Pushing through the shop-front door of her east Los Angeles studio, laden with bags and 10 minutes late, Njideka Akunyili Crosby apologises that she has not had time to tidy up. She has a lot on her plate. Wearing large tortoise-shell glasses and with a yellow and purple scarf wrapped around her head, despite her apparent fluster she is a graceful figure, especially given that she is eight months pregnant.
It’s been a memorable year for the 33-year-old Nigerian-born artist. In June she was awarded the Prix Canson, an international prize for works on paper, and in November she was shortlisted for the 2017 Future Generation Art Prize, worth $100,000. That same month, her 2012 painting “Drown” sold at Sotheby’s for just under $1.1m, more than five times its estimate.
In all fairness, 2015, in which she was awarded the New Museum’s Next Generation Prize in New York among other grants and accolades, was also a good year. But 2016 has been exceptional, she says, because of the increased visibility that exhibitions around the world have afforded her work. Visibility, she tells me, for an immigrant such as herself who does not see her story reflected in mainstream cultural narratives, is everything.
Akunyili Crosby was 16 when she and her sister came to the US in 1999 from Enugu, a city in south-eastern Nigeria, after her mother had won the Green Card Lottery. In the US, she was seen not as Nigerian but simply as black. She was dismayed by the lack of knowledge of her country. “It’s hard to explain what it feels like to be from a space that you feel doesn’t matter,” she says. “People confuse Nigeria with Kenya and nobody cares!”
Over the following decade, however, she became aware of a growing recognition of African artists, particularly those from Nigeria. The country’s film industry, known as Nollywood, has become the world’s third largest and Nigerian artists, musicians and designers have found a global market. A new generation of writers has come to the fore, including Taiye Selasi and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of 2013’s Americanah. Literature is a major influence for Akunyili Crosby, and her titles often borrow from these and other writers. “I could just feel something exciting was happening,” she says. “People who were from a place that had been marginalised and overlooked for so long were finally speaking for themselves.”
She quotes the cultural theorist George Gerbner: “Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.” “I think it’s so true,” she says. “Representation matters. That’s why things like #OscarsSoWhite happen. People want to see themselves. It’s what makes you feel you matter in the society you exist in. That’s what drives my work.”
Akunyili Crosby’s large domestic scenes feature herself and her family set against backgrounds that alternate between bold, flat colour, patterned batik fabric and collaged photographs. Eschewing canvas, she works exclusively on paper. Her signature technique is to fill a section of wall, for example, or a floor with a dense patchwork of photographs — her own, shot in Nigeria, and those sourced from the media — transferred using solvent.
In March, the Whitney Museum in New York acquired her 2016 diptych “Portals”, hanging it in the exhibition Human Interest. Just as thrilling for her, however, was a billboard that the museum installed along the High Line public park featuring “Before Now After (Mama, Mummy and Mamma)”, her 2015 portrait of her sister Chidiogo beside framed pictures of their late mother and grandmother. “On the High Line!” she says, eyes wide. “Talk about representation and visibility.”
In London in October, her exhibition at the Victoria Miro Gallery was her biggest solo show to date. It was especially important for her because it brought her work to a new audience, notably London’s large community of expat Nigerians.
Excitedly, Akunyili Crosby opens an email she received that morning from a Nigerian woman in London who had seen the show. “It took me back to my childhood in Nigeria,” she reads. “I recognised practically all the images you infused into your work, with the exception of the family ones… From the Omo TV ad to the Bournvita, Atlanta ’96 to Onyeka Onwenu.” These are all things, Akunyili Crosby explains, that would be familiar to anyone growing up in Nigeria in the 1980s and 1990s. Omo is the country’s leading brand of detergent (“I didn’t even know the word detergent for a long time, because everybody just called it Omo”) and Bournvita is hot chocolate. Atlanta ’96 was the Olympics in which Nigerian sprinter Mary Onyali-Omagbemi won a bronze in the 200 metres and Onwenu is a famous Nigerian singer.
