The artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby was 16 when she left her native Nigeria to study in the United States in 1999. Having grown up in the city of Enugu, she went on to earn degrees from Swarthmore College and Yale, after completing post-bac studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. As a young African immigrant, she learned to straddle the divides between black and white, African and American, local and foreign, while negotiating her own identity between worlds.
And yet, she recalls, she had experienced much greater culture shock when she moved from her home in southeastern Nigeria to Lagos, where at the age of 10 she was accepted into one of the country’s most prestigious girls’ boarding schools. There she discovered a pulsing, cosmopolitan city, and met, for the first time, girls from wealthy families who had the means to travel for leisure. These “bobblers,” she remembers, often returned from school holidays with the latest Disney merch and accounts of the American TV shows they had watched overseas. A favorite at the time was Friends, which the bobblers would recap, scene by scene. “We’d watch it through their storytelling,” Akunyili Crosby told me one humid afternoon this past April, sitting in her kitchen in Los Angeles. “And then, when I’d go home, I’d narrate each episode for my family so they could watch it, too.” When she finally arrived in the U.S. and actually saw Friends for the first time, she thought to herself, I’ve seen this episode, but very differently, because I was imagining it.
Her imagination has served her well. Akunyili Crosby’s collage paintings on paper, with their cinematic depictions of domestic interiors, lovers, and private social gatherings, lure the viewer into a riptide of images that tell complex narratives about dislocation and transcultural daily life. “Lagos was my first taste of a multicultural place, and it made me dream of more,” she said. “I realized the world was vast, and I wanted to experience all of it.” Her subjects include herself and her family and friends caught in a tender embrace or sharing tea; other imagery—culled from family portraits, her own snapshots, Nollywood films, advertisements, and Nigerian fashion magazines—reference the country’s revolutionary history and complex postcolonial present. The deeply personal universe she depicts is neither Nigeria nor America, she is quick to point out, but some other space that she—and any immigrant—occupies. “My journey has created a character who doesn’t really fit into any box.”
On the day of my visit, her son, Jideora, born in December, was cooing in the arms of his male babysitter in the garden. Akunyili Crosby and her Texas-born husband, Justin Crosby, who is also an artist, had moved into their modernist ranch house the previous July, she explained, though given her pregnancy and work demands, they had only recently finished unpacking boxes and hanging paintings acquired through trades with friends like Wangechi Mutu, Kehinde Wiley, and Charles Gaines. These took pride of place in the living room, which was furnished simply with a couch, Turkish pillows found on Etsy, and a tiny carved bone sculpture of a Benin Queen Mother’s head, an iconic Nigerian talisman.
Akunyili Crosby, 34, is tall and elegant, and has a gentle face, with a scar over her left eye—the result of a childhood sleepwalking accident. She was wearing a short black shift and tortoiseshell glasses, dangly turquoise earrings, and a patterned yellow scarf wrapped around her head. She was just getting back into the studio, following a year filled with milestones. Last fall, she had her first solo gallery show in Europe, at Victoria Miro in London. The clamor for her work was such that the gallery sold her paintings only to public museums, including the Tate Modern and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The previous March, the Whitney Museum of American Art had acquired her 2016 diptych Portals and presented it in its April 2016 show “Human Interest.” Three months after that, she won the Prix Canson, an international prize for works on paper. (She had already won the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Wein Prize and the New Museum’s Next Generation Prize, both in 2015, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Contemporary Artist Prize, in 2014.) What has further made her the talk of the art world is the fact that the price of her work has soared dramatically. Just a year ago, her pieces hovered around the $100,000 mark; then, last March, The Beautyful Ones, 2012, sold at Christie’s for more than $3 million. “I don’t stay up all night when I’m seven months pregnant so that my work can be auctioned,” she said when the subject came up. “People expect me to be happy, but it put a spotlight on me in a way I don’t like at all. I like operating quietly, on my own, in the background.”
Now she was preparing new paintings for a show at the Baltimore Museum of Art, opening October 25, and for Prospect New Orleans, a citywide triennial that begins November 18. In October, the Tang Museum at Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, New York, brings together works from her series “Predecessors,” which looks at changes across generations—from her grandmothers’ insular village life to her own generation of so-called Afropolitans, “who are supercosmopolitan,” she said, “but trying to hold onto traditional things in their own way.”
