By Rachel Kevern:
During her studies at Yale University School of Art, Njideka Akunyili Crosby encountered Mary Louise Pratt’s ‘Arts of the Contact Zone’ (1990), which identifies ‘social spaces where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other’. This idea of a ‘contact zone’ is present in all Akunyili Crosby’s work, reflecting the artist’s own experience of feeling a sense of belonging to two distinct cultures. Having left Nigeria in 1999, at the age of 16, to study in the United States, Akunyili Crosby’s work is often autobiographical, depicting domestic scenes of herself, her Nigerian family, and her American husband. The universe depicted in her compositions is, according to her, neither Nigeria nor America, but some other space, the space that every immigrant occupies.
Her pieces are large-scale depictions of domestic life, and combine painting, drawing and photo-transfer techniques. Often, Akunyili Crosby will merge very personal, intimate images with cut-outs from magazines and favourite designers; images that she has collected and stored over the years. In an interview with arts journal The White Review, the artist explained that she usually chooses “pictures that tap into Nigerian culture in the eighties and nineties – popular musicians, iconic album covers, movie stars.” She searches for images that give her “a feeling of recognition”, that will connect her with other people of her generation who grew up in Nigeria through their shared memories. The depth and richness of her compositions defies simple classification and forces the viewer to take a closer look.
Collecting picture became a way for Akunyili Crosby to stay connected to the Nigeria of her childhood, Nigeria as she knew it, which “wasn’t the same Nigeria that [she] was experiencing in the US, in terms of the questions people asked [her].” Speaking to The White Review, she explains that she “became aware that people had no clue, not just about Nigeria but about Africa as a continent”. Her pieces stem from a deep desire to share the Nigeria that she knew with other people, “in a way that felt real or sincere”: “I wanted to give people a glimpse of this other space that they weren’t familiar with.” The paintings are both deeply personal and reflect wider issues of identity, belonging, immigration, and Nigerian culture. Her compositions themselves act as personal, cultural and political ‘contact zones’, forming a space in which different cultures mingle to become one image.
Her first solo exhibition in Europe, which took place in 2016 and was entitled Portals, featured a multitude of doors, windows and screens. In the description of the exhibition, the Victoria Miro gallery notes that these portals in her work function as “physical, conceptual and emotional points of arrival and departure, while in a broader sense the work itself is a portal through which mutable ideas about transcultural identity flow back and forth.” The doors and windows, - as much of Akunyili Crosby’s work - function as gateways to new ways of thinking about multicultural identity and what it means to forge your own space and place in the world.
Rachel Kevern is an undergraduate at the University of Oxford, studying English literature and French. In her spare time she writes, acts, paints (but not as much as she'd like to), drinks a lot of coffee and reads any book or magazine that she can get her hands on. She has previously been published in The Liverpool Echo, The Warrington Guardian and online magazines such as Flux and The F-Word, as well as running her own blog and being Arts and Travel editor for The Oxford Student, her university's biggest newspaper.