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Interview with Njideka Akunyili Crosby

Njideka Akunyili Crosby first encountered Mary Louise Pratt’s ‘Arts of the Contact Zone’ (1991), which identifies ‘social spaces where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other’, during her studies at Yale University School of Art. The ‘contact zone’ has since become an underlying focus in the practice of an artist who left Nigeria in 1999, at the age of 16, to study in the United States, where she now lives with her American husband. Her autobiography is a complex series of contact zones – personal, cultural and political – played out through her compositions.

 

Akunyili Crosby’s current show at Victoria Miro shares its title with a recent work, Portals (2016), now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. The artist’s paintings are filled with doors, windows, frames, and screens that exist as openings or intermediaries between two spaces. The concept is also realised in the formal aspects of Akunyili Crosby’s compositions, which are materially dense combinations of painting, drawing and photo-transfer techniques. The artist brings together two cultures, her ‘Americanness’ and ‘Nigerianness’, producing large-scale works of everyday domestic and social scenes that foreground her family, her husband and herself.

 

