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Photographer who shot Beyonce's pregnancy photos has a new exhibition

His work features Trump, a swastika and black panthers

CNN  — 

LA artist Awol Erizku’s first European exhibition ‘Make America Great Again’ has opened in London – but if you are expecting a pro-Trump theme, think again.

The Ethiopia-born artist, who is also responsible for Beyoncé’s iconic pregnancy shoot, shares his thoughts on the current political situation in America through art – and he’s not worried about hurting anyone’s feelings.

Awol Erizku, How Could I Not, 2017.

“As he [Trump] rose to power, I just felt more and more compelled to make a body of work to say something about his rise,” Erizku told CNN in an interview before the exhibition opened.

As Erizku stands in front of a sheet of corrugated metal with numbers spray painted on them (a piece called ‘How Could I Not’) he explained that the numbers relate to the American presidents; “When I first started this series of paintings in California, they were infamously called the gang paintings because a lot of the numbers were direct references to street gangs in LA.”

“The numbers in this particular painting refer to the presidents, so you have number 42 and number 44 that are not crossed out, who are my favorite presidents – that is Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – and 45 being Trump.”

Erizku said he can’t remember what specific event made him want to start working on pieces about Trump, but that he felt he had to do something; “He’s always doing some outlandish things in the media so I can’t even tell you when this happened, but I think it was probably the first time he was talking about building a wall in Mexico, or banning Muslim countries or something.”

“I’m Muslim, I’m black, I live in California, a lot of the people there are Mexicans, so a lot of my friends are Mexicans,” Erizku said.

And there are other pieces about Trump too.

Awol Erizku, Them Changes, 2017.

In the middle of the exhibition there is a piece called ‘Them Changes’ – a door with a barred window, scratches all over it and the word ‘Trump’ spray painted on the bottom, but in the place of a ‘T’ is a swastika.

“I feel like I have to talk about this piece right here, because of the use of the swastika,” said Erizku.

“On the eve of the election I was driving back home one night and I just saw this whole wall, and it said ‘F*CK TRUMP’ and the ‘T’ was a swastika and I thought that was a really interesting thing.”

THAT Beyoncé photo and other previous works

It is the most liked picture on Instagram so far this year, but when asked, Erizku says he has moved past that particular photo shoot.

“I think everyone has talked about it, it’s just something that I did, and it’s one of the many things that I’ll do, I’ve kind of moved past it.”

Awol Erizku, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 2017.

One woman that is represented in the room is Nefertiti, whose bust looks up at light reflector with a black panther printed on it.

Although Erizku moved to America when he was very young, he has tried to connect with his Ethiopian roots; “I went back three or four years ago to do a body of work called ‘The Reclining Venus,’ where I went to four different cities in Ethiopia and worked with the sex workers there and I photographed them.

“During that trip one of the first things that I did was I stopped by Egypt and I went inside a pyramid and I had this visceral feeling, I can’t really explain it, other than to say I think Egypt is really important for me.

“Ever since that trip I’ve been more and more in touch with my roots and trying to use it in a way that makes sense for me – I’m an American artist but I have African roots so I’m trying to marry the two, and trying to make something new. I think it gives me this advantage of having this unique perspective.”

Solange, Kendrick, Joey Bada$$… and Bill Cosby?

As with all his exhibitions, Erizku has a mixtape to accompany the show, he says his work feeds off it.

“My work does borrow from contemporary music” said Erizku. “With the number 12 piece [Wave Brake], in contemporary rap music number 12 makes reference to the police. It’s my way of marrying abstract art and contemporary music and creating a new vernacular for myself.

“With a lot of these works, the title of the piece is from a song that sometimes I’m playing in the studio, and then ultimately they make it into the mixtape that’s accompanied by sometimes a narrative, sometimes a soundbite that I think is important to the entire show.”

Awol Erizku portrait outside

“For this particular show there’s a clip of Bill Cosby. I think it’s important that a figure like him is not completely thrown off to the side because of what he’s done.

“In the clip he speaks about how European artists have borrowed from African culture, and how those artists are completely disregarded and we only hear about the European artist.

“A lot of the songs in the mixtape are very political, there’s Kendrick Lamar on there, Joey Bada$$, Solange is in there and if you know the culture and you know what these artists bring to music then I don’t have to explain it.

“In Kendrick’s case, he has a grip on what’s happening in America and he’s become the voice of our generation in a lot of ways, and Joey Badass’s album that he just put out is very amazing and it’s his version of this, it’s his version of ‘Make America Great Again.’”