AWOL ERIZKU'S NEW MIAMI EXHIBITION WILL HAVE YOU SEEING RED, AND RETHINKING BLACK BEAUTY

 

By Nadia Sesay

Fire & Desire, Acrylic on wooden panel, 72 x 96 in, Codeine Crazy - Future, Acrylic on wooden panel, 72 x 84 x 12 in. Courtesy Nina Johnson Gallery and artist.

Fire & Desire, Acrylic on wooden panel, 72 x 96 in, Codeine Crazy - Future, Acrylic on wooden panel, 72 x 84 x 12 in. Courtesy Nina Johnson Gallery and artist.

The visuals of the urban nail salon are well-known. The sporadic flickering of the word ‘Nails’ hangs precariously in neon above advertisement for an overstated ‘spa’.  Nearby the dim image of a manicured hand glows. Hung inside the salon are reproduction posters depicting manicured porcelain-like hands. These sights are so common in fact, they no longer register on my radar on biweekly visits to the salon. Ubiquity revokes rarity, and therefore recognition, so I’ve become desensitized to these frills. I’ve also dulled to another sight – the fact that the clients in these shops often look like me, yet the hands working on my hands seldom resemble my own.

 

 Was Going to Call It Your Name, but You Didn't Let Me, Neon and Hand painted plexiglass, 22 x 44 x 3.5 in. Ed. 3. Courtesy Nina Johnson and artist.

 Was Going to Call It Your Name, but You Didn't Let Me, Neon and Hand painted plexiglass, 22 x 44 x 3.5 in. Ed. 3. Courtesy Nina Johnson and artist.

These are the details Awol Erizku’s new show, I Was Going to Call it Your Name, but You Didn’t Let Me, at gallery Nina Johnson in Little Haiti in Miami, bring to mind. At the nail shop the delicate hand is merely a medium of commerce, but that overlooked symbol takes front stage as the star of this exhibit.

The manicured hand appears repeatedly – in 20 paintings, and, of course, as a neon sign at the entrance of the gallery (although granted the sign doesn’t flicker). Notably, the hand is now brown. The walls of the gallery, painted cherry red instead of mundane white, have also endured a color transformation, highlighting Erizku’s penchant for bold splashes of color.

 

Same Ol' Mistakes, House and spray paint on OSB, 72 x 96 in. Courtesy Nina Johnson Gallery and artist.

Same Ol' Mistakes, House and spray paint on OSB, 72 x 96 in. Courtesy Nina Johnson Gallery and artist.

Erizku was born in Addis Ababa in 1988. He grew up in the Bronx and now works out of Los Angeles. Salon signage that was visible from the window of his studio inspired his new paintings. Apart from never having seen the graphic of the hand belong to a black woman – despite the nail salon’s strong association to various communities of color – he  also thought the hand’s relationship to the rose was interesting: The hand neither gives nor receives the rose, or actually grabs it, the artist had explained when we spoke in the gallery. Oddly, the ever-present rose still remains aloof from the symbolism of the appropriated brown hand.

Flowers are also a recurring theme in Erizku’s work. In one of his early exhibitions, in LA, both live and plastic flowers bloomed from an out-of-commission Porsche 914. This installation blurred the line between function and fantasy much like the rose does now.

 

First Take - Travis Scott, Acrylic on wooden panel, 38 x 42 in. Courtesy Nina Johnson Gallery and artist.

First Take - Travis Scott, Acrylic on wooden panel, 38 x 42 in. Courtesy Nina Johnson Gallery and artist.

Like many of his art exhibits I Was Going to Call is both a visual and auditory experience: A mixtape the artist created plays overhead in the gallery. Erizku blended artists like Drake, Future and 21 Savage in a soundtrack meant to “tease out different emotions from the paintings”, the gallery describes. There are no club bangers here, though. Moody and contemplative tracks play like a compilation of love songs. In between lyrics reminiscing on Percocet and strippers (from Future) are soundbites from Erizku’s friends commenting on failed relationships: “Fuck you, Awol!” was a distinct exclamation to the artist after he asked a friend about their old flame.

 

I Was Going to Call It Your Name, but You Didn’t Let Me is on view at Nina Johnson Gallery until January 7, 2017.

 
 
Nadia Sesay