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Awol Erizku has developed quite a name for himself as an agitator of the canon. Intent on reworking the art historical episteme, the Ethiopian-born, Bronx-raised, Los Angeles-based Erizku pits the image, invisible, against the icon, visible, to foreground the textualities of black bodies.
Take Erizku’s Donald Judd-inspired sculpture, Oh what a feeling, aw, fuck it, I want a Trillion (2015). The work consists of seven all-black regulation-size basketball rims with 24-karat gold-plated nets: an iconographic similitude to Judd’s Untitled (Stack) (1967). But there’s more to Oh what a feeling than mere mimicry of, or overtures to, Judd. Hoop dreams, and higher goals emerge, as does the escapist-cum-entangled narrative that weaves its way into how black boys dream themselves differently.1
In many respects, New Flower | Images of the Reclining Venus at FLAG Art Foundation was no different. For New Flower, Erizku turned instead to Manet’s famed Olympia (1863) and Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque (1814). Subversive for their time, both paintings riled the Parisian public and its conservative Salon. Manet and Ingres blatantly disavowed the allegorical devices that protected the white female nude; this was no Venus amidst a whimsical environment replete with distractions. In her book, Representing the Black Female Subject in Western Art, Charmaine Nelson offers up a riposte, contending that allegorical signposts like Venus “kept representations of white woman contained within the realm of art” while the black female was a woman of her own devices, responsible for the sexual gaze.2
Erizku acknowledges this dialectic, taking issue with the allegorical narrowness. As dissident as Olympia and La Grande Odalisque may appear, Erizku felt it needed a modern-day revamp that: 1) centered the peripheral black female servant in Olympia, and 2) considered Nelson and her problematic around the antithetical posturing of the black female body in relation to Western allegorical traditions. Gone are the romantic undertones and redeeming disguises—shisha pipes, Persian silks, and comfort cats. Waiting black attendants are nowhere to be found in New Flower. Instead, threadbare hotel rooms of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, frame the fray. The demure black maid, peripheral in Olympia, is now the object of desire, the new flower, Addis Ababa.3 What will be her lot? Will she be afforded the same courtesies as the white female nude? That we still find ourselves mired in such negotiations adds impetus to New Flower.
To address this impasse, Erizku opts for salon-style trimmings—red walls envelope the exhibition space—without the salon-style clutter. Each photograph in New Flower commands its own space in which to speak and be seen. Even the implicit red-light district finish feels secondary owing to the genteel embellishments sprinkled about FLAG Art. The table and flowers that receive viewers at the top of the landing evoke domesticity, as though one has strolled into Erizku’s carefully considered home.
New Flower was entirely shot in hotels, in-between spaces where sex workers—legal in Ethiopia—could bed their clients. For these women, hotel rooms present as transactional (and transitional) spaces, commutable, tailor-made for whatever acts that are to follow. In the case of New Flower, Erizku paid these women to sit for him, giving them the option to mirror Olympia or La Grande Odalisque. For some, it was just another transaction, with nudity as the commodity on offer. Others, however, viewed it as more, a gesture of agency, a salvaging of power.
Image after image capture scantily-clad women—Yeshi, Tigist, Aziza (all 2013)—reclining on nondescript beds. However, things become a tad offbeat at the uncanny mise-en-abyme in Empty Bed with The Virgin Mary (2013); Venus is noticeably missing. The yellowish walls in the photograph bring to mind Tigist and her cool, half-turned back; it seems Tigist has left in Empty Bed, or maybe she’s yet to arrive. Perhaps a new sex worker waits in the wings. Absence and presence are toyed with here, as are time and intimacy. From Tigist to Empty Bed, the different beddings thwart time—whose body laid here last? The posy of roses beside Tigist affects the room with a post-coital care. In a way, Empty Bed is theatrical yet transgressive in its implied instability, complicating the visibility of invisible labor as it relates to the oppressive morass of race and gender. Together with Tigist, the two images provide a form of double address that chronicle the de jure mix of (in)visibility and sex work.
Four of the women that were photographed decided to keep their underwear on; the other seven took after Olympia, hands guarding their sex against scopophilic eyes. Erizku had this to say regarding this sense of agency through adornment: “wearing their underwear…it was that last bit of dignity, this pride…that these women aren’t willing to let go.”4 From gesture and adornment alone, the images in New Flower reveal selfhood as a panoply of subjectivities; it would be reductive at best to categorize Yeshi as just a sex worker. With pluralism as an undercurrent, what New Flower offers is renewed thinking on how we place the black female nude vis-à-vis Western tradition. Is she only an object of sexual desire or a subject of autonomous identities?
Through Tigist and Empty Bed, we see a valiant answer to the above. In her absence and presence, Tigist negotiates her selfhood, all the while destabilizing allegorical traditions. Glancing over her shoulder, Tigist partially backs us, her face obscured. Key to this posturing is her sky blue underwear—they remain on, further fashioning this agency, this “game-changing kind of refusal in that it signals the refusal of the choices as offered.”5 This dissonance continues in Empty Bed; Tigist is gone. An absent trickster “acting with complete freedom and without social and moral constraints.”6 Nelson has leveled that allegories like Venus came from a Western visual tradition in which individuality and specificity are situated in a vacuum for the purposes of locating higher ideals within these bodies.7 Following this line of thought, if subjectivities are the end goal for the black female nude, is it prescient to rest our laurels on a tradition that evacuates selfhood from the body, let alone the black body? I think not. And neither does Tigist or Erizku. Instead, both look to cultivate this absence anew by bucking tradition, questioning perspective, and asserting absence as a point of view.8
This review was originally published in Carla issue 4.