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40 Under 40 Global

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

7 September 2017

34 | Los Angeles, USA

What was your route into art? Did you always plan on being an artist?

My mother instilled in me a global worldview and desire to experience life beyond Enugu, the small town where I was raised. I was sent to boarding school in Lagos at 13, and later moved to the US after secondary school when we won the Green Card Lottery – my mother entered us so that my siblings and I would have bigger goals than we could in a Nigeria stifled by military dictatorship.

My immigration is a crucial part of my artistic formation. Not only does my work address my life as a dual citizen, but I wouldn’t be an artist had I not immigrated. There were very fixed expectations of us in Nigerian secondary schools – medicine, law, engineering, finance. Seeing these as my only options I planned on becoming a doctor. In my first year in the US, I took an oil painting class and realised that, contrary to my preconceived perceptions, art could be a deeply engaging and impactful endeavour. After undergraduate, I had the courage to finally embrace art as a career – despite opposition from my family. I use my experience as a Nigerian American to examine the multi-local, multicultural nature of contemporary African cities, as well as US immigrant life.

How did studying at Yale impact your work?

Yale was great for my practice. The programme gave me the time and space to experiment. This freedom to retreat to my studio was coupled with studio visits by peers, mentors, professors, and visiting artists. The diversity in the student and faculty body, and the type of work being made at Yale, made for complex studio discussions that enriched my work. I also took an African and Caribbean literature class as well as a postcolonial theory and literature class, which became invaluable.

In what terms do you think about your own cultural identity?

I think of my cultural identity as a hybrid of all the disparate spaces I have inhabited – Nigerian, American, rural, cosmopolitan. I see my cultural identity as an amalgam of my various life experiences so it’s constantly in flux as I inhabit more spaces.

Your paintings are sites of personal and collective memory. How do public and private space collide in your work?

I think of the objects I use as stand-ins, as having symbolic meanings. I use them to create a portrait of a place. When I use objects from Nigeria, I’m thinking of the past having a place in the present, and how you take your experiences – of spaces, climates, landscapes – with you. As an immigrant I am always experiencing things in two spaces at once. The objects are also entry points; if someone recognises IKEA furniture in my work, that becomes a point of connection.

How much is your work influenced by art history?

I was trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where I studied Velázquez, Caravaggio, Manet, Ingres, Degas – that knowledge underscores my practice. In my work, colour, compositional structures, and gestures function not just as picture-making tools but as historical references which I use to create a bond between it and the history of painting.

I keep coming back to the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi. His work is so psychologically loaded. When you look at his work you feel this connection to family and place. I also love Édouard Vuillard. The paintings appear simple, but when you look closely you realise they don’t fit the logic of perspective.

Your work has a literary quality in its narrative potential. Is literature an influence?

Yes, literature plays a big part in my practice. I am influenced by African and Caribbean writers, but I also think of my work as telling stories. My goal has been to use the aesthetics of traditional Western figurative painting – which relegated people of colour (in the rare instances when they were represented) to dark corners and backgrounds – to depict scenes dominated by people of colour. My desire to tell stories and make images that I wasn’t seeing in art institutions and books – a woman of colour and a white man in an intimate scene; images that reveal the multiple worlds that immigrants straddle; or images of people of colour living ordinary lives, for example – motivated me to become an artist.

My determination to combat the dearth of representation in dominant art spaces was emboldened by the new crop of voices – including writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Junot Díaz, Taiye Selasi, and Binyavanga Wainaina – coming out of historically marginalised spaces. They were telling their own stories using variants of inherited colonial languages and in so doing, staking a claim to their existence.

Last year you had your first solo show at Victoria Miro, were awarded the Prix Canson and were shortlisted for the Future Generation Art Prize. What does such exposure mean?

It’s exciting because my intended audience is diverse – artists, immigrants, Nigerians, Africans, non-Nigerians, people from formerly colonised (and colonising!) countries. My work evinces this inclusive outlook as it uses the language of traditional Western painting to depict Nigerian subject matter. I’m especially pleased when the works can be seen in person because there’s a lot about my surface treatment that gets lost in reproductions. Exposure in cities such as London and New York enables marginalised stories to be seen on a global scale.

Have you noticed a change recently in the international recognition of African artists?

Without a doubt things are changing; it’s not perfect yet but it has been steadily improving over the years. Historically, white artists – especially male – have had more opportunities to show their work than people of colour and other marginalised groups. Now curators and institutions are making a concerted effort to balance this disparity. The Tate’s partnership with Guaranty Trust Bank to acquire works by African artists is one example.

This move towards broader inclusivity matters on two fronts. To quote cultural theorist George Gerbner, ‘Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.’ Representation, especially multidimensional representation from African artists, matters a great deal because it stakes a claim on our existence, it asserts our humanity, which is often denied or ignored. Secondly, the move towards broader inclusivity opens the door for the next generation. I was unsure about pursuing a career in art before I saw works by other contemporary artists of African descent, such as Wangechi Mutu, Julie Mehretu, Kerry James Marshall, Chris Ofili, Yinka Shonibare, and El Anatsui. I’m grateful for artists of the diaspora who came before me; they paved the way and made it possible for me to envision being an artist.

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