In 2010, Njideka Akunyili Crosby burst upon the art scene with her large-scale works that combine figurative painting, drawing, engraving, photography, and collage.
Njideka’s multi-layered compositions intertwine with her Los Angeles-based environment and imagery from Nigeria, where she was born, recalling the complexities of the modern world, as well as various kinds of stereotypes.
She was born in 1983 in Enugu, a former coal-mining town in Nigeria. She spent almost all her weekends and summer with her family in her grandmother’s rural village. At the age of eleven, Njideka attended a boarding school in the more cosmopolitan city of Lagos. Already in Nigeria, she noticed differences in urban and rural lifestyles and how she felt like a part of more than one geographic location.
Compared to modern Los Angeles interiors, her African interiors are more traditional, with simple wood furnishings and faded upholstery. The work, titled “5 Umezebi Street, New Haven,” shows several people in the room, probably family members. A woman sits at a table and drinks, a child is sleeping on her lap. More children are playing in the corner. The man looks out the window. Looking at all this, it is difficult to say what unites these people. This is one of Crosby’s early works, where foreground and background are not clearly delineated. People, furniture, and windows seem to float in space, creating the illusion of blurred boundaries.
After her mother won the green card lottery in 1999, Njideka’s family moved to Philadelphia, where she received her first oil painting lesson at a local community college. She studied Fine Arts and Biology at Swarthmore College and received her MA in Painting from Yale University in 2011. She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and children.
In the work “Mom, Mom, Mom”, the interior is simple, a large table takes up almost half of the working surface. There are subtle hints of Nigeria. The kerosene lamp, a recurring motif in Njideka’s works, refers to the lack of electricity in rural Nigeria, such as her grandmother’s village.
There are also teacups and a teapot, hinting at the tea culture inherited from British colonialism. Christianity, another colonial motif, is seen in two framed images of the Virgin Mary. As with all her works, ideas, hospitality, and generosity are mixed with thoughts of cultural heritage more broadly. According to the author, this work is a portrait of three generations, where every woman is a mother.
It takes two to three months to create one job. The result is a breathtaking fusion of different layers combining figurative painting, drawing, engraving, photography, and collage. Pushing the boundaries of painting is as important to her as the work itself.
Nijdeka’s later work depicts interiors in Los Angeles, but the Nigerian heritage is still clearly visible in her work. Upon closer inspection, it turns out that the patterns on the floors and walls are made from tiny images that the artist collects from Nigerian newspapers, popular African magazines, and family photo albums, and then prints on paper using a mineral solvent (Robert Rauschenberg used this technique in his work starting in the late 1950s).
The title of the work “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born” refers to a text by the Ghanaian writer Aya Kwei Arma, published in 1968. This applies to today’s Nigeria, which is slowly emerging from the shadow of British colonialism.
Njideka’s ‘Most Beautiful’ series includes portraits of Nigerian youth, including some of the artist’s families. The series was exhibited at London’s National Portrait Gallery in 2018. Between her bachelor’s and graduate studies, Njideka Akuniili Crosby returned to Nigeria for a year. It seemed that after years of colonialism and slow independence, the country was flourishing and experiencing something like a Renaissance.
While in America, Akuniili Crosby noticed that many artists portray her country as if there was a constant crisis, completely forgetting that in Nigeria, people hang out, wear beautiful clothes, get married and spend time with family and friends, having fun and rejoicing in little things from with all their hearts.
In the series of works “The Most Beautiful”, children are most often the main objects. The boy from the second episode is wearing a green jumpsuit with bright yellow pockets. His gaze conveys a mixture of pride in his surroundings and the insecurity that arises from being a child.
Njideka Crosby’s works also often feature plants, and sometimes lush green foliage is the main subject of the painting. Here, the lyrical green lines of the plants in the background contrast beautifully with the bright yellow and pale pink modern interiors. For Njideka, plants are another way to combine different cultural references. She often mixes views from different locations to subtly hint at the cosmopolitan nature of modern life.
