Where Are All The Black Muses in Art?

Awol Erizku

Awol Erizku

It’s a controversial topic which is slowly but surely creeping into public consciousness.

The art world, especially classical art, is dominated by white artists and white muses- typically white men as creators and maidens with milk white skin as their stereotypical muse.

Amidst the recent awareness of the issue and ensuing debate, perhaps the most eloquent and powerful person addition to the conversation has been been the contemporary artist Awol Erizku.

His photographs recreate classical scenes from old masters, but with more diverse muses.

The most effecting of these photographic portraits is Girl With a Bamboo Earring, his retelling of Johannes Vermeer’s famous Girl With a Pearl Earring.

Girl with a Bamboo Earring, 2011

Girl with a Bamboo Earring, 2011

Erizku replaces Vermeer’s Dutch sitter with a contemporary African American woman (said to be his sister). The portrait’s sole ornamentation- a pale cream pearl earring is replaced with a bamboo hoop. Just as in Vermeer’s original, the jewellery is positioned within the portrait and its lighting, to be the visual highlight of the scene.

Girl With a Pearl Earring 1665

Girl With a Pearl Earring 1665

Not only does Erizku’s portraits change the subject of the original classic paintings, he also does much to alter their atmosphere. Erizku has said of the selection process behind choosing his sitters, “The models I choose to work with are not professional models but possess an undeniable, striking beauty”. Rather, he finds his photo’s muses on the subway, on facebook, through Tumblr. This lack of professionalism in the sitter, combined with an acutely professional photographer, results in a fresh and raw image. They are a far cry from the stiff and prescribed poses of the past.

Erizku credits his childhood growing up in the Bronx for his inspiration, saying,

the negativity that went on in my community made me want to paint a positive image of the people who might not necessarily fit the stereotype. Going to a school that didn’t necessarily reflect the kind of people I lived around and grew up with also made me want to make images that best represented the people I saw on a day to day basis but weren’t glorified in pop culture

However, the success of Erizku’s photographs are not merely the theoretical and political ideas behind them- they are backed up by serious compositional skill, photographic direction and an acutely creative eye.

And the industry cannot pretend to not be taking notice. Through his particular engagement through social media, Erizku’s photographs have been shared, retweeted and blogged all over the world.

This year, he was named by the Huffington Post as one of their recommended Top 30 Black Artists Under 40.

Looking at these highly imaginative and beautifully composed photos, certainly for myself, he’s one of my favourite artists of all time- from the classical to present.

How effective do you think Erizku’s works are? Is enough being doing to promote ethnic diversity in art, or should anything even be done? Comment below!

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You can keep up to date with Arizku’s work via Facebook  or   Tumblr.