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Ethiopia-born, US-based artist Awol Erizku burst onto the scene in 2012 with Black and Gold, an exhibit of portraits that depicted African figures in the context of classic art pieces; the collection included Girl with a Bamboo Earring, which referenced the iconic Vermeer and became a signature piece. And according to the artist, he has always been interested in critiquing and interrogating art history. ‘I think that’s a result of early exposure to Western art, and a lot of it,’ he explains. ‘It became something that I felt needed to be challenged once I realised there wasn’t enough of what I wanted to see. So that process went from being enamoured by these sorts of images to investigating, questioning and then offering new propositions as to how we can see and engage with these things.’


But there’s a playful pop culture influence to Erizku’s work as well. ‘I mean, I’m a New York City kid, so I can’t help what I’m surrounded by,’ he says. ‘And I came up in an age of Tumblr, and that culture of making an image and going online to share it with the world was something that aided my process of making and disseminating my works.’


In celebration of Swire Properties Arts Month, The Style Sheet sat down with Erizku to discuss his career, perspective and his striking Gravity installation for Art Basel Hong Kong’s first offsite Encounters, currently exhibited in Park Court, Pacific Place, which realises the likeness of Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun in a giant inflatable sculpture filled with artefacts.

Gravity, 2023. Copyright Awol Erizku, courtesy of Ben Brown Fine Arts

The Style Sheet: How old were you when you moved from Ethiopia?

Awol Erizku: ‘I was, like, a little little nugget! And I draw on things that happened during the process of migration, moving around and travelling, and experiencing and dealing with different cultures. It informs a large part of what I do, and that brings me back to Hong Kong, which is where Gravity came to life. 

It was actually part of my first show here with Ben Brown in 2018, an exclusively neon show, with the exception of Gravity being an off-site installation. But we couldn’t do it in the time that we were aiming to do the show, so we held on to it thinking we’d show it in a few years. Now feels like the right moment. I feel like people have bonded together over something globally, and that’s my main interest: how do I find ways to engage people with different backgrounds? It's interesting to bring these sorts of ideas to a multicultural, multiracial, place; this feels like New York, like Hong Kong has the same energies. It’s exciting. And then, of course, showing it in this busy intersection inside a mall environment is also a very interesting context for me.’

Yes, is this the first time you’ve done something like this in a mall?

It is something I’ve never done before. I saw an opportunity in Hong Kong, where the mall is not just a mall. There’s a bigger draw here than anywhere else. And I think specifically with Pacific Place, there’s a lot of history and it’s an iconic mall. I’ve known about it for many years, so to me it made sense, and I really wanted to show Gravity in a more effective way where people encountered it unexpectedly as opposed to going somewhere expecting to see art. I think there's a lot that happens when you’re met with something unexpectedly versus when you’re anticipating to see something.

Gravity works on a lot of levels. It's eye-catching, it’s playful. It interrogates art and history again, it brings a new kind of materiality to a very old, traditional subject matter. It also takes us outside the white box gallery, as you said. Talk us through the inspiration and the creation process.

Well, I'm a conceptual artist, so my ideas dictate the medium that the work is finalised in. When I made the neon show in 2018, that came from experiencing Hong Kong for the first time and I became adamant about using this dying art. It speaks to this shift from analogue to digital. So this idea comes from synthesising different ideas, having made other objects that function in one way and then wanting to do something different. I’d done a Nefertiti disco ball previously, and that asked the question, what’s next?

So I went for King Tut, wanting to see something light-hearted but also with a serious context, and with the experience of seeing it from far away and then being drawn into it by the way it looks. And once you make your way down to the lower level, you’re engaging with the texts and the materials inside. One is a portrait from Black and Gold, which informs the work. There are books sourced from my studio, incense oils and other things that have touched different parts of the world. I think it speaks to this idea of King Tut and how we identify with these symbols and historical legacies, how they’re being misconstrued and misunderstood.

So for me, it’s about recontextualising them in a more modern context, bringing in a materiality to this ancient figure. That was important: allowing a new generation to deal with history in a more exciting and engaging way, as opposed to being didactic and very narrow about it. There are so many books that exist on the subject of King Tut, on Egyptology, on civilisations, but rarely do we see them in their true context, which is that these things originated in Africa, and Egypt is in Africa, not the Hollywood version that we see. These things are very important to me.

Malcolm x Freestyle (Pharaoh’s Dance), 2019-20. Copyright Awol Erizku, courtesy of Ben Brown Fine Arts

You’ve mentioned that your Ethiopian heritage gives you a kind of Eastern perspective. That comes through in your work, and definitely comes through here. Is it something that you've deliberately cultivated or has it arisen subconsciously?

My process has always been intuitive. And over the years I’ve been making art, there’s been something accumulative. So I owe a lot of it to the constant investigation and what happens when you’re inching away every day to get to a bigger idea.

Having Eastern and Western sensibilities is very important for me, and I think other artists like David Hammons have that as well. For me, it’s a core interest. I think I'm interested in finding a universal iconography that I can then infuse with more meaning. Again, like this inflatable piece in this context being something that’s easier to encounter than going to a destination to see art. There’s a universality. It's an attempt to draw things together and to draw people together.

The Last Tears of the Deceased, 2021 (left) and Nefertiti (Black Power), 2018 (right). Copyright Awol Erizku, courtesy of Ben Brown Fine Arts

You’ve spoken previously about Picasso and how an artist’s life isn't just about what happens in the studio. Could you expand on that as it relates to your practice? 

Yes, artists have complex lives. We only see the tip of the iceberg — we’re not considering the life of the artist and what happens outside of the studio that informs the practice. I say Picasso as an example because he’s a universal figure. He reinvented himself so many times, which speaks to his longevity. When people were looking right he went left, then they’re going left he goes right. And I like that approach.

You also work across a lot of mediums. Are there any that are really drawing you in at the moment?

I’ve been making a lot of large-scale sculptures. I just mounted an exhibition in London with Ben Brown, which has these really big hybrids that are not quite paintings and not quite sculptures. There’s a large stack of dice in a pan-African colourway, so they're social sculptures. I’m excited about those things.

Swire Properties is pleased to present Gravity at Park Court in Pacific Place until 2 April. See here for more detail and to join our Instagram challenge.