Spotlight: Njideka Akunyili Crosby

In the midst of record-breaking auction results and notable exhibitions, New American Paintings alum, Njideka Akunyili Crosby (Northeast issue #93), is heading into a year of continued focus.  Writer and critic Michael Wilson takes a look back into Akunuili Crosby's global personal history, philosophies of culture and connection, assembled imagery, and significant milestones on the artist’s rise to prominence. 


Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Super Blue Omo, 2016, acrylic, transfers, colored pencil, collage on paper, 7 × 9 feet

image courtesy of the artist


Los Angeles-based Njideka Akunyili Crosby makes vibrant paintings informed in equal measure by her African past and her American present. Blending intimate autobiographical imagery with elements related to the postcolonial diasporic experience more broadly, Akunyili Crosby crafts multilayered paintings of domestic and social life that make reference to diverse times and places. There’s a powerful sense in these scenes—at once intimate and complex—of cultures and histories overlapping to produce a dynamic and populous “third space” in which inherited traditions remain significant while new forms emerge. The artist belongs to a newly influential generation of Africans scattered around the world—she has named Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as another member—that are helping to remake our ideas about what it means to identify with a nation, a culture, a race, in an age of globalization and reactions to it.  

Akunyili Crosby moved from her hometown of Enugu in Nigeria to the United States at the age of 16 after winning a green card lottery. She then spent a year studying for the SATs and boning up on American culture before returning to Nigeria for a year of compulsory National Service. Back in the US again, she earned a BA from Swarthmore College, a postgrad qualification from Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and an MFA from Yale, before undertaking a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem, drawing strength from that institution’s supportive atmosphere. From there, she went on to exhibit at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and was included in Jeffrey Deitch and Larry Gagosian’s “Unrealism” at 2015’s Art Basel Miami Beach fair. She also took part in the New Museum Triennial in New York and was snapped up for representation by Victoria Miro in London, her first solo exhibition at the gallery opening in October 2016.


Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Mother and Child, 2016, acrylic, transfers, colored pencil, collage and commemorative fabric on paper, 8 × 10.33 feet

image courtesy of the artist

That show, “Portals,” shared its title with a work by the artist that now resides in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. The reference to doors and windows, entrances and exits, was deliberate—Akunyili Crosby’s works most often depict interiors, within which such openings connote not only physical and visual, but also conceptual and psychological comings and goings. The artist places images of herself and her Texan husband Justin Crosby, their families and friends in seemingly everyday situations that allow for ambiguity and introspection, the thresholds around them pointing to ways into and out of the here and now. Further uniting these images are fields of pattern, representations of plants native to Nigeria and LA, personal family snapshots, and photographic reproductions of well-known figures from Nigerian TV and pop music. The latter, clipped from magazines, often hark back to the 1990s, when the artist still lived in Nigeria, and have a powerful nostalgic resonance for her and her contemporaries.


A resource of which Akunyili Crosby makes extensive and striking use is “portrait fabric.” This distinctive strain of printed textile, which the artist uses as both ground and pictorial element—it’s often worn by figures in her transferred cutouts—is a traditional Nigerian product made to commemorate special events or individuals. In a November 2016 interview in The White Review, the artist provides examples of how particular prints now have both familial and artistic significance: “There’s one in See Through (2016), which is from my mum’s campaign when she ran for senate in eastern Nigeria,” she indicates. “As is the one in Mother and Child (2016), which is also from her senatorial campaign, just a different pattern. “The Beautyful Ones” Series #5 (2016) has one from her funeral. And the last one is Wedding Souvenirs (2016), which is of my brother’s wedding.” Akunyili Crosby explains that while the fabrics were originally made in Holland, African manufacturers have since copied the style, creating myriad local variations. Cannily, she aligns this process with theorist Homi K. Bhaba’s model of cultural hybridity as an outcome of attempted mimicry, drawing a parallel with her own experience as an artist working within a different context to the one in which she was raised.


Njideka Akunyili Crosby, The Beautyful Ones, 2016, acrylic, transfers, colored pencil, pastel, collage and commemorative fabric on paper, 5.1 × 3.5 feet

image courtesy of the artist

Akunyili Crosby’s art is also a hybrid phenomenon in other formal and material terms. The works are usually made on large sheets of thick paper, for example, rather than canvas or wood. Onto these, the artist layers fabric and collaged elements with acrylic, charcoal, and colored pencil to create a rich system of complimentary and contrasting textures and hues. This use of color is not just visually imposing, but also plays an important conceptual role. The title of Super Blue Omo (2016) for example, alludes to a heavily advertised brand of washing powder, while the azure cast of the room it depicts contributes to our impression of the image as not only a comment on the way in which commercial imagery seeps into collective memory, but also a quiet examination of melancholia. Its subject is surrounded on all sides by fields of memory in the form of the images collaged into the carpet, curtains, and sofa, these images’ faded look describing a subtle blurring and blending of identities appropriate to the artist’s own extraordinary journey.  


Akunyili Crosby has big plans for the coming year; An exhibition focusing on her “Predecessors” series opens at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati in July before touring to the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College in October. And her star is still very much in the ascendency; Super Blue Omo was acquired by the Norton Museum of Art in June, and the artist made headlines a few months later when her 2012 painting Drown sold for more than a million dollars at Sotheby’s in New York. The picture, a tender double portrait of the artist embracing her reclining husband, is characteristically multilayered, its surface flickering with images that complicate and fragment these otherwise now familiar subjects. Crosby’s white shirt and skin become the backdrops for a cascade of African figures and faces, a powerful symbol of cultural intersection and love that feels newly relevant in today’s atmosphere of heightened anxiety around race.

Michael Wilson


                                                                                        Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Home: as You See Me, 2017, acrylic, transfers, colored pencil, charcoal, collage and commemorative fabric on paper, 7 × 7 feet

image courtesy of the artist


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