What happens after you've produced the most-liked, most scrutinized Instagram image ever, starring one of the world's most famous women? If you're Awol Erizku, the multi-media artist who collaborated with Beyoncé on her Internet-breaking February twin-pregnancy reveal – 11 million likes and counting – you keep doing what you're doing: Launch and plan solo gallery exhibitions around the world; take meetings with brands; develop a hip-hop music label and DJ collective and, yes, grant the occasional media interview in which you very politely avoid getting into too many specifics about working with you-know-who.
"She's a very smart person and she knows what she's doing," Erizku, 28, tells Rolling Stone. "She knows what she wants and she has such a big heart – she's so open to artist collaborations." As anyone with internet access knows, that iconic February 28th post stars Beyoncé looking like a modern-day Madonna (not Ciccone), wearing a green veil, maroon bra and baby-blue panties as she clutches her expanding belly, sitting before a massive floral wreath. (The following day introduced more Erizku-Beyoncé photos, including a Botticelli-esque nude, on the Lemonade maker's website). Born in Ethiopia, raised in the Bronx and now living in L.A., Erizku has exhibited his work – predominantly photography, sculpture and video installations – in museums and galleries worldwide, and his photo portraiture (of Viola Davis, A$AP Rocky and others) has been published in the New Yorker, Vogue and elsewhere.
While fans have strained to analyze every single detail in those images, Erizku hints that the top-secret shoot wasn't choreographed and programmed to the nth degree. "Whether it's Beyoncé or someone I met on the street, my approach to making portraits and making art is that it has to be organic," says the Yale School of Art graduate, who stresses multiple times that he's unable to divulge much about his time with the "Hold Up" singer. (Whether he was required to sign an NDA or is simply practicing extreme professional courtesy, Beyonce didn't become the undisputed master of seismic sneak-attack announcements by accident.)
Naturally, since that historic Instagram post, Erizku has been fielding a lot more inquiries from all corners. "It's tricky, man," Erizku says. "You get more phone calls, you get more requests to do certain things. A big brand comes to me, and I look at it as a possible platform to do something unique and different." And while Erizku has done commercial work since – including a VH-1 photo shoot with Kelly Rowland, Anthony Anderson and others – he's very discerning with those choices.
The challenge, he explains, is to take advantage of new creative opportunities – which can mean straddling the worlds of fine art, pop culture, corporate commerce and social media – without diluting his vision or integrity. "I'm just trying to be the best artist that I possibly can. And I'm thinking to myself, 'What if Warhol, Basquiat – what if all these guys were alive? What kind of work would they be making with these tools that are given to us?'"
Warhol and Basquiat are just two ghosts of art past whose aesthetic sensibilities are remixed in Erizku's vibrant works, which draw upon the full expanse of art history, from works of antiquities to hip hop to the current political climate, often putting the spotlight on global black culture and identity.
Pre-Bey, one of Erizku's most well-known works was "Girl With a Bamboo Earring," a captivating 2009 photo portrait which recast the star of Vermeer's 1665 masterpiece with a luminous black woman in traditional African garb. "I have a celebratory approach to everything," Erizku says. "I always try to celebrate where I come from and the things that inspire me – which, a lot of times, are things that I don't see in the world." In his 2015 video installation Serendipity, which showed at MoMA, he takes a sledgehammer to destroy a bust of David, replacing it with one of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti.
He's also deeply entrenched in music: His recent Purple Reign show in Brussels, earlier this year, exhibited paintings, photography and sculpture all in tribute to Future; he's released mixtapes as vital accompaniments to his shows. During his visit to the Rolling Stone office's cover wall, Erizku excitedly took photo and video of historic covers of David Bowie, Prince and Tupac Shakur (three of his heroes) for his latest Instagram story.
Less celebratory is his most recent exhibition, Make America Great Again, featuring a door scrawled with the graffitied word "Trump," the T as a Swastika, a desecrated American flag and other confrontational, mournful creations.
"That was from the bottom of my heart," he says. "It was from all these things that I was experiencing as a young, black Muslim man living in this world, with Trump taking power in office and what he's doing."
Next up in 2017 are a brand-new exhibition at the Night Gallery in L.A. which opens in September; a July visit to Egypt for work on the follow-up to Serendipity, and, of all things, an Awol Erizku Chess Set, expected Autumn 2018. Via his fledgling music label, Tra$h Money Record$, he will debut artist Lvcid Paroah's Snake Eyez in early July via Apple Music.
In the meantime, his most famous collaborator is expected to deliver those twins any day now. And while millions of fans are hungry for a Lemonade sequel postpartum, he argues she's moved beyond even the musical plane. "She just needs to be an example that people could learn from," he says. "As a human being who's so open, who's privileged enough or blessed enough to be in such a position. People need to understand and study Beyoncé. I think Beyoncé needs to create a textbook."
But the queen herself may have learned from Erizku, too. She used his arresting images as a starting point to launch a very personal social media art project of her own: Since that announcement, she's documented and celebrated her pregnancy with the world – something she didn't do during her first pregnancy with daughter Blue – with similarly stylized images of herself, her family, and that baby bump via her Instagram, her website and an unforgettable Grammys performance.
"That was just amazing," Erizku says. Still, his own ambitions for himself are bigger. "It's not close to the kind of impact that I want to leave. I'd like to leave this earth better than I found it. That's just the journey I'm on, so I'm just gonna try to make the best art that I can with the time given, and try to up that every step of the way."