I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The figures who people Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s large-scale works—hybrids of painting, drawing, collage, and printmaking—inhabit familiar-looking domestic interiors. They appear quiet and pensive, poised in the moment before glances turn into conversation. The Nigerian-born artist, however, makes their voices heard—ruminations on the day-to-day negotiations of postcolonial life once so obvious as to be assumed but which have taken on greater urgency as the issues of global immigration threaten to subsume them.
Trained at Swarthmore, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and Yale, Akunyili Crosby uses the languages and strategies of Western art, absorbing and subverting classical approaches in order to express ideas more pertinent to our times. Human interactions often serve as focal points in her works, revealing how immigrant life merges—and rattles—disparate identities. Despite the daily power struggles that fragment, divide, and segregate, Akunyili Crosby expresses the desire for wholeness in tight figurative compositions that contain layers of personal memories and of Nigerian culture and politics. Her survey exhibition at the Norton Museum of Art this past spring, the Prix Canson 2016 this summer, her participation in the Biennale de Montréal, along with her first solo show in Europe at Victoria Miro Gallery (London) this fall—all attest to the artist’s rising prominence and the clarity of her vision.
Erica Ando You moved to the US when you were seventeen. Did you come with your whole family?
Njideka Akunyili Crosby No, I moved to the US with my sister. My parents won the green-card lottery. Without that, we would have never been able to come to school in the States; my parents could not afford it. But as a student with a green card you have access to the same financial aid that citizens have access to.
We didn’t have money for the whole family to move, and my mom had just started a new government job, so everyone stayed in Nigeria until college. When I graduated high school, my older sister and I, who were in the same class, moved together to Philadelphia because we have another sister and a brother who were studying at the University of Pennsylvania and at Penn State.
EA Were you immediately enrolled as students?
NAC We took a gap year, which was a really great idea. We acclimatized to the new country and culture outside of college. That year was our time to get to know the United States of America, to study for our SATs, and to take classes in things we wouldn’t have learned in Nigeria. I took a calculus class, an American history class, and an American literature class at the Community College of Philadelphia. And my fourth class was a painting class, because I needed something fun to lighten the load. That was my first oil-painting class, and it was taught by Jeff Reed, who eventually advised me to apply to Swarthmore.
EA So at that time you hadn’t committed to art?
NAC Oh no, it was just a fun thing I did on the side.
EA When did your commitment start to grow?
NAC That didn’t happen until my senior year of college. In my junior year at Swarthmore, I was taking a lot of advanced biology and organic chemistry classes, doing my pre-med requirements. I took one or two art classes every semester, again, to lighten my heavy science load. But it got to a point where I realized I was enjoying my art classes more. It slowly became clear to me that art was where my heart was. There was more urgency.
EA Urgency for yourself?
NAC For myself and also in general. I remember Thelma Golden being asked to give one word that summarized her curatorial practice, and she said, “Urgency.” I felt an urgency to tell my story as a Nigerian in diaspora. Now, of course, there’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who writes on this theme, and today there are many Nigerian artists—musicians, authors, designers, visual artists—telling their stories. But when I started grad school, I felt like I was alone in trying to grapple with or unearth these stories. Taking courses on contemporary African and Caribbean diaspora literature and theory helped me a lot. Many of these stories have been told through literature. These classes helped me move forward early on. I wondered, How could I do in art what writers are doing in literature, telling stories about Lagos or Abuja, or my experiences growing up in an African country? Chinua Achebe talks a lot about the formal things he and other diasporic writers do with the English language—how they break the rules, play with structure, and organize sentences in ways that are unique to people speaking English in the former British colonies.
EA The way that language gets rewritten through colonization and immigration seems very relevant to your work. How is Nigerian English different from English as it’s spoken in the US?
NAC How I phrase certain things as a Nigerian is very different from how my husband phrases those things as someone who grew up in Austin, Texas. Some English phrases we use in Nigeria are direct translations from the local language. For example, I say, “You are looking for my trouble,” which is a direct translation from the Igbo phrase for pestering or annoying someone. Lots of Nigerian writers I know tap into this. It’s English that everyone can recognize but it signals difference to the people we inherited this language from. And this is what I’m trying to do with my painting: work within the tradition I inherited, but make moves that signal my difference from it.
