Awol Erizku broke the record for Instagram’s most-liked photo with an image that powerfully challenges the predominantly white narratives of art history.
In February, Beyoncé posted a portrait of herself on Instagram to announce to the world that she was expecting twins. The photograph pictures the cultural icon donning a veil and clutching her belly in a way that recalls the Virgin Mary. Within hours, it became the platform's most popular post of all time, clocking more than 7.2 million likes the first day it was published.
Shared on the first day of Black History Month, the photograph was taken by 29-year-old artist Erizku, who has long rewritten Western art historythrough his work to include people of color. For one series, Erizku traveled to his birthplace of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to capture photographs that depict female sex workers reclining in the style of paintings like Édouard Manet's Olympia (1863). This year, at Ben Brown Fine Arts in London, he mounted a solo exhibition titled "Make America Great Again"; and at Night Gallery in Los Angeles, he presented a body of work using imagery sourced from a rejected 1968 Black Panther coloring book to explore institutionalized racism and police brutality in the United States.
Erizku's art has penetrated the prevailing but not always particularly substantive realm of popular culture: His photograph of Beyoncé unseated a Selena Gomez selfie in which she was sipping Coca-Cola from a straw as Instagram's most popular image. That title was also previously held by a Kendall Jenner selfie in which her hair had been arranged to resemble a series of hearts. Erizku's photograph's popularity coincided with a 78-percent increase in the use of the "photography" hashtag on Instagram this year, according to data provided by the platform. And the fact that an artwork-never mind one that tackles racial bias during a time when the United States is undergoing a significant reckoning over institutionalized racism-can now reach more people in a day than the number who attend the Louvre in a year marks a major milestone in the history of visual culture.