Njideka Akunyili Crosby: painting the ‘contact zone’

Njideka Akunyili Crosby   "The Beautyful Ones" Series #6 , 2018Acrylic, colour pencil and transfers on paper 151.8 x 108 cm 59 3/4 x 42 1/2 in © Njideka Akunyili Crosby Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner

Njideka Akunyili Crosby
"The Beautyful Ones" Series #6, 2018Acrylic, colour pencil and transfers on paper
151.8 x 108 cm
59 3/4 x 42 1/2 in
© Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner

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.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby   "The Beautyful Ones" Series #7 , 2018 Acrylic, colour pencil and transfers on paper 152.1 x 108 cm 59 7/8 x 42 1/2 in © Njideka Akunyili Crosby Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner

Njideka Akunyili Crosby
"The Beautyful Ones" Series #7, 2018
Acrylic, colour pencil and transfers on paper
152.1 x 108 cm
59 7/8 x 42 1/2 in
© Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner

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.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s website

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.

At Bradford's Rail and Bus Interchange: What Ship is This?

What Ship is This? – Photo: Robert Butroyd

What Ship is This? – Photo: Robert Butroyd

By Robert Butroyd:

Rav Sanghera wrote a play about it, Gerard Benson wrote two poems about it, and I’m standing with my back to the Victoria Hotel next to Fran, and we’re staring at it. At first glance it appears to be apologising for even being there, tucked away below the road. Apologising for replacing the double arched roof and fluted columns of the demolished Bradford Exchange with a functional angular box. But maybe Bradford Interchange is not the blight on the spirit that it thinks it is. Rav Sanghera thinks it’s a place full of fascinating stories. Someone at ‘Metro’, the ‘combined authority’, or whoever runs it now, thinks it has potential as an art gallery. Gerard Benson certainly thought it a place of poetry. So, we head across the road.

Fran spots the fractured white sails above the entrance. But what sort of ship is this? She compares it to stepping into Sydney Harbour with its famous Opera House, and its roof of white sails. In the canopy, above the queuing taxis pumping the air with diesel fumes and the drone of their throaty engines, I see the sails of an Egyptian felucca floating dreamily down the Nile. Rising above the sails the pyramid of glass resembles the bridge of a cruise ship, where the crew, thinking it a good idea at the time, took a short cut, maybe the Suez Canal, and having badly lost their way intended to moor up for a short while, but rather liked the place and decided to hang around.

Inside, the grumble of diesel is mixed with muffled conversations, instructions, exclamations, and the random bleeps of modern life: Greggs' oven warning the bacon will burn, reversing buses, pinging mobiles. The departure boards, timetables, shops, and commuters rushing for buses, trains and home remind Fran of the Paris Metro. She’s not thinking of the daily commute, but the first steps on a journey to a more romantic place. The interior reminds me of a place designed by airport architects: functional, a people moving machine, not a place to linger. But linger we must, as buses run late, or we run late, or we go to the wrong platform, or we misread the timetable, or granny is on the next bus, having missed the one we came to meet. Maybe that’s why someone thought to hang paintings along the top of the walls on the upper concourse. Something to distract, keep us out of mischief, keep us on our toes, keep us asking questions - not wrong ones like, where’s my bus? But right ones like, why are there these paintings of elephants, seals and clowns? Who painted them? Who put them there, and why haven’t I noticed them before?

Feet Not Made For Dancing – Photo: Robert Butroyd

Feet Not Made For Dancing – Photo: Robert Butroyd

Of course, there are other things we can do while we wait. How about a bit of dancing? Fran thinks it’s an intriguing idea. So did Gerard Benson. It was a moment three little dancing girls probably forgot as soon as their bus arrived, but it was a magical moment captured in his poem, ‘Snapshot: Interchange Bus Station.’ But dance, where? The three girls, up past their bedtime, watched over by their chatting mums, were inspired by what appear to be random patterns made by the red and blue tiles on the floor. The design may once have had an intention though it is hard to see now what that might be. Looking down Fran sees fragments of a star, oblongs, parts of a chessboard and other more peculiar shapes. Dancing to ‘an inner music’, the girls choreographed their moves between the lines, jumping together from one tile to another, flailing their arms. Children, expressing themselves in the moment, before they are told they can’t: can’t dance, can’t paint, can’t sing, can’t act, can’t write, told so often that in the end they can’t, and so, in the end we don’t. A moment of inspiration captured by a poem. Fran wonders ‘who sets down standards to tell us we are not good enough to do these things?’

On our way out we stop at the information point and Phil behind the desk is pleased that we ask about the paintings, telling us they are hung there all year, only taken down at Christmas. We are pleased too, pleased because they are unexpected, almost hidden, and that someone has made the effort, the effort to hang them and take them down, and then re-hang them. There can’t be any money in it for those who run the Interchange, whoever they are, or for the bus companies, or the artists. Until Fran pointed them out I had never even noticed the paintings below the roof, but now I see them, I hope the bean counters in accounts don’t. For now, I’ve found my ship, a ship of camels and clowns, of dancers and elephants, of stargazers, and joyful time wasters. This cruise ship can stay.  


This essay was inspired by:
Brief Encounters at Bradford Interchange, a new play by Rav Sanghera, Freedom Studios
‘Community Pride’, ‘Interchange Bus Station at Night’, and ‘Snapshot: Interchange Bus Station’, all by Gerard Benson (2014) The Bradford Poems, smith/doorstop books
Unnamed Artists, Bradford Interchange

Robert Butroyd is the editor of Good Companions around, an online project inspired by J.B. Priestley, who took delight in what we are often told are places of little consequence, but through closer inspection are found to be no such thing.