On the first day of US Black History Month, Beyoncé sent the world a digital Valentine in the form of an Instagram announcing that she and her husband Jay Z are expecting twins, with this extraordinary photo:
The image, which showed the pop star resplendent amidst a topiary of Technicolor flowers, quickly became the most-liked Instagram of all time.
Amid the general jubilance, some joked that the picture recalled cheesy posed photos from portrait studios at a department store or a shopping mall. The department store JC Penney seized the moment to respond on Twitter.
But a wider look at a photo album released on Beyonce’s website, including haunting images of the star swimming underwater and dreamy, fairytale-like photos with her 5-year-old daughter, reveals a classic sensibility and an artist’s eye.
The album does not say who created the images, but ArtNews has tracked the work to the artist Awol Erizku, who reportedly confirmed via a text to a gallery owner that he took the photos. A 28-year-old Yale-educated artist who was born in Ethiopia and raised in the Bronx, Erizku now works in New York and Los Angeles.
Like Beyoncé, Erizku is an artist who incorporates visual art, fashion, and music into multimedia mash-ups, including mix-tapes, videos, photographs, and sculpture that play with black culture’s place in the art world.
“I am trying to create a new vernacular, in terms of how you see my work and black art as being universal,” Erizku told Complex in 2014. He has done that by remixing mainstream works, such as Girl with the Bamboo Earring, which replaced Johannes Vermeer’s lily-white Girl with the Pearl Earring with a black subject, and more recently with the film Serendipity, a direct response to the emotions he felt watching riots unfold in Baltimore as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum.
Jay Z and Beyoncé have figured directly into Erizku’s past work as well. A stack of seven basketball rims with 24-carat gold-plated nets was titled Oh what a feeling, aw, fuck it, I want a Trillion, a lyric taken from Jay Z’s “Picasso Baby.” In the spirit of Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades,” the artist appropriated an H&M shopping bag with a picture of Beyoncé on it, and then shaved his own armpit hair to create a beard for her—an ode to Jay Z’s lyric “Beyoncè is Mona Lisa with better features.”
For Beyoncé’s maternity shoot, there were no beards of armpit hair. There was however, a red Porsche overflowing with flowers, which has appeared in Erizku’s photographs in the past.
And like The Girl with the Bamboo Earring, Beyoncé was reimagined as a Madonna amidst the auto-topiary, and reclining with her daughter, Blue Ivy, by her side.
Warsan Shire poetry accompanying the photographs reads ”mother is a cocoon where cells spark, limbs form, mother swells and stretches to protect her child, mother has one foot in this world and one foot in the next, mother, black venus.”
That’s just how Beyoncé looks in these pictures, her pregnant body floating weightless amidst flowing fabric, her flower crowns undisturbed.
Maternity photos will never be the same.