Njideka Akunyili Crosby brings Nigeria to LA

In her monumental mixed-media works on paper, Njideka Akunyili Crosby renders herself and her family members in sleek, contemporary surroundings, seamlessly blending her Nigerian heritage with her life in LA.

Jul 3, 2021By Sabine Casparie, MA Modern & Contemporary Art, BA Art History
njideka akunyili crosby mama mummy and mamma
Mama, Mummy and Mamma by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 2014, via artist’s website


There is much going on in Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s artworks. At first glance, people dressed in fashionable clothes are portrayed in sleek, modern interiors. They are quietly reading or looking ahead, contemplative. But a closer look reveals more people looking back at us from photographs in frames or on the wall. And then, another layer reveals itself: the wallpaper and the floors are made up of photographs too. It is a dazzling array of images within images, all rendered in a combination of bright, saturated colors and soft pastels.


Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s Birth Country: Nigeria

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5 Umezebi Street, New Haven, Enugu by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 2012, via artist’s website


Born in 1983 in Enugu, a former coal mining town in Nigeria, Akunyili Crosby’s family spent weekends and summers in her grandmother’s rural village. As a young girl, Njideka Akunyili Crosby liked to copy pictures from her father’s magazines. At age 11, Njideka moved to Lagos to attend boarding school.


She grew up in a family of scientists: her father was a doctor, and her mother, after completing a PhD in pharmacology, became a well-known public figure as the head of Nigeria’s Food and Drug Administration.


The mix of rural and urban Nigeria is reflected in her work. Akunyili Crosby’s African interiors are traditional with simple wood furniture and faded upholstery. In 5 Umezebi Street, New Haven, Enugu, a large family is gathered, cramped into a small room. The proportions and perspective are a little skewed: there is no division between foreground and background and the patterns on the floor and walls blend into the clothes of family members. But despite this flatness, the painting is dynamic. Everyone is busy talking or playing or eating. Two family members are cut off at the edges, suggesting a larger family extending outside the painting.


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Home: As You See Me by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 2017 via artist’s website

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Many of Akunyili Crosby’s images feature people involved in familiar domestic experiences: eating, drinking, watching TV. In Home: as you See Me, the room is empty, but there are people everywhere. A large family portrait and a photograph of an African leader are displayed on the wall; colorful wallpaper shows the repeated image of the artist’s mother, Dora Akunyili. There are photographs from magazines imprinted onto the floor and the TV is showing Sean Connery’s James Bond. The empty room feels alive, as if someone could walk in at any moment.


Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s Hometown: Los Angeles

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Dwell (Aso Ebi) by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 2017, via artist’s website


The family moved to Philadelphia when Akunyili Crosby was 16. She took her first oil painting class at the local community college and studied fine art and biology at Swarthmore College, where she met her husband, also an artist. She then went on to do an MFA in painting at Yale University in 2011. Akunyili Crosby quickly burst onto the art scene after that: she was an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and received the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s James Dicke Contemporary Artist Prize in 2014. In 2017, she was named a MacArthur Fellow. She completed a Honorary Doctorate at Swarthmore College in 2019 and now lives in LA with her family.


Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s interiors situated in LA look more contemporary. In Dwell: Aso Ebi, a figure wearing a dress with geometric patterns sits at a table with her leg outstretched, inspecting her bluish-black tights. The wallpaper’s design features oval-shaped portraits of her mother Dora looking regal and queen-like interspersed with lyrical lines, yellow heart shapes, and images of chickens. A large framed photograph depicts the artist’s parents in traditional African dress. Outside the window in the dark, barely visible at first glance, are the outlines of a plant.


The same female figure appears repeatedly in Akunyili Crosby’s work. The artist refers to her as an “Afropolitan,” a combination of African and cosmopolitan. This figure is the artist’s alter-ego: someone who has experienced the vibrant cultures of Africa but has also traveled the world.


An Intricate Technique Of Photographic Transfers

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‘The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born’ Might not Hold True For Much Longer by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 2013, via artist’s website


Although Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s later works all depict interiors in LA, her Nigerian heritage is still very visible. At a closer look, the patterns of the floors and walls turn out to be made of tiny screen-printed images. The artist collects these images from Nigerian newspapers, popular African magazines, and family photo albums. The transfers are then printed onto the paper using a mineral-based solvent. (Robert Rauschenberg used this technique to great effect in his work starting in the late 1950s.)


There are several elements in each work that are conceived individually – figures, furniture, and surrounding areas. The artist renders these parts on transparent films and projects them separately onto the paper, resulting in different layers and a mixture of different media, including figurative painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, and collage. Akunyili Crosby likes to push the boundaries of a medium, exploring what can be defined as a painting.


“Transcultural Paintings”

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Predecessors by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 2013, via Tate Modern, London


Njideka Akunyili Crosby uses the word “transcultural” to describe her mixing of images from her current life in LA with imagery from her native Nigeria. She shows us the nuances of post-colonial identity by making leaps of time and space, across cultures and continents. After moving to LA, the artist found that her homeland Nigeria was often shown as the scene of crises. The transfers in her works instead refer to everyday, contemporary life in Nigeria in order to combat this perspective. The artist wants to show us how normal life is in her home country.


