The sprawling multimedia installations on display in "Mystic Parallax"—Awol Erizku's solo show at The FLAG Art Foundation—seem to extend beyond themselves. A red glow emitting from neon signage in Fuck Twelve (2018), as it collides with the scent of burning incense and a soundtrack, leads viewers toward an all-encompassing sensory experience.
The exhibition's titular film, Mystic Parallax: Visual Manifesto (2019), reveals a copy of the 1984 book Flash of the Spirit—in which Yale art historian Robert Farris Thompson connects Black people's artistic achievements in the Americas to African cultural traditions—being engulfed in flames. A sculptural assemblage, Submission (2018-20), presents the volume's scorched remains within a wooden mask, which resides on a prayer rug.
Erizku has long cultivated such symbolically complex imagery as a central component of his practice. Through this mode, his work gives shape to a counter-memory as it resurfaces historical narratives and artifacts so as to upend colonialist ideologies while invigorating Black subjectivity.
Playing into this conceptual framework, fire has always been useful for Erizku's purposes. In "Mystic Parallax," the act of burning—documented on video and in photographs—is the leitmotif. In its aftermath—from sheets of paper marred by hot ashes, to smoldering masks, to aromatic smoke wafting from incense sticks—these objects are a testament to its transformative power. For Erizku, burning is less a mode of destruction than it is a kind of rebirth. Whatever survives, after all, can be reinterpreted.
Another strategy Erizku employs in seeking to refresh tired perspectives: plunging ancient forms into contemporary contexts. Take, for example, Nefertiti-Miles Davis (2017), for which the artist encased a bust of Nefertiti in mirrored tiles. The finished piece, when hung from the ceiling, essentially turns the iconic Egyptian queen's likeness into a functional—but no less iconic—disco ball. — Gianna Samms
Awol Erizku, Jaheem, 2020. Digital chromatic print, 40 x 53 3/8 inches.