The Art Angle Podcast: Why Awol Erizku Is So Much More Than Just Beyoncé’s Baby Photographer

The multi-talented artist has been busy since he took the viral photo.

Awol Erizku, Photographed by Jeff Vespa, 2019. Illustration © Artnet News.
Awol Erizku, Photographed by Jeff Vespa, 2019. Illustration © Artnet News.

Welcome to the Art Angle, a podcast from Artnet News that delves into the places where the art world meets the real world, bringing each week’s biggest story down to earth. Join host Andrew Goldstein every week for an in-depth look at what matters most in museums, the art market, and much more, with input from our own writers and editors, as well as artists, curators, and other top experts in the field.

 

The journey to becoming one of the most acclaimed photographers of his generation—at the tender age of 32—wasn’t exactly a straight line for Awol Erizku.

Born in Ethiopia and raised in the Bronx, Erizku’s early interest in art didn’t crystallize until he was punished for a school prank, and, fortuitously, ended up in an art room waiting for the principal to dole out his punishment.

From there, Erizku traced a more traditional path, studying at Cooper Union and earning a coveted place in Yale’s MFA program, where he honed his craft, garnering praise for his contemporary depictions of classical art-historical works featuring Black women in place of their predominantly white counterparts in stirring, beautifully framed portraits.

Things changed in 2017, when one of the world’s most famous women, Beyoncé Knowles, announced her pregnancy on Instagram. The photograph—a beatific portrait of the pop star enshrined in a lush floral backdrop, hands demurely resting on her pregnant stomach, draped in a soft green veil like a blooming Madonna—instantly went viral and remains the most “liked” photograph on the social-media platform. Erizku, who shot the photo, became a household name overnight.

Instead of riding on the success of that image, Erizku dug deeper into his work, tackling hot-button subjects ranging from the legacy of colonialism and a controversial professor of Black Studies, to the recent spate of Black men killed by police officers. A lifelong obsession with music led to his practice of incorporating speeches by the likes of Kerry James Marshall into mixtapes, blending spoken word with contemporary beats, and collaborating to score music to be played in his exhibitions, as in a recent show at the FLAG Art Foundation in New York.

He was featured in Antwaun Sargent’s exhibition, “The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion,” and beginning on February 24, 2021, in New York and Chicago, 13 of Erizku’s photographs will grace some 350 bus shelters in an exhibition with the Public Art Fund. The sprawling, two-city exhibition is titled “New Visions for Iris,” in honor of his newborn daughter.

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