This mixing of references is clearly visible in the work Predecessors. The work consists of two panels. The right panel presents a kitchen. On display are several utensils and kitchen tools, which belong to different periods of Nigeria’s history. In the left panel, a single female figure wearing a pink dress sits in what looks like a living room. The grey structure in the background is a so-called “lattice,” made of cement and used in many buildings in Nigeria that the artist remembers from her childhood.


Portraits Of The Artist, Family And Friends

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The Beautyful Ones, Series 8 by Njideka Akunyiuli Crosby, 2018, via artist’s website


Apart from her Afropolitan alter-ego, Njideka Akunyili Crosby paints her family members and friends. There is a series of individual portraits, The Beautyful Ones, which was exhibited at London’s National Portrait Gallery in 2018. The young boy in no.8 is wearing a traditional African garment and is standing in front of a shelf with old stereo equipment, most likely in Nigeria.


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Nwantinti, by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 2012, via Studio Museum Harlem


Nwantinti depicts an intimate scene of a couple on a bed, inspired by the artist and her husband Justin, a white fellow artist born in Texas. When painted in pairs or groups, Akunyili Crosby’s figures rarely meet the viewer’s gaze. Instead, they seem bound up in moments of intimacy and reflection that are left open to interpretation.


Hints Of Vermeer And Carrie Mae Weems


Njideka Akunyili Crosby is influenced by a diverse scope of artists, from black artist Carrie Mae Weems to Danish painter of still interiors Vilhelm Hammershoi to the color palette of Edgar Degas. She often talks about seeing Kerry James Marshall’s portrait at Yale University Art Gallery: a black female artist holds a painting palette with the colors of the pan-African flag. Black artists do not often see themselves represented in major museums or galleries, and this portrait had a huge impact and became a major source of inspiration.


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Untitled (Man Smoking/Malcolm X), from the Kitchen Table series by Carrie Mae Weems, 1990, via Brooklyn Museum


Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s intimate interior spaces and the intricate way the fabrics and materials are represented are reminiscent of Dutch seventeenth century artist Johannes Vermeer. Like Vermeer’s, the faces of Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s subjects are somewhat expressionless, with calm postures. The mood in Akunyili Crosby’s paintings resembles that present in the paintings of Vermeer: a mood hovering between intimacy and longing, discovery and loss.


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Super Blue Omo by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 2016, in Collection Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida, via artist’s website


Like Vermeer and Carrie Mae Weems, Njideka Akunyili Crosby is a developed storyteller. She is influenced by the post-colonial writing of Nigerian authors like Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The title of her piece Super Blue Omo (2016) hints at a popular brand of laundry detergent that Akunyili Crosby would have been familiar with when growing up in Nigeria. It also references the color blue and its symbolism of the emotional states of sadness and resignation. An advertisement for the laundry detergent is playing on an old, 1970s-style television, but the female protagonist isn’t watching it. Instead, she gazes out to a spot beyond the painting. The tea set is an allusion to Nigeria when it was under British rule. The references to commercial products contrast with the cool blues and pinks, as well as the inner life of the female figure, about which the viewer is left guessing.


Visual Icons

njideka akunyili crosby the twain shall meet
The Twain Shall Meet by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 2015, via artist’s website


Sometimes Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s works contain no human figures; they are arrangements of objects, referring to the art-historical tradition of still life. The Twain Shall Meet (2015) depicts an interior with a large table. The tea set appears again, as well as some kerosene lamps. Such lamps were used in her grandmother’s rural village, where electricity was often patchy. The arrangement is anything but still: various people appear in framed photographs. There are also framed pictures of the Virgin Mary, another subtle reference to Akunyili Croby’s transcultural theme.


Murals: Reaching A Broader Audience

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Obodo (Country/City/Town/Ancestral Village) by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 2018, via Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles


The cinematic nature of Akunyili Crosby’s paintings lends itself very well to architectural installations, and her paintings have been displayed as murals on the side of museums in London, Los Angeles, and New York. As a black artist, Akunyili Crosby often didn’t see her heritage reflected in the museums she visited. These interventions on public buildings open up her images for a broader public. Adapting these intimate portraits to an architectural scale creates an interesting tension between the private and the public realm.


Njideka Akunyili Crosby, The Power Of Feeling Truly At Home


Akunyili Crosby’s paintings are portals providing glimpses into her personal life while momentarily transporting the viewer to the domestic spaces she experienced as a child in Nigeria. Their layered compositions recall the complexity of contemporary experience. But a focus on interiors and being “at home” remains foregrounded in all her work.


In a complex global world, Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s people are completely at ease, enjoying the everyday. And isn’t that life’s greatest luxury? Njideka Akunyili Crosby celebrates the power that comes from feeling truly at home.

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By Sabine CasparieMA Modern & Contemporary Art, BA Art HistorySabine is an art historian born in the Netherlands and based in London. Originally a lawyer, Sabine then gained a Graduate Diploma in History of Art from The Courtauld Institute of Art and a Masters in Modern and Contemporary Art from Christie's Education. Sabine leads art tours in London and teaches classes on Zoom for adults and children. She writes a blog on contemporary art.