have to be pointed out.
The purpose of the art is that it’s not pointed out. So do you ever feel pigeonholed by the subjects you choose?
I don’t mind talking about it or making work about it, because it’s something that needs to be there. Like the Reclining Venuses need to be out in the world. Girl with the Bamboo Earring needed to be out in the world. I make things that I want to see in the world. And people just choose to call it and say it’s about race or it’s about this or about that. Honestly, I’m deeply interested in color and composition and how things come together. If you look at my studio, I just take found objects and then I repurpose them so they can have a meaning, and they look like hopefully interesting objects to look at, but deep down inside, it’s all from the way I look at the world and how colors speak to me. But people want it to be about race even if it’s not. For me, anything I’m working on right now, once it gets outside of the studio, will somehow make its way back to being about race.
So how do you stay inspired and motivated within that, to keep pushing forward into your creative ideas? Because sometimes the shit that people say about your work can weirdly get in your brain and start focusing you work a certain way and you think: I don’t even care about this, why am I even thinking about this?
It’s funny you say that. After my MoMA show, people said, “How can you make this work if your girlfriend is white?” And it’s like, wow, really? I thought this was 2015! Someone can change their sex and that’s cool, but we can’t have interracial dating? It’s because people don’t know who you are, or who any of us are, and they have this projection of us. They don’t know where my girlfriend came from! We’ve been together for awhile and it’s more of a serious relationship. But do I need to explain that to people? No. Does it seep into your mind because it’s out there, because someone fucking said that? Yeah, you think about it. But it’s not going change my work, it’s never going to change my work. Because at the end of the day, I have a black mother, and I have the rest of the world to remind how black I am every fucking day you know what I mean.
I’m not a part of the art world, but I know it can be a little…
Yeah. So I wonder, do you ever feel uncomfortable? Or do you always go into it thinking, 'I feel confident in myself'?
For sure. It’s the one world that I am 100% myself. I walk into a gallery like I fucking own it. Funny story, though: two weeks ago I was at Grand Central Market and I was with a couple friends. We were actually going to the Broad Museum, and there was this old lady and this young guy with a hat on, but I had no idea who these people were. I happened to be behind them to get a falafel at one of the stands, and I’m like looking over at it, just chilling, and this lady turns around and clutches her purse. And I just thought, “What a bitch,” but you know, she’s an old lady and whatever, fucking old people. And then when she did that, this guy turned around and was like “Oh, shit, hey!” It was like this guy who owned this restaurant and he knows me because a gallery in New York that was interested in my work introduced us. So he knows me, he thinks, this kid is cool, this kid is popping, and then there’s this old lady who doesn’t know who I am thinking I’m some fucking thief. And that’s just my reality, but in the art world I don’t give a fuck.
What makes you the proudest about your work?
Damn, I don’t know if I’m there yet. This goes back to your original question about not being satisfied. I was at MoMA at 26 and I think I need to do more.
You make such beautiful things as an artist and you never allow yourself the grace of enjoying it.
I don’t even know how to enjoy something like that, because that’s when you fall back on the shit you’ve done. What are you going to do, keep talking about it forever? There’s more to do. I remember the Dean of the School of Art at Yale, Rob Storr always said that you’re not guaranteed tomorrow so make the best work you can today. I always live by that rule. Most days I just wake up and go straight to painting or making sculptures. I’m always pushing to get to that next thing. Those backboards that you’re looking at, those came this week, but that whole shit downstairs, I’ve been working on that since I got to LA. I’ve pushed myself further to get to this point, and I don’t know where it’s going to go from here, but I was so happy to start painting on backboards.
Do you feel that you need to work every day?
My day job is to make art. I wake up, and I have to make art. I’m able to do it full time, so it’s awesome. Until I can’t do that, I’m going to keep making work as much as I can.
Have you worked a regular job?
