Interdisciplinary artist Awol Erizku is making a name for himself in art history by looking back at what's come before him. Since his very first art show, in which he reimagined Johannes Vermeer's renowned painting Girl with the Pearl Earring as Girl with the Bamboo Earring, Erizku has fought for the visibility of people of color in fine art. His latest project takes on the romantic portrayal of prostitutes in works like Édouard Manet's Olympia and Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque. Erizku's exhibit, New Flower | Images of the Reclining Venus is on display now at the FLAG Art Foundation in New York City.
Both Manet's and Ingres's paintings depict sex workers as beautiful white women, luxuriating in their dimly lit, silk-laden bedrooms. Olympia even features a Black servant beside the prostitute, seemingly at her beck and call. These images depict a narrative that no longer exists, if it ever did. With that in mind, Erizku pursued a more realistic image of sex work in his home country of Ethiopia.
Addis Ababa, the country's capital city, is known for its booming sex industry: It contains the largest number of brothels anywhere in Africa, with 150,000 women (and some girls as young as 8 years old) working as prostitutes every night. They charge as little as $1 for their services — for many, it's the easiest way to make any money at all in a country with an unemployment rate over 50%.
Once Erizku's subjects agreed to be photographed, he made it clear that the women were in control. "I left it to them to create the poses based on the art historical images I showed them," he explains. "Some chose a direct gaze, like Manet’s Olympia," he adds, while "some chose to look away." Ultimately, he says, "I respected their choices."
Each image is arresting in its own right. Shot in hotel rooms around the city, the photos present prostitution in a very different light than the original paintings do. No one waits on these women. Posters of Jesus and the Virgin Mary hang over their heads, and it's difficult to say if they are posted for protection or judgment. Erizku successfully strikes an incomparable balance, making his viewers both customers and voyeurs. Some of the women confront the camera with their gaze so directly that they seem to ask what you're doing there.
Gone are the luxury and glamour of Manet and Ingres' paintings, and what is left is reality. "Awol represents the Black figure, specifically the female, in the context of art history as a focal point and an icon of beauty,” states FLAG director Stephanie Roach.
Erizku will appear at the FLAG Art Foundation in NYC this evening for a conversation with journalist Alicia Quarles and FLAG founder Glenn Fuhrman. West Coasters can check out an exhibit of his work in painting and sculpture at an art space in downtown Los Angeles that he has temporarily named Duchamp Detox Clinic. Click ahead for a selection of images from New Flower.