How do you follow up creating the most liked photo ever on Instagram? With a massive Fuck Trump art show of course! Awol Erizku is the Ethiopian-American artist behind those kitsch Beyoncé pregnancy pictures (something he’s proud of, but keen to move beyond), and he’s just opened his first European show in London.
Lifting the President’s “Make America Great Again” rallying cry for his exhibition title, but fully twisting it to his own progressive means, Erizku pulls no punches by spraying a heavily secured suburban American door with a swastika for the “T” of Trump (he spotted the real-life version of this on a wall in Santa Monica). At the show’s opening, he’s also wearing a t-shirt with Trump’s face blended with Hitler’s, which he bought at a cheap tourist store in London. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is so brilliant!’” he says.
So what prompted him to go from the global notoriety of immortalising Beyoncé’s bump (the ultimate society portrait of now) to trying to take down the President of the USA through art? “Trump is always doing outlandish things in the media, but the first work here came off the back of him talking about building the wall on the Mexican border. I’m a Muslim, I’m black, I live in California, a lot of people there and my friends are Mexicans,” he says. He wanted to fight back.
Erizku is protesting through his art, in the same way Kendrick Lamar (“Kendrick has a grip on what’s happening in America and he’s become the voice of a generation”) and Joey Badass are doing through their music. Both rappers feature on a conceptual mixtape that plays in the gallery on loop throughout the show, along with Migos, Travis Scott, Future, Solange, and J. Cole, as well as soundbites from artist Kerry James Marshall and, more controversially, Bill Cosby.
The work sits in the exact opposite of the traditional white cube – Ben Brown Fine Arts in Mayfair has been painted into a totally black cube. To run along with the Trump-bashing, there are celebrations of the Black Panthers, Muhammed Ali and Nefertiti. “I’m praising the Black Panthers and am advocating for something like it for times like this. I’m trying to get the conversation started.”
Whilst Black Lives Matter is a great protest movement, they certainly lack the symbolic punch of the Black Panthers, whose icon is proudly painted across the Stars’n’Stripes, picket fences and the flowers in his piece American Beauty. “We need more Malcolm X’s and Nikki Giovanni’s and people like that,” Erizku asserts.
In How Could I Not, where corrugated yellow metal is spray-painted with numbers, he has 42 and 44 visible, but 43 and 45 crossed out to show how which Presidents he digged and which he didn’t. Clinton and Obama get the nod, but he’s not here for Bush or Trump. Whilst the show’s title could seem like a straight piss-take out of Trump’s retrograde slogan, this fondness for Clinton and Obama times suggest he did know a better, more open-minded America. And it’s something he’s striving for through the work.
But he’s not ready to pretend that America has ever been great, even under Barack. “I’m a young black man in America. I always have to walk with my hoodie down and looking over my shoulder everywhere I go. At times I can’t wear my hoodie going home, no matter how cold it is, just in case I get mistaken for something I’m not. That’s been the symbol and embedded in people’s head that a black person is a villain or something. My friends who aren’t black don’t have to think twice about that.”
Awol Erizku: Make America Great Again, 20 April – 2 June 2017, Ben Brown Fine Arts, London.