I managed a photography studio four or five years ago. I almost worked at Apple, like on the floor. I’ve never told anyone that. I had just graduated from Cooper and I got the studio, but I had to find a way to pay for it. My friend worked at Apple and said he’d hook me up. I don’t know if you know anyone who works there, but the process of getting that job is worse than trying to get into an Ivy League school. Seriously. I went through the whole process and the day before I was about to start, there was a shadow day, where you follow around someone that works there. So on this day, at lunchtime I sat down to talk about some people that worked there and this kid said “Yeah, I’m an artist, too! I’m a photographer, too!” I suddenly saw myself in like a year telling that to someone who just got hired. I didn't’ want to be that guy. I dipped on it and thought that I had to give myself a real chance to actually do something that I actually want to do before I have to work for someone else.
How did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I’ve had an interest in art since I was a kid. I used to watch a lot of films and I think that had something to do with the way that I saw the world. But it wasn’t until I got in trouble in junior high school that I ended up in this art class. Me and my friends were setting toilet paper on fire. I was sitting at the principal’s office, and then someone pulled the fire alarm, and she had to go deal with that. She told us to stay in that classroom and it turned out to be a high school portfolio preparation class, and they were preparing for LaGuardia and Art and Design. So we walked in there, and I was like, these kids are artists? And they go to school with us? I went back week after week after and I started preparing what I considered to be a portfolio, which was drawings and a little bit of paintings, and then I applied to Art and Design, and got in.
I applied to LaGuardia and did not get in, and you know, looking back I can see why. My portfolio wasn’t a portfolio. It was like two construction papers stapled together. I’m just a kid from the Bronx, I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t know what the right way was.
How did you get into Cooper Union? How the fuck did you complete the Cooper home test?
I don’t even know how I got into Cooper. I didn’t even complete it, that’s the amazing thing. I missed two questions out of six. I remember I was like, I don’t want to draw. I don’t want them to think I’m whack because I didn’t draw well. At the time it was a lot of film and graphic design. I did a bunch of shit, I still do it to this day. Whenever I do a show, I do the graphics for it, I do everything, because I was just brought up that way. I never limit myself to doing just one thing. I could do graphic design if I want to. I have the eye for it. I won’t sit there and go head-to-head with the best graphic designer, but if I see the kernings on a typeface looking all weird, I can go in and fix that.
Do you feel that’s helped you or hindered you? Some people would say that to become a master at something, it’s good to hone in your skills.
I don’t know if I believe that. I get where that comes from, but I don’t think knowing more about any field hurts you. It all starts with composition and color for me. So if I’m making those paintings, I’m looking at where I’m placing the colors, this block of color, where the letters go. And that could be something you could apply to graphic design or to photography. So how can you say that you should only focus on one thing? If I just focused on photography, then I wouldn’t be making the work that I’m making now.
You’re becoming a more well-rounded creative. But will you be a genius at one thing?
I’ll risk it. When I was 23, I had my studio in New York. I was getting a lot of attention for my photographs and I only started photographs when I was already in college (late in the game for a lot of people). I wasn’t the kid photographing my mom at age six or whatever. So I figured out my voice with this medium. I know how to use this medium to say what I want. But, can I do gang paintings with photography? Probably not. I find the medium that suits the work, not the other way around.
Any new art projects you are excited about?
Duchamp Detox Clinic. It’s a roaming art space. I’m not in a position where I can open a gallery so conceptually, if the concept ties in together, I could do a show in the bathroom of somewhere. The reason I’m doing my first solo show outside of a gallery is because I want to give it integrity, and I’ve been working really hard on this show for a while, so I want to open it with that. For me, it’s mainly about allowing good friends who are making good art who aren’t being shown anywhere to have a platform, to give them a springboard so they can go on to their next thing. I don’t want it to be under my name. It’s not about me, it’s about the art. It’s concept-based, mostly sculpture and painting for now, but the work will define what it is.
To learn more about the artist, click here.
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