Awol Erizku: Memories of a Lost Sphinx @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 6 large scale color photographs, framed in gold and unmatted, and hung against black walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are Duratrans on lightbox, made in 2022. Physical sizes are between roughly 60×49 and 40×65 (or the reverse), and all of the works are available in editions of 3+2AP. The show also includes 1 sculptural work hung from the ceiling. It is hard-coated foam and mirrored tile, made in 2022. Physical dimensions are 30x15x23 inches and it is available in an edition of 5+2AP. The show was curated by Antwaun Sargent. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the decade since Awol Erizku completed his MFA at Yale, his work has consistently returned to exploring (and deconstructing) familiar artistic symbols and motifs, generally through the lens of the bridge between African and African American cultures. Along the way, he has reimagined Vermeer with a Black model and a bamboo earring, made typologies of Black hairstyles, reconsidered the Venus theme in the female nude with sex workers from Ethiopia, made sculptures featuring basketball hoops and chainlink fencing, and upended the celebrity pregnancy reveal (in a famous 2017 photograph of Beyoncé.) In his 2020 FLAG Art Foundation show (reviewed here), he extended this symbolic interpretation journey to include an even wider range of culturally complex and resonant objects, including African masks, sculptures of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, Black Panther logos, and handguns.

At a moment when the interest in Black art is rapidly growing and expanding, Erizku now finds himself with a Park Avenue storefront show at Gagosian. It’s a small show, but symbolic in a way that likely resonates with the artist – it’s almost as if he’s deconstructing the idea of a prestigious Upper East Side gallery show while actually having one. To emphasize this point more clearly, he’s painted the walls of this normally white cube black, executing a succinct stylistic and atmospheric reversal.

Aside from one mirrored Nefertiti sculpture that hangs from the ceiling like an omniscient disco ball (and reprises work from his earlier FLAG show), all of the new works on view here revolve around the theme of the sphinx. Most of us think of the sphinx as the massive sculptural figure guarding the pyramids at Giza, but as a mythological creature, it has taken shape in different forms (both male and female) around the world for centuries, from Egypt and Greece to South Asia. In the specific ancient Egyptian case we are familiar with, the sphinx is a combination beast, with the head of a man, the body of a lion, the wings of a falcon, and the tail of a serpent. Its most notable role was that of guardian and protector, with a famous three-stages-of-man riddle used to test would be visitors.

Erizku has repurposed the sphinx myth, broadening it into a room-filling artistic idea via photographs that represent each of its component parts. Each image is framed in shiny gold and presented as a lightbox, so the pictures seem to pop with additional vibrancy and energy, especially as set against the black backdrop. In many ways, Erizku has been surprisingly literal in his compositional choices. Two photographs offer us versions of the lion’s body, both posing in something akin to a cosmic diorama; one strides with pride and authority, while the other seems to trudge along in weary dejection, the planets clustered together behind the animal with celestial grandeur. The falcon wings are shown against this same planetary scene, outstretched with natural grace and power (perhaps while landing on the outstretched hand of the falconer), and the serpent’s tail is represented by the sinuously coiled body of a yellow and black snake, seen with an almost commercial sharpness.

Erizku takes a slightly more indirect approach with two other works on view. In one, he finds the final piece of the sphinx puzzle in the head of basketball star Kevin Durant, but he shows us only the back of his statuesquely regal head and the gold chains around his neck, which are echoed by a golden yellow backdrop. And in the other, he stages a fuzzy tarantula on a Black man’s ear, almost like an ominously dangerous earring, making a sideways reference to Sun Ra’s 1970 album Night of the Purple Moon, which featured an image of the sphinx (and a stylized image of the bandleader with spider-like legs) on the cover.

While Erizku isn’t the first Black artist to wrestle with the symbolic significance of the sphinx (Kara Walker memorably did so with her monumental 2014 sculpture in the Domino Sugar factory), he’s clearly building up a body of photographic work that is consciously expanding the definitions of Blackness, especially in terms of how overlooked cultural contexts (like the links to Egypt) can be brought back into relevance. By using a slick visual language reminiscent of advertising and displaying the works with intentional richness and grandiosity, he’s elevating these Black symbols and forcing us to reconsider their enduring majesty and complexity. It recontextualizing the myth of the sphinx, he’s actively making connections between the ancient and the contemporary, and thoughtfully reclaiming a long chain of important artistic legacies.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $40000 and $60000. Erizku’s work has very little secondary market history in the past decade, with the exception of a print of his “Girl with a Bamboo Earring”, which sold at Phillips in 2017 for $52500.

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