Awol Erizku: Mystic Parallax @FLAG Art Foundation

JTF (just the facts): A total of 26 works, displayed against white walls in a series of galleries on the 9th floor of the foundation. The show includes the following:

  • 12 digital chromogenic prints, 2018-2020, 2019-2020, 2019, 2020, 4×6, 20×25, 26×20, 20×27, 20×30, 40×50, 40×53 inches, in editions of 3+2AP
  • 3 lightboxes, 2018-2020, 20×26 inches (or the reverse), in editions of 3+2AP
  • 2 digital chromogenic print diptychs, 2019, each panel 20×27, 40×50 inches, in editions of 3+2AP
  • 4 single channel videos, with color and sound, 2018, 2018-2019, 2019, 2020, 9:41 minutes, 2:20 minutes, 12:43 minutes, 17:45 minutes
  • 1 neon and coated steel sculpture, 2018, 77x120x4 inches, in an edition of 3+2AP
  • 1 metal fence with barbed wire, assorted tees on hangers, 2019, 82x98x9 inches, unique
  • 1 prayer rug, wooden mask, burnt book, 2018-2020, 50×30 inches, unique
  • 1 hard coated foam and mirrored tile sculpture, 2017, 30x15x23 inches, unique
  • 1 set of incense ashes, paper, 2020, 38×50 inches each, unique

(Installation shots and video stills below.)

Comments/Context: Recent flash point moments of tragedy and activism have brought the ongoing fight for equality and justice for Black Americans to the forefront across all facets of American culture, including the arts. This long overdue wave of broader awareness has driven a rapid rise in interest in Black artists and their art, and has led museums and other public institutions to start to confront the long running systemic bias in their own collections and exhibition programs. Many are scrambling to rebalance their collections and show calendars to better feature Black artists, opening doors that have long been largely closed.

One of the themes that recurs among contemporary Black art, particularly in America, is the ongoing struggle to reclaim and reconnect to an authentic African heritage. What makes this process more difficult than it might seem is that many of the symbols, motifs, and visual icons that define that cultural heritage have been selected, promoted, or even created by White people, both now and in the distant past. The challenge many Black artists are facing is how to re-invent that heritage, or to re-imagine it from an alternate vantage point that powerfully and emphatically discards the baggage of the White lens. The title of Awol Erizku’s recent show, “Mystic Parallax”, is a clear signal that he’s actively digging into this competing frameworks and perspectives problem.

Erizku has been probing this issue from different angles for much of his career, particularly in his photographic work. He has made grids of Black male hairstyles, staged portraits of reclining Black female nudes (in a 2015 exhibition at FLAG, reviewed here), reinterpreted Vermeer with a Black model, appropriated Black Panther logos, and done a range of fashion commissions with Black models and celebrities (including a very pregnant Beyoncé.) In each case, and others, he has attempted to remove the White gaze and re-insert his own, meaningfully changing the dynamics of how the subjects are both portrayed and seen.

This new exhibition gathers together several interrelated bodies of Erizku’s work that interrogate these continuing questions of Black representation and identity with brash sophistication. A number of the photographs on view explore the symbolism of African masks, artistic territory that has recently been reclaimed by Lyle Ashton Harris and John Edmonds (among others), but that reaches all the way back to Man Ray. For Harris and Edmonds, this meant posing with masks or actually wearing them in staged scenes, actively engaging with the spirituality they represent. What’s perhaps surprising about Erizku’s approach is that he has burned many of the masks, showing us carved wooden faces fully in flame or charred to a smoking crisp. His destruction by fire can be read in several ways: as a rejection of the commodization of masks and the “other” they have come to represent, and as a kind of cathartic cleansing process, where by burning the masks down to ash, he provides the opportunity for a phoenix-like rebirth. In either conceptual case, the photographs of flaming masks are jarringly provocative, as we don’t expect artistic artifacts like these (even if they were bought in the street in front of the Whitney) to be willingly destroyed, especially by an artist who is trying to connect with his roots – but perhaps wholesale destruction is needed to make room for an authentically new perspective.

Erizku applies a similar logic in a series of photographs that use a bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti as its central subject. Even more than the African masks, the head of Nefertiti (or the ancient figurines that were the original model) has been stripped of its original significance and turned into tourist kitsch. Erizku’s photographs imagine a new and more resonant set of relationships to the bust, from girls in Sunday best dresses and lace gloves dancing around the head, to a woman wearing a nipple ring with a tiny Nefertiti charm, both connecting Nefertiti the queen to empowered Black females. He also coats a Nefertiti bust in mirrored tiles and hangs it from the ceiling like a rotating disco ball, and of course, in another image, sets it on fire, rounding out his range of re-interpretations.

Another way Erizku recontextualizes the African masks and Nefertiti sculptures is by surrounding them with other objects in layered still life arrangements. These are some of the strongest and most durably intriguing works in the show. He mixes masks with currency, Gucci loafers, a measuring tape, and a Japanese maneki-neko cat, playing with ideas of good fortune and success measurement. He gathers Nefertiti busts with Egyptian cats and pharaohs, combining them with a melting candelabra, brass plumbing fixtures, and a Malcolm X book. And he matches more masks with handguns, boxing gloves, bricks, and a baby bottle, adding a bold color correction chart as a reminder of photography’s issues with black skin. In each setup, Erizku is playing with loaded objects, smartly shuffling them into new arrangements and relationships that undermine any particular reading of what or who they represent – he’s redefining by association, using layered context to challenge oversimplification or one-sided thinking.

The rest of the show amplifies many of these same themes, mixing in allusions to Islam and spirituality, trap music, and more burning and incense. Two of the most powerful non-photographic works extend Erizku’s ideas into sculpture and video. One work brings together tshirts of Black performers and athletes (Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods, the Cosby show, all of whom were embraced by White audiences) locked behind chain link fencing and barbed wire. And in “Bird Talk, Time I Danced for the Moon”, Erizku interleaves video of quiet birds sitting on electrical wires with atmospheric multiple-exposure moon imagery and abstractions of the Hollywood sign, all of the flowing imagery overlaid with a passionate monologue on racism and its relationship to Islam, bringing meditative serenity and emphatic language into surprising harmony. And the show ends with a small screen grab (hung near the elevator banks) from yet another news report of police shootings, to reground us in the harsh realities that continue to exist outside the safe confines of the gallery.

While there are a lot of discrete ideas floating around in this show, and with the exception of the incense burned drawings with don’t coalesce into something visually meaningful, the vast majority of the risks that Erizku takes here land successfully, and more than a few do so with significant force. What I like about his approach is that it requires the viewer to be active rather than passive, to re-see objects we have already thumbnailed into a certain bounded meaning. While some might find his images deliberately inflammatory (both literally and figuratively), he’s rousing us out of a lazy intellectual slumber, and that takes a jolt of significant energy. Seen as one integrated artistic statement, it’s easily one of the most thought provoking photography-centric shows of this COVID-constrained fall season.

Collector’s POV: Since this is essentially a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Awol Erizku is represented by Night Gallery in Los Angeles (here) and Ben Brown Fine Arts in London/Hong Kong (here). 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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