Typically, her work is monumental in scale and contains many layers. Some figures inhabit interiors, absorbed in what they do: read, eat, and sometimes just look ahead, concentrated in thoughts. There are simple pieces of furniture, often brightly colored, containing a few household items. Closer inspection reveals more images: faces appear on patterned wallpaper and transition into floors.
In Dwell: Aso Ebi, a woman sits on a chair looking down at her elegant legs in blue tights. Her dress has a vibrant geometric pattern, as if she is comfortably dressed in a modernist painting. The design of the wallpaper with chickens and yellow hearts is made from fabrics that the artist collects in her native Nigeria. The painting also features recurring portraits of her mother, Dora, as the queen. The straight lines of the furniture and walls contrast with the dark foliage outside the window. One and the same female figure is found in all of Njideka’s works. This elegantly dressed woman is the artist’s alter ego. She represents someone from the African diaspora, smoothly moving between continents and cultures.
Njideka Akuniili Crosby also draws his family members and friends. The painting “I Still Face You” is a group of young people. Njideka met her husband at Swarthmore College, and as such, a mixed-race couple often appears in her work. They got married both in church and at a village wedding in Nigeria in 2009, even though the artist’s father could not come to terms with her act for a long time. For her father’s generation, a woman was expected to marry someone from her own country.
However, Nideka showed him that a different life is possible, mixing countries and cultures in one marriage. Often, the figures in the artist’s works are drawn in pairs or groups, and at such moments they rarely meet with the viewer’s eye. Instead, they appear to be bound moments of reflection, left open for interpretation by the viewer.
The characters in the works look meek and calm, showing little emotion. However, her work conveys the people’s mood captured in the paintings more than any specific facial features. There is a balance between closeness and desire, between pleasure and nostalgia.
Njideka draws inspiration from a wide range of artists: Carrie May Weems, Danish artist Wilhelm Hammershoi and Edgar Degas for his color palette. She draws inspiration from art history, mixing different styles, just as she mixes her Nigerian and American life in the subject of her work. It is intimate, sparsely populated interiors and detailed patterns and textures also evoke 17th-century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer.
She tells stories through her work and is equally inspired by literature, mainly by Nigerian authors such as Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In Super Blue Omo, there are references to Omo, a famous brand of laundry detergent from the 1980s, as well as the color blue, which indicates the emotional state of the character looking into the distance.
The play makes the viewer wonder why there are two teacups on the table. The advertisement, most likely for washing powder, is played on an old TV, while the rest of the interior looks quite modern. What exactly the viewer is observing in this picture remains a mystery.
Njideka likes to have her work installed without frames and attached directly to the wall to enhance the immediacy of the images. The cinematic nature of her paintings also lends itself very well to large installations. The paintings have been featured as murals on the walls of London, Los Angeles, and New York buildings. This opens up her work to a much larger audience than people visiting the museum.
“Obodo (Country/City/Locality/Ancestral Village),” the title of this work, alludes to the ancestral village in Nigeria. Still, it is done in a completely different setting, namely in a cityscape in downtown Los Angeles. Again, Njideka loosely mixes different cultural references with great effect, creating a disconnect and a convergence of different times and places.
Njideka’s impressive work is a portal that allows a glimpse into her personal life, momentarily taking the viewer into the home spaces that she experienced as a child in Nigeria. Their layered compositions are reminiscent of the complexity of modern experiences.
When everything is going smoothly and well, a group of young people, dressed in bright holiday clothes, dance. They are close to each other and are clearly enjoying themselves. Njideka ultimately glorifies people in all their manifestations and interactions. It shows the strength that comes from feeling truly at home.
Harmony Rosales also boasts of her controversial work, which to this day causes many controversies, as well as condemnation and discussion from both an excited viewer and a blatant critic. In her scandalous multifaceted work, she glorifies the beauty of black women and touches on many different things, including religion.