To that end, she uses the language of Western painting in the service of her own story, likening her approach to that of writers such as the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who presented characters occasionally speaking in their local dialects, without translating their words for the reader. “It’s a way of saying to the person who doesn’t speak that language, ‘This is not for you,’ ” she said. Her densely patterned works combine paint, fabrics, acrylic, and transferred photographic images. “I wanted to put out pictures of these parts of Nigeria that I knew and experienced. People forget that life exists in these places. There are serious things that are wrong in the country, but people exist and thrive. We hang out. We get married. We talk as a family. We lie in bed together. I can’t make this point enough. It’s hard to think people matter if you don’t feel connected to them. And so it’s about making that connection.” The intimacy of her work, says her friend the Nigerian-born, London-based fashion designer Duro Olowu, “makes the viewer a voyeur.”
A number of Akunyili Crosby’s paintings portray tender moments between her and her American husband, who is white. The two were married in both a church and a village wedding in Nigeria in 2009, following a campaign by the artist to get her father accustomed to the idea. “When a Nigerian woman marries out of her culture, there is a feeling that she has turned her back on her people,” she explained. “I wanted to make clear in the work that I love Nigeria, I love my husband. I don’t have to choose.” In Ike Ya, 2016, the artist sits on a sofa while her husband kneels to embrace her, their limbs a collage of images, surrounded by Nollywood film posters, and Bring Back Our Girls slogans, a reference to the 2014 kidnapping of schoolgirls by Boko Haram. Likewise, in the diptych I Always Face You, Even When It Seems Otherwise, 2012, the artist is seated at a table surrounded by her family, and leans up to kiss her husband, while ilefu, a Nigerian suffix for “lost,” appears on the other edge of the picture.
“The viewer is kind of engulfed and pulled into this world that goes beyond his field of vision,” she said of Portals, as we looked at drawings she’d made for it. “There are different things for people to latch onto. You can see a fan box on the wall, something I associate with Nigeria, and think, I’m in this space, I know this space. But then maybe it’s the table from Justin’s grandmother, or the lantern from my grandmother, or these commemorative fabrics that put you outside the space again. So you’re not quite sure of your footing, because sometimes you’re validated and sometimes you’re challenged.”
Thelma Golden, the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, where the artist won a much sought-after residency in 2011, the year she graduated from Yale, applauds the unique way in which Akunyili Crosby has taken up the challenge to “reimagine painting as a space to explore identity, culture, and history,” she says. “She has done so in ways that are really broad in their set of painterly references, but deep in the way she’s mining her own very interesting story.”
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Akunyili Crosby typically spends three months making a painting, meticulously assembling it image by image. Her drawings usually begin with the photographs she takes of herself and her husband standing in for others. From there she invents as she goes, changing out the faces so that, while rendered realistically, the resulting tableau “is a fiction that could be true.” As a kind of palate cleanser, she also makes monochromatic oil portraits on canvas that at first glance appear as blocks of color. But get up close to Janded, 2012, and you’ll see a haunting hybrid of a village girl and a sophisticate, with a tribal scar on her cheek, a cameo earring, and an elegant updo inspired by a photograph of Tyra Banks.
Had she not emigrated to the United States, Akunyili Crosby would likely never have become an artist. The fourth of six siblings, she excelled at sciences and skipped a grade. Her mother was a professor of pharmacology at the University of Nigeria, her father, a surgeon—Akunyili Crosby remembers curling up under the table with his atlas of diseases. Her family was middle class, and the kids wore hand-me-downs or had special clothes made by a tailor. (She didn’t know her dress size until she moved to America.) During weekends and summers, Akunyili Crosby visited her grandmother in the village; there was no electricity, and bedtime was at sundown. At boarding school in Lagos, she was deemed by the other students “a bush girl” and laughed at for her native Igbo accent. “So I became very good at code-switching, at learning what to tone down.”
