Courtesy awol erizku / moma

awol erizku has hacked vermeer and now he's taking over moma

The LA-based artist talks to i-D about his new film, Serendipity, premiering in NYC this weekend.

by Antwaun Sargent
15 May 2015, 5:25pm

Courtesy awol erizku / moma

There's a scene in artist Awol Erizku's new film, Serendipity, in which he takes a sledgehammer and smashes a bust of David and replaces it with one of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. It is his way of dramatically calling attention to the fact that in American culture black cultural labor isn't always acknowledged.

It's a theme that runs throughout the 26-year-old's work. In 2012, Erizku, at his first solo show, "Black & Gold," updated Johannes Vermeer's Renaissance painting Girl with a Pearl Earring by replacing the white figure with a girl of color and trading in her pearl for bamboo. His portrait, The Girl with a Bamboo Earring, served to bring attention to the idea that black beauty should be as universally acknowledged as the white aesthetic.

Erizku, a New Yorker who now lives in LA, also makes work that references his own generation. Last summer he showed the sculpture Oh what a feeling, aw, fuck it, I want a Trillion during his gallery show "The Only Way Is Up." The piece takes its name from a line in Jay Z's Picasso Baby, while its form alludes to Donald Judd's celebrated Untitled (Stack) series of vertical iron boxes. Erizku reinterprets Judd's structures as seven NBA-regulation gold basketball hoops, in a nod to communities where basketball is high culture.

On Sunday, May 17, Erizku will take over New York's Museum of Modern Art, as a part of the museum's PopRally series, to premiere what he calls his "visual manifesto." We caught up with the artist to talk about his new work and to get an exclusive preview of the film — and a listen to the second volume of his Serendipity mix.

This is the first time you're showing film — does Serendipity follow the same themes of identity and visibility we've seen in your previous work?
I studied with Sharon Hayes so film has always been an interest, but this is like my visual manifesto. This is the adult version of what I'm trying to say. When I was a kid and I went to museums, I saw a lot of art that didn't represent me, so I'm trying to bring what I find valuable. The ideas just came together — that's where the title of the film, Serendipity, came from.

It seems like the film operates in the same way your portrait The Girl with the Pearl Earring does: it empowers black imagery in spaces where we often don't see those images.
The general sense is that a quick reference to Western Art is a bust of David and nothing else matters. I'm tired of that. I would rather see Nefertiti.

Still from 'Serendipity.' Courtesy Awol Erizku/MoMA.

Even if you take Nefertiti and put her in the place of David does that really change the way we come to understand beauty?
That's the thing as a young artist. I am trying to cause a ripple effect and by doing so be the most influential artist of my generation. There is no harm in using non-European gestures in an honorable way. I don't know, maybe I'm a romantic but the world doesn't have to end with a bust of David.

There are some disorienting moments in the film. In some scenes two white girls with French braids wear shirts that label them as "African Art."
Yeah, you are seeing things that are conflicting. They are rocking French braids that you would see black girls wearing but the braids are European, so who do they belong to? Who owns this hairstyle? I wasn't trying to make a narrative film. The point is that you are looking and listening to things that create conflict. It's a statement about reality.

Still from 'Serendipity.' Courtesy Awol Erizku/MoMA.

There's a scene where you are flipping through Instagram, which speaks to the fact that your work is as much about racial identity as it is about your generation. How has Instagram played a role in your practice?I use Instagram to date my work, and show my stream of consciousness. I release work through Instagram, and I have done a few shows on Instagram by taking pictures found on Instagram using hashtags like "hoops," and "flowers," only to put that work out by treating my account like a gallery — from 9 am to 5pm, my account was public and anyone could view the show.

There's also a trap music element in the film, which is in conversation with the conceptual mix tapes you release when you have shows. Do you consider the mix tapes to be a sonic representation of your work?
You can be looking at a piece of shit and if it has a killer press release it seems interesting. Fuck that. When you have Instagram and Soundcloud at your fingertips why not do something creative that gives background to the work? If you think about how David Hammons used jazz in his work and how that spoke to his generation, trap music speaks to my generation and I couldn't be at MoMA and not put my culture on the pedestal.

PopRally will premiere 'Serendipity,' an evening of films and photography by Awol Erizku — featuring a special sound performance by MeLo-X and a DJ set by Kitty Ca$h — on Sunday, May 17.


Text Antwaun Sargent
Photography courtesy MoMa

Awol Erizku
pop rally