“There’s a really strong collective memory that I try to tap into,” she says. “There wasn’t a lot of diversity in entertainment. We had two TV stations — a national station and a local one. Between 6pm and 10pm, everybody in the country watched the same thing — the same ads, the same music, the same programming.”
Her paintings are unapologetically autobiographical. Everybody in them she knows — with one exception being two little girls in “The Beautyful Ones” Series #3 (2014), who she photographed on a trip to Nigeria, and who reminded her of herself and her sister at a similar age. But, as she says, you don’t need to know her or her country to understand her work. The postcolonial situation she describes, in which very specific cultural references collide in a globalised, western space, will be familiar to many immigrants.
In the painting “‘The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born’ Might Not Hold True For Much Longer” (2013), which takes part of its title from a 1968 novel by Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, a kerosene lamp typical of Nigerian village life sits on an Ikea-style table near a western radiator. A woman sits on the floor — Akunyili Crosby herself, whom we quickly begin to recognise in her paintings — wearing a striking dress by contemporary Nigerian designer Tiffany Amber. “This is a no-man’s land,” says the artist. “This is a space that makes absolutely no sense.”
She puts in a lot of effort, she says, to ensure that these environments appear, at first glance, coherent and convincing. She is well versed in historical western painting, and references to Edouard Manet, Edouard Vuillard and Diego Velázquez abound in her work, as do those to the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi, whose interiors have a similar stillness and compositional precision to her own.
She nearly did not end up an artist at all. Like most of her brothers and sisters, she had intended to study medicine but failed to get in to her first-choice college. Instead, at Swarthmore, she combined biology with an art class, then went on to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and finally to Yale. It was in the art class at Swarthmore that she met Justin Crosby, her future husband.
Crosby, who is white, appears in many of his wife’s paintings. One important diptych, “I Always Face You, Even When It Seems Otherwise” (2012), was painted soon after they got married. Seated at a table surrounded by her family, she leans up to kiss him while half of a Nigerian word “–ilefu” encroaches on the other edge of the picture. Akunyili Crosby explains that the suffix has to do with being lost, and that the related word efulefu is translated as “a sellout, or someone who has lost themselves”.
When a Nigerian woman marries out of her culture, she says, there is a common feeling that she has been lost or has turned her back on her people. “When I got married, I felt that it didn’t matter, that nothing had changed.” In paintings from that time, she wanted to make a clear statement: “I love Nigeria, I love my husband. These are the two loves of my life. I don’t have to choose.
“But now… ” she pauses. “I don’t think anything has changed but as I get older I see the other side. I don’t necessarily agree with it but I see it.” Her reflections on heritage and identity are becoming more complicated as she considers the future of her American-born child. Does she ever think about moving back to Nigeria? “I do, I really do. But not for a while.”
Akunyili Crosby’s time in the US was only ever meant to be temporary. Her plan was to return to Nigeria after her medical training. Without permanent resident status, an American education, which happened to include a subject other than medicine, would have been unaffordable. What would have happened, I ask, if her mother hadn’t won the Green Card Lottery? “I think I would have been a really good surgeon,” she says. “I truly could have gone both ways. I am driven enough that I would have pushed myself to be the best doctor I could be. And I probably, hopefully, would have made a difference.”
And would she still have drawn, painted, made things? “No,” she says, giggling somewhat sheepishly. “No. I’m really odd that way. It baffles my husband. I have friends for whom art is breathing, and without art they can’t live. I just keep quiet!
“The reason I decided to do art,” she adds, “was [because] that was where there seemed more of a sense of urgency. There are plenty of people doing medicine, especially Nigerians. But art is where I really felt I had something to contribute, something fresh, something relevant, and something needed.”
CREDITS: This article was first published on financial Times – http://www.ft.com/content/22a6925e-bc06-11e6-8b45-b8b81dd5d080
Portraits by Jenny Hueston
Artworks courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London