I have loved Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s work since his dazzling encounter on Manet’s “The Dead Toreador” at the Yale University Art Gallery in 2014. Since then, the 39-year-old artist, who was born and raised in Nigeria and now lives in Los Angeles, has quietly established herself as one of the most watched artists in the world.
Her works often represent herself, her husband, her friends. Their mood is softly hushed and intimate. They show real people in domestic interiors, sometimes partying, more often sitting, lying, hugging.
For all their tranquility, they are also expansive in their cultural and historical scope. Most have the scale and richness of color of paintings, but are actually works on paper. “Portals,” a diptych from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, was made with acrylic, solvent transfer, fabric and paper collage, and colored pencil.
The left panel shows a woman (the artist) seated at a bare table. She looks pensive. Her body is in one of those abstract, intermediate physical states so often revealed by photographs. Images are stacked on the ground in the right panel, suggesting a temporary residence. But we also see a cropped wedding portrait and a television set.
A large horizontal window reveals flippers against a blue-black night background. Are we in the tropics? The walls feature patterned fabrics adorned with commemorative portraits, a combination generally favored by Nigerians.
[Death becomes him]
The two panels together measure approximately 17 feet in diameter and 7 feet high. Their robust composition strikes even from a distance. But they draw you in close – thanks in large part to the artist’s innovative use of photo transfers.
Nigeria was a British colony which gained independence in 1960. Akunyili Crosby was born 23 years later. She left the country to study in the United States when she was 17. She sees herself as part of an “Afropolitan” generation (the term was coined in the mid-2000s by Achille Mbembe and Taiye Selasi): urban, mobile, transnational and occupying threshold states between tradition and change, appropriation and authenticity.
At the same time, Akunyili Crosby is keenly aware of the generations that preceded her. She saw how colonialism stimulated in her parents’ generation, for example, the desire to imitate certain British cultural forms (even remake them). And she has noticed how her own, more cosmopolitan generation feels somewhat anxious about their relationship to pre-colonial traditions.
The photographs that the artist transfers to his backgrounds, in the form of suggestively faded collages (in this case on the floor and on part of the wall), speak of all this. They touch on Nigerian fashion and pop culture. They evoke or sometimes appropriate the photographic portraits of Seydou Keïta and the festive photographs of Malick Sidibé, both of which captured the effervescence of the post-independence generation in Mali, when modern European mores mixed with African traditions in the major cities in the country. And they suggest the African Diaspora, including its mark on American black pop music, which in turn influenced African music.
Akunyili Crosby uses complex systems of perspective to accentuate the sense of multiplicity in his imagined scenarios. The space in the right panel of “Portals”, for example, ripples and loops when you walk on it.
Political antagonisms, too, can ripple and recede, mitigated by history. Injustices persist. Sometimes they deepen. But not all generations want to fight the exact same battles their parents fought. Optimism and love can overcome people’s impulse to fight. The economy is also involved. People are moving to cities, finding jobs, looking for better opportunities. They marry foreigners, have children, plan to return, etc.
Akunyili Crosby did all of this in her own life. His paintings honor the complexity of cultural exchanges. She is anti-essentialist. She builds her “characters” with accessories that include hairstyles and fashions evoking different places, times and influences. These are all filled with historical ironies acute enough to become, in the right light, liberating.
His approach to complexity gives rise not to chaotic and disordered images, but to orderly, enigmatic, even soothing works. “Portals” has a serenity born of experience. It’s reminiscent of domestic rituals, like putting young children to bed in an urban apartment, making coffee as morning light pours into the kitchen of your parents’ house, or staring out the window of an Airbnb in a city. stranger at dusk.