Why Awol Erizku Is So Much More Than Just Beyoncé’s Baby Photographer
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 principle 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 homed 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 shot the photo, and became a household name overnight.
Granted his own measure of stardom, instead of riding on the success of that image the artist 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, like the 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 Erikzu's photographs will grace some 350 JCDecaux bus shelters in his a public exhibition with the Public Art Fund. The sprawling two-city exhibition is titled "New Visions for Iris," in honor of his newborn daughter.