EA Achebe insists on writing in English because he believes you have to use the language of colonialism in order to take ownership. His English is a “new English” that’s been altered to fit the African experience.
NAC Exactly. In Decolonizing the Mind, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o talks about how we should write in our African languages, and Achebe’s point is, No! You write in English but find a way to co-opt it. He says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting. Is there a way I can alter the traditional way of painting I inherited from Swarthmore and the Pennsylvania Academy, which goes back to Spanish painting and the French académie? You still see my references to Velásquez, Zurbarán, Vuillard, and Hammershøi, but then I use it—
EA You use the language but—
NAC I crack it. Before I started studying postcolonial theory, I had an idea of the space I wanted to root my work in—a transcultural space, this weird, buzzing in-between space, a kind of no-man’s land. I didn’t have the words yet, but I knew what I wanted to talk about. That’s why certain writers were so important for me. They made me realize that it wasn’t just me having these thoughts.
EA What do you mean?
NAC The immigrant experience and Nigeria as this transcultural, syncretic society. During studio visits I could say, “I know that what I’m saying is not clear to you, but read this phrase and maybe you’ll understand what I’m trying to talk about.” That first year at Swarthmore, I thought of my studio as a lab where I was just experimenting. I knew how to paint, I knew how to draw, but I felt that in order to get to what I was interested in, I needed to do a lot of reading. I did collages mixed with painting, lots of things cut out and glued and torn. As a way of staying connected to home, I collected images from the web, looking at Nigerian social pages, at musicians and designers I liked. Every time I went home I’d take photographs and bring back society magazines. I knew that those photos were important to me, but I didn’t know what to do with them. Every time I had a studio visit, instead of talking about my oil paintings, I ended up talking about these pictures that were scattered all over. I was like, “Look at how this person is wearing this!” I knew I wanted to work with the photos, but it was a question of how. That’s where artists like Wangechi Mutu and Robert Rauschenberg became important to me. I tried pasting magazine images onto canvas, painting or drawing around and into them, but the saturation didn’t seem quite right. I wanted things to exist on the same plane.
EA The photographs appear embedded and integrated with the surface. Wangechi integrates collage elements seamlessly, too, but in a way that calls attention to and fetishizes them.
NAC Looking at Wangechi’s work helped me develop my own. The way she uses images speaks to a fracture, but my approach focuses more on syncretism. First I tried doing magazine collages and then doing washes over them and that just looked dirty. Then I did a piece where I hand-drew all of those tiny images.
EA That must have taken months.
NAC I realized that I couldn’t do this. And then I remembered transferring, a printmaking technique that I had done at the Pennsylvania Academy.
EA The photograph doesn’t just integrate with the paint; the ink gets absorbed by the paper and becomes part of it.
NAC I liked how transfer reduces the visual sharpness of the photograph. It seemed symbolic of how information is lost as people move between cultural spaces.
EA This is pertinent because the transfers are images of Nigeria—personal photos or Nigerian magazine cutouts. They reactivate the originals in situ, in diaspora. At the same time, there are collaged areas made of the same kinds of images. Is that to allow for flexibility?
NAC Sometimes there’s actually paper glued on surfaces. Often I’m using paper to make corrections or to challenge the viewers’ eyes—they may think they will understand what they’re looking at or the space they’ve been placed in, but then I flip it. Thematically, I think of code switching. For me, switching between transfers and collage is synonymous with traversing different worlds as you look through the work. As your eyes move from one place to the other, you’re making jumps in worlds. You could be looking at a photograph of my oldest sister as a little girl in Nigeria in 1992, but next to it is a painting of a chair from my Brooklyn apartment. So there are shifts in time and location, but there are also shifts in painting language. You might find a flat and geometric area, but when you move your eyes, suddenly, perhaps you’re seeing something that looks like Northern Renaissance painting. I’m always trying to keep the composition active.
EA It’s a very dynamic space you are creating. In your ambitious triptych I Still Face You, for example, you make references to California Pop Art, Piero della Francesca, hard-edge painting—different kinds of styles that refer to different cultural perceptions.
