With over 7.2 million Instagram likes achieved in less than 20 hours, this image from Beyonce is the most successful Instagram image in history – as well as the most talked about. The colourful, multi-layered shot famously announced to the world that Queen Bee is expecting twins, an event which surely everyone has heard about by now. But what is less well known is the artist behind the photograph. The shot was one of a series taken by Awol Erizku, an Ethiopian-born artist who was raised in the south Bronx, New York. We take a closer look at his other work to discover what was really going on in the world’s most famous baby announcement.
Erizku graduated with an MFA from Yale’s Visual Arts programme in 2014 before working for a number of high-profile photographers including David LaChapelle. LaChapelle’s work is known for its hyper-real and often kitsch qualities, using not only vivid colour but also drawing references from icons of art history. His influence can certainly be seen in some aspects of Erizku’s work, including the Beyonce series. Below are three examples of work by Erizku, the first two appearing to reference Manet’s iconic Olympia. The original painting, depicting a nude woman, identifiable as a prostitute, being brought flowers by a black servant has been reimagined and reinterpreted by modern artists many times, its mixture of race, power and the gaze having been explored and upended by artists from Paul Cézanne to Carolee Schneemann and Robert Morris. The painting itself references Titian’s Venus of Urbino – an interesting combination of ideas and strands meeting together in the Beyonce image below, which also includes the flowers which so often grace Erizku’s work (as in the floral basketball hoop image, below).
The theme of reimagining art history has been present throughout his career, aiming, he says, to “elevate blackness to the same level of universality as whiteness.” In his first show, Black and Gold, which opened in New York’s Hasted-Kraeutler gallery in 2012, the piece Girl with a Bamboo Earring recast the famous Vermeer painting with an African-American woman as its subject.
Media-savvy Beyonce certainly picked a perfect collaborator in Erizku. Not only does this rising star of art photography also work in the mediums of music and film, but he is also a very Instagram-comfortable creative. He uses the platform to show new work, and said in a recent interview, “I treat my Instagram account like a gallery — I keep it private and then from 9 to 5, Monday or Tuesday through Friday, like gallery hours, that’s when it’s public.” You can find him on Instragram here.