Her mother won the U.S. green card lottery for the family, and, one by one, each kid went abroad. “Unbeknownst to us, my mother had this dream for her kids to study outside the country,” Akunyili Crosby recalled. “Coming to the States any other way would not have been possible, because you have to pay out of pocket, which we definitely couldn’t do.” She took her first painting class at a community college in Philadelphia, during a gap year she and one of her sisters spent there on their own, acclimating to their new surroundings, studying for the SATs, and learning about American history. Her art teacher advised her to look into a college with an art program, something she’d never considered because medicine was the sole profession esteemed by her family. Only when she did not get accepted early-decision to Johns Hopkins did she expand her search. At Swarthmore, she studied biology and art and met Justin, whom she painted during one of the first times they hung out. But she was still on the fence about an art career. “I felt so guilty,” she recalled, “because so many people want to leave Nigeria, and here I had the chance to go to a good school and do something.”
She returned home for a year, in 2004, partly to clarify her decision to pursue art, and to slowly break it to her parents that she was in a serious relationship with a white American man. “That’s why I feel like my art and Justin are so linked,” she said, splaying her long, thin fingers to make the point. “Because it was all or nothing. You rebel or you don’t.” Her mother, Dora, took the news in stride, having by then moved to Lagos to work as head of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, where she was battling the crime cartels profiting off the kind of fake medicine that had killed her diabetic sister.
Akunyili Crosby was visiting for Christmas the day an assassination attempt was made on her mother. En route from a family reunion in the village, Akunyili Crosby and several of her siblings were traveling in a car behind their mother’s when they heard shots ring out. “The back window of my mom’s car was all gone, and there was a bullet hole in the front,” she said. “That’s when we realized what had happened. My mom kept saying her head was burning and she didn’t know why. When she finally took off her head scarf, we saw the bullet had left a burn mark on her scalp. It’s happening, and you can’t believe this is your life.” Despite her family’s entreaties to her to quit, her mother, who died in 2014 of cancer, stayed on in the job, eventually becoming a national hero and the Nigerian minister of Information and Communications. The family’s fortunes rose as a result.
Akunyili Crosby’s breakthrough as an artist came after she returned to the States and pursued her MFA at Yale. While there, she discovered the work of the artist Kerry James Marshall, whose depictions of black identity and intimacy, using the language of Western painting, “blew my mind,” she said, recalling his 2009 portrait of a black woman “with this big, beautiful hairstyle” holding a painter’s palette. “I don’t think any work has had an effect on me like that. He was putting images in a space where you don’t expect to see them. And I’m thinking, What am I looking at? It’s this woman who is unapologetically black. Black, black, black. Not even a darkish brown aubergine.” She had developed her technical chops at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, she said, but now she saw that she could make her own rules.
At that point, she was making paintings and drawings but hadn’t found a way to incorporate the Nigerian images and magazine clippings that covered her studio floor. Several of her professors had advised that she might want to pay more attention to them, because they seemed to pull at her. It was work by the Kenyan-born, New York–based artist Wangechi Mutu that helped her see that an image could be composed of many others. During her residency at the Studio Museum, Akunyili Crosby ran after Mutu on the street one day and invited her to visit. “Many artists tend to work out a lot of their angst and pain in their work, but what struck me is that her narratives are quite romantic,” recalls Mutu, who’s become a mentor. “There’s a tenderness that comes from many things—from being resolved about your decisions and being at one with what you’re letting the world see about yourself. I found that quite different.”
Akunyili Crosby’s new pieces for the Baltimore Museum show will take a slightly darker turn, prompted by the current political climate and ever-pointed talk about race. Three pairs of works will address “casual racism,” she said—the ways we consume images of blackness in America and whiteness in Nigeria through “racially loaded objects.” She had been waiting for the right time to use photos she had taken at a party in Dallas of a blackamoor on a dining table holding candies. “Slavery’s over, but you can have this black statue serve you in perpetuity,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that no one at the party thought this statue was problematic. They thought of it as an antique.” Its companion piece would depict images of the Virgin Mary, and the plastic Clonette dolls that Akunyili Crosby had grown up with, which were produced in West Africa for West Africans and bore the faces of Caucasian British schoolgirls. “Sometimes the best critiques are just holding up a mirror so people see their reflection.”
Akunyili Crosby visits Nigeria annually and continues to hone her code-switching skills so that people don’t realize that she doesn’t live there anymore. “It’s almost like a game I play in my head,” she said. “I like trying to figure out what it is that lets them know I’m a foreigner. The way I phrase something? Put my outfit together? If I can pinpoint what it is that ties you to one place and not to another, then I can really play with it in my work.”
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