NAC Precisely. I like to create disparate spaces that speak to differences in cultural perceptions. Many postcolonial theorists talk about the third space, which is a very active space where cultures come together to give rise to something new. Nigeria is a third space, just by virtue of being a former British colony and being influenced by American popular culture starting in the late ’70s. The Nigeria I experienced in the late ’80s and early ’90s was very different from the Nigeria I knew in high school in the late ’90s, which was also very different from Nigeria today. Every time I go back, there’s a shift. So it’s almost like I’m trying to put my finger on something that’s constantly changing. I want the vibrations of that living space to come into my work.
EA When I first saw your work it struck me on a personal level. My background is completely different from yours. I was born in the United States but my parents came here from Japan as adults. The immigrant experience is not always one thing or another: the two cultures can sit side by side, or there can be great dissonance. But as a person living through it, you’re always in that shifting space by speaking different languages.
NAC When I was in grad school at Yale, I had a bit of concern like, This is too much about me. Why would people care? But I’m making work about the postcolonial and the immigrant experiences, which I think many people understand. Even if you move from a town to a city, you inhabit that liminal space, and, of course, more and more people do as the world globalizes. I don’t know who recently said that Europe is in the process of creolization as so many people are moving in, but there are these cultures coming into contact with each other. Cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers how a true cosmopolitan city is made up of difference next to difference. And that’s what I’m trying to source in my pictures.
EA Yes, Appiah’s account disputes ideas about the West versus everyone else and about boundaries. These same challenges are apparent in your work. Images of domestic life in America are tinged with traces of Nigeria, and, as we’ve been saying, different visual languages sit side by side. Language, again, is so important as a metaphor in your work. Did you speak your native tongue growing up?
NAC Yes, I did, even though it was seen as unpolished (speaking Igbo was a punishable offense in elementary school). Back then, speaking English was a way of showing that you were educated, upper class. Some people did not teach their children the native language because they thought it made you stupid! There was an inferiority complex associated with things too Nigerian. People were being anglicized. Then, with my generation, the pendulum swung back the other way.
EA The choice to speak a certain language is a political act. The return to traditional culture was a response to anglicization.
NAC In my generation there is that feeling of, We have to hang on because traditions are vanishing. When I was young, nobody who was considered cool, cosmopolitan, or upper class would wear traditional fabrics. But now they’re all the rage and people wear them in funky Western styles. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the next generation. Those are things that I try to map with the photographs in my paintings.
EA How often do you go back to Nigeria?
NAC Once or twice every year. I see this cultural renaissance in my country—this rebirth of Nigerian music, literature, fashion, and art. There’s excitement about being Nigerian and a pride that didn’t exist when I was younger. They’re really committed to their country and feel the loss of all the people moving away. Nigerians are hanging on with their fists clenched.
EA Your repetition of photo-transfer images refers to that hanging on. The repetition is an attempt to sear or reify the images. At the same time, the constant shifts in Nigeria’s reality competes with your memory of the place. There is a sense of looking back at something that is slipping away. It’s apparent in the specificity of the domestic elements you portray. What roles do clothing, food, and furniture play in your work?
NAC I talked earlier about playing with the different languages of painting, image-making, and the liminal space I want to place things in—this kind of no-man’s land. From wherever you’re looking at the work, you may recognize something. But you won’t recognize everything, because there’s a mix of times, places, cultures, continents, and classes. I’m thinking of clothing, shoes, jewelry, hairstyles, furniture, and architecture. For instance, I may include screen-walls and louvers, which I associate with 1980s houses in Nigeria—houses are not built that way anymore. If I’m thinking of the flooring of a space, whether it’s terrazzo or tile or carpet, I consider the time period and socioeconomic implications of each, and then I play with and mix these things. A female character may be wearing a very expensive dress from a Nigerian designer called Tiffany Amber, but she may also be wearing cheap house slippers made by Northern cattle herders that you get from the market. Or there’s a guy in the scene wearing sunglasses that would be considered razz, very bush, not classy at all. Or there’s IKEA furniture from my Baltimore living room next to a couch from our house in the village in Nigeria. As you read the painting, I want you to wonder, What’s going on? Why is the woman with this provincial hairstyle in this cosmopolitan situation? So there are these contradictions that also exist in my own life. I’ve lived in all these different places; I’m a mélange of them.
