Last year was marked by a string of successes for Njideka Akunyili Crosby, a young Nigerian painter who currently lives and works in Los Angeles. Actually, everything started to fall into place after she won the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s James Dicke Contemporary Artist Prize in 2014. Earlier in 2015, the Victoria Miro Gallery, a leading British contemporary art gallery in London, announced representation of Njideka Akunyili Crosby followed by the artist’s participation in the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial. The next step was to win over the audience in the city that has recently became her new home. So she did, with “The Beautyful Ones” show at Mark Bradford’s Art + Practice and her first museum exhibition at the Hammer Museum in L.A. set up at the end of 2015. Last but not least, a year of significant recognition and artistic successes for Crosby included receiving another prestigious award. The young Nigerian-American artist was honored with the 2015 Studio Museum in Harlem’s Wien Prize, which has been given every year since 2006 to established and emerging African-American artists “who demonstrate great promise and creativity.” Crosby is definitely making a name for herself pretty fast and continues to be busy in the new year too as she is about to mount her new solo exhibition at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach any day now. And judging by the title of the upcoming show – I Refuse to be Invisible – Crosby seems to be ready for so much attention at the moment.
Talent alone is not enough. It takes a lot of hard work, determination and sacrifice for success. Born in Enugu, Nigeria in 1983, Njideka Akunyili Crosby left her home country aged 16 and moved to the U.S. in order to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. After she graduated from Swarthmore College, Crosby studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and received her MFA from the Yale University School of Art in 2011. Since then, Crosby is slowly but steadily aiming high getting into full swing last year. Today, her paintings are considered to be among the most visually and conceptually exciting works on the art scene.
What’s so exciting about her art that brings Crosby so much praise? Well, it’s related to a completely new view of Nigeria, a very personal one, seen through the eyes of a Nigerian living in America. As an artist who is emotionally and experientially attached to both countries, Crosby decided to explore a complex topic of hybrid identity so very close to her. A complex topic forced her to develop an intricate visual language, composed of different layers in mediums and styles that brilliantly intertwine on her large-scale papers. The artist combines drawing and painting rooted in the tradition of European figurative painting with family photos and clips taken from popular Nigerian fashion and lifestyle magazines to communicate as faithful as possible her experience as an expatriate living in the U.S. Crosby’s paintings, although appear as authentic views into everyday life since they show domestic scenes with her family and friends, are actually invented worlds built in stunning detail, which exist in-between places (Nigeria and America) and across time (past and present). Crosby retains the language of classical painting but at the same time transforms it by using disparate mediums, introducing a new visual narrative that helps her merge together the two cultures and different periods of time. Furthermore, her captivating collage paintings reflect on modern Nigeria, which used to be a British colony and still preserves evidences of the British presence, and since 2000 has been opening up to influences of global pop culture.
Crosby’s work can, therefore, be read as an effort to bridge the two worlds that she inhabits as well as an attempt to convey a complex portrait of her home country. By putting layer upon layer of both personal and collective memory on large-scale papers that are conceived as a space where different identities merge together, Crosby creates a powerful visual metaphor of transcultural identity in today’s changing world. “…Metaphors can reduce the distance”, Haruki Murakami once wrote, “…metaphors eliminate what separates you and me.” Crosby’s story needs to be told as it is important for the current generation on so many levels, and judging from the response of the audience and art critics to her work, the struggle of living between two homes is something that many people are experiencing today and can easily be identified with regardless of their personal, social, and cultural background.
© Image Courtesy of Njideka Akunyili Crosby ( all images are for illustrative purposes only)