There is more than one path from Africa to the Bronx. For artist Awol Erizku, the journey that threads across time and space, remaking the language of visual culture into a spiritual act, which he deftly weaves together in the new book, Mystic Parallax.
Set against a palette so vivid you can all but taste it, Erizku stages mesmerizing tableaux that are at once futuristic and mythical, forging a new style he has dubbed Afro-Esotericism. Whether constructing portraits or still lifes, every image is replete with the perfect blend of Pan-African majesty and celestial surrealism.
Like Dada mastermind Marcel Duchamp and African-American artist David Hammons, Erizku draws upon the deep well of culture, both high and low, and remixes it so that it becomes wholly his own. Working across photography, film, video, painting, and installation, Erizku transforms the ready made into a sparkling phantasmagoria that is at once accessible and opaque.
On the black linen cover of Mystic Parallax, the bust of Nefertiti floats, her elegant profile rendered in disco ball chic, reclaiming her from the colonizers who disturbed 3,242 years of rest only to stick her inside an airless display case. The bust appears in others forms and settings throughout the book, each instance revealing something anew, not unlike how music producers deftly sampled the 1973 funk classic “Impeach the President” for countless Hip Hop songs.
The Riddle of the Sphinx
Hailing from Ethiopia, Awol Erizku was raised in the Bronx, studying at The Cooper Union before receiving his MFA from the Yale School of Art in 2014. Over the past decade, he has established himself as a singular force crafting emblematic images that have become the voice of a global generation.
His 2009 portrait, Girl with a Bamboo Earring reimagines the famous Vemeer painting Girl with a Pearl Earring as a luminous Black girl possessed with a tender beauty and innocence tempered by knowing side-eye that meets the viewer’s gaze head on. Rather than merely use the reference as a critique of art history and the systems of power it upholds, Erizku goes one step further: he opens a conversation to audiences outside of the narrow confines of Western Art.
Thus liberated, Erizku’s work simultaneously subverts and transcends the voracious strictures of Western cultural hegemony without losing a step. Rather than set itself apart, his work meet us where we are, inviting us into a mystical realm. Like the sphinx, it stands as an amalgamation of powerful archetypes that, when brought together, appear as a riddle within a riddle while never failing to intrigue and delight.
Within Erizku’s work, meaning is ambiguous, familiar, and yet just slightly out of reach, layered with the patina of multiple histories that simultaneously co-exist. “If there is a point of view present in Erizku’s art, it is PanAfrican, which encompasses everything from symbols of Africa to those that merge with American popular culture,” poet and playwright Ishmael Reed writes in Mystic Parallax.
“A skull appears on the black leather jacket of a model whose hair is dyed green. The black leather jacket might symbolize rebellion in the United States, as in Rebel Without a Cause, but it also might symbolize death in some parts of Africa,” Reed writes. “Could this jacket and skull be a reference to the massextermination event in our communities in which young Black men are mowing down their gang rivals, and bystanders become collateral damage?”
Within Erizku’s work, the questions just might be the answers we seek.
Mystic Parallax, éd. Aperture, 75$