EA How much do you think about your audience when making your work?
NAC It’s a big part of it. Earlier I talked about how I’m extrapolating from literature. I do what many contemporary African and Caribbean writers do: address a dual audience at the same time.
EA An American audience and a Nigerian audience?
NAC I would like to think so. First of all, apart from everything else, the works have to be successful as paintings. So when I’m planning the work, a lot of time goes into the composition, colors, movement, and rhythm. That’s the painting part, and it keeps everything together. But when I’m playing with the visual cues, I think of the audience. I’m asking myself what it means. Who will get it, and who will not get it? One example off the top of my head is Tea Time in New Haven. There is a table with all tea things, and then there’s a sink, which, for me, makes total sense. When I was giving a talk, someone asked, “Why is there a sink in the dining room?” I was like, “Well it’s not something that every Nigerian family has. It actually speaks to class, and to certain parts of the country. If you can afford it, you have a sink in your dining room because people eat with their hands. So you can wash your hands and then sit down and eat. There was a girl in the audience who said, “I’m from India and we do that too, so it made sense to me.” I like how certain things make sense to some but are unknown to others.
EA In the case of the girl from India, that was an unexpected convergence of experiences. I think this is part of what makes your work relatable—certain habits and solutions are shared across cultures. What do Nigerians think of your work?
NAC My work really came together in graduate school. My siblings had seen it, but I hadn’t shown it to other Nigerians. I remember one of the studio visits that I was most nervous about was with Bisi Silva, a curator from the CCA in Lagos, which is an amazing contemporary art center. She came to my studio at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2012 and it felt like a test. This is someone who grew up in Nigeria. I could give my whole spiel and she could be like, No, that’s not true. (laughter) But we had a fantastic time. Also, she came with her hair threaded—a hairstyle that is considered provincial—and I was just like, “Whaaat?” She said, “Yeah, I’m trying to bring it back!” We’ve re-embraced many Nigerian traditions—language, food, fashion. But for some reason that particular hairstyle hasn’t come back. People do braids and dreads but threading is still considered very bush.
EA I bet it will come back next year. Have you always worn your hair short?
NAC No, I’ve done the whole thing—short, threaded, braided, and so on. I had it short when I was growing up because it was cheap. I started growing it out in secondary school, but when I came to the US, it was harder for me to have long hair because braiding costs a lot here. Eventually I cut my hair because of the expense but had to grow it out again for my wedding because I would have been frowned upon if I got married with short hair. In Eastern Nigeria, cut hair is a sign of mourning. It’s not something you do for fashion. So I had to grow my hair for my wedding. (laughter) My rebellion was that I braided it, instead of putting it in a weave, and after the wedding I cut it again . I’ve had it short since then.
EA Hair is a sort of social marker, isn’t it?
NAC Yeah, when I go back to Nigeria, my hair actually marks me as being from outside. If you’re American and go to the market in Nigeria, they will always cheat you. I try to code switch whenever I return home—I revert back to my Nigerian accent, and I dress the way I think Nigerians would dress. I’ll even speak in my local language, but they end up saying something like, “Ah, you have dollars now.” (laughter) I wonder, How do they know? Once, I asked my mother’s assistant. She looked me up and down and within two seconds she pointed to my shoes. I was wearing sneakers with African patterns. She said, “Nigerian girls don’t wear sneakers.”
EA People tell me I walk differently than Japanese people, I stand differently. It could be the way you sit—
NAC Yeah, a friend from Egypt was told it was the way he sat that gave him away.
EA The way you sit, the way you hold your head, everything. Interestingly, in your paintings people often have their heads down.
NAC I’m trying to create a situation that is contained within the scene. The interaction is between the people and their surroundings. The viewers are getting a glimpse into this other world, a world that sometimes doesn’t make sense. But every once in a while I’ll want to address the viewer directly. In I Refuse to Be Invisible, the character is looking directly out at you.
