If you haven’t yet heard the name Njideka Akunyili Crosby, then you haven’t been paying attention, as she is a young (32-year-old) Los Angeles-based artist on a meteoric rise and her work is phenomenal–the most jaw-droppingly wonderful and accomplished work I have encountered in an age. That said, I walked right by it at the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial: Surround Audience, where both her two paintings on view and I were overwhelmed by the hubbub. Akunyili Crosby has since gone on to have simultaneous solo exhibitions at L.A.’s Hammer Museum and Art + Practice and to win the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Wein Prize. As of November 23, 2015, a billboard entitled Before Now After (Mama, Mummy and Manna), which reproduces one of her paintings, has been on view on the High Line as a public art installation initiated by the Whitney Museum and also in November 2015, Architectural Digest identified her as among the “incredible artists on the rise” in its dedicated Art Issue.
I met the artist and truly saw the work for the first time in the space of The Beautyful Ones at Art + Practice in late September. (As she told me at the time, the trick to pronouncing her first name is to “hum the ‘N’.”) Akunyili Crosby, who was born in Enugu, Nigeria, went to Swarthmore College and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and then to Yale for her MFA; she is now a visiting instructor of painting at Cal Arts. The artist uses her life experience as an immigrant who frequently revisits her homeland to reflect upon Nigeria’s rapidly changing culture, her childhood and family relationships as well as upon her current living situation and the history of art.
Akunyili Crosby’s paintings are large-scale works on heavy paper in which she combines naturalistic depictions in portraits, group portraits and the occasional still life and domestic interior with Xerox transfers drawn from Nigerian lifestyle magazines and family photos. These in turn are judiciously intermingled with flatly painted solid color areas and intricately rendered hand-painted patterns. The artist works on instinct, her labor-intensive paintings evolving in the process of their making, and the whole is so smart, so right. The work is intimate and personal, even confessional, while at the same time engaging in cultural observation and commentary and embracing universal concerns.
In I Still Face You, 2015, the artist, wearing a yellow dress, is seen with her husband (in the red shirt) and other family members gathered around a table in an interior. The artist has said that in this painting she was reimagining bringing her husband, a caucasian American whom she met at Swathmore, to Nigeria to meet her family for the first time. The stately rendering of her body in contrappasto evokes both classical sculpture and Old Master painting, which together with the closely observed reflections seen on the round wooden tabletop look back to the training
she would have received in life drawing and drawing from casts at the tradition-bound Pennsylvania Academy. The wholly blank expanse in sunshine yellow behind evokes the more contemporary world of abstract painting. The Xerox transfers from Nigerian magazines and from old and more recent family photographs line the walls, articulate the frame of the balcony and animate the patterned dresses worn by the other women present and the checkered upholstered chairs.
The artist has indicated that a point of focus for her is negotiating her position relative to a rapidly changing Nigeria, which she struggles to apprehend. This nation has long assimilated influences from foreign cultures (Great Britain, which colonized Nigeria until its independence in 1960, as well as America and others), while merging aspects of its own myriad indigenous cultures (over 200 ethnic groups) and, at the same time, embracing technology and “progress.” In I Still Face You, the contrast between the traditional Dutch wax-print women’s dresses, the artist’s contemporary designer dress and the headdresses and other clothing seen in the Xerox transfers seems telling in this regard. However, this work offers far more than a commentary on fashion and the clash or merging of cultures. Its focus also extends beyond the understated, but very real drama that takes place in the domestic interior as well as beyond the artist’s integration of various painting and printmaking techniques. Akunyili Croby’s art draws power, meaning and beauty from the intelligence and skill with which all of these factors are masterfully combined.
Yet another intriguing aspect of Akunyili Crosby’s work is that the work finds precedents or parallels in the number of any number of black artists who have worked with assemblage, collage and representational modes of address, ranging from Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden to Kerry James Marshall and Wagnechi Mutu, while being very much her own (this October, Akunyili Crosby participated in a conference devoted to exploring Lawrence’s impact at the SCAD Museum of Art). With regard to art historical sources and precedents, the artist acknowledges that she often looks to past art for inspiration, as to Velazquez in The Beautyful Ones, no.1 (2014).
As with most of my blog posts, I’ve said too much. Now, feast your eyes on a few additional images that follow, which were taken both at Art + Practice and at the Hammer in the exhibitions curated by Jamillah James, a young curator who is also rapidly ascending and whose name will soon be familiar to you all. I look forward to your encountering the work of Njideka Akunyili Crosby in person. It is richer and more thrilling than what I’ve been able to convey. For those who are interested, her only dealer at present (although this may have already changed) is Victoria Miro in London.