Sometimes I get too tied down by a certain way of painting or drawing, and I have to break out of it. It helped me early on not to do faces. Often I just want to note: This is a woman. Or: This is a woman from there who doesn’t make sense here. It doesn’t always matter what her face looks like, and it helps me if I carefully orchestrate the composition so it’s not about portraiture.
EA Occasionally, a figure is modeled on you. Do you see her as you or as a general female character?
NAC It’s a female based on me, but as a character she has become her own person.
EA Achebe wrote about how men are negotiating the new Nigeria. How do you see your work as a woman? It seems that in the interactions between you and the man, the husband figure, you’re somehow always on top.
NAC (whispers) I know. (laughter) That is very intentional; I always make sure the woman is in a position of power—where her agency is not questioned and where she is an active participant. Positions and agency really change the read of the work. My mother was an incredibly powerful woman even before she got her government job. She always radiated power. Eventually people recognized it, and she ended up running the NAFDAC, the Nigerian equivalent of the FDA, becoming one of the most influential women in Nigeria. I grew up with strong women, so it’s important for me to maintain that in my work. There’s also an aside. It’s changing now, but when I was growing up, all the interracial marriages I knew of were Nigerian men wedded to foreign women. I didn’t know a Nigerian woman who was married to a foreign man, at least not in my parents’ extended circle of friends. So, I wanted to create images that I hadn’t seen before.
EA Does it signify something?
NAC It’s unfortunate, but in Nigeria, when people see a Nigerian woman with a white man, they assume she’s a prostitute, a runs girl [an escort]—it’s a negative assumption. These are the things I try to walk around in my work.
That’s why I feel most comfortable in very diverse cities like New York or LA. If my husband and I are in Nigeria, I’m like, “Just walk beside me like you’re my friend,” because I worry what people will think about me. A lot of white men in Nigeria are connected to oil companies and businesses, so they just have dollar signs around their heads. And people think, Oh, she’s that girl.
EA Do you think you’ll stay in LA?
NAC We are going to stay in LA. We really like it. We share a huge studio with another artist. We have really nice light. The weather is similar to Nigerian weather. Architecture follows climate. There are many architectural details in LA that remind me of home.
EA Uncanny. Again, there’s a convergence of experiences, like the sink in the Indian woman’s dining room, that makes us feel connected even without a lived connection.
NAC These are things I always think of—if I take a snapshot of this place, would people know where it is? What are the cues? I’m always trying to pinpoint what makes the difference. Who copied from whom or did we both copy from some other place?
EA Where is the original? Is there an original?
NAC It is fascinating to me.
EA I am curious about how technology comes into your work. You use Photoshop but in the end your works are tangible objects on paper. Something that’s not apparent in photos of your work is that the paper buckles slightly, giving it a palpable physicality.
NAC I often think about Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” I’m working out of a tradition that is very old, but I want to use current technologies and methods to work with that tradition in a recognizable way. I use Photoshop to make color choices. Peter Halley advised me to do that, and I’ve been grateful for that suggestion because I can try out over fifty different colors in minutes. I used to make little studies, and it just took too long. I also use stenciling, silk-screening, and transfer methods. So I’m using the very traditional techniques I’ve learned, but I’m always adding new ways of working and figuring out ways to integrate them both.
EA It seems like it happens mostly in the process.
NAC Exactly. The hard, graphic edge speaks to computer imagery mixed in with carefully modeled areas. But then I’m very deliberate with the way I use a brush or a roller, so the work evokes the digital age but the tactility neutralizes it.
EA Yeah, up close you can see all the work that’s gone into it. Having to be close to the surface to see it makes us intimate with it.
NAC I spoke earlier about wanting people’s eyes to traverse the multiple worlds and places and languages of image-making. The surface treatment directs that movement. On the surface, I play with things—I may use more viscous paint or I may not, I may leave the paint plain or mix in mica, sand, crushed marble, or iridescent charcoal. Your eyes are always activated as you move through the velvety or shiny or glossy areas to an area that’s matte or rough. I want to place viewers in this transitional space so they begin to exist in a world that expands beyond their periphery.
Erica Ando is an independent curator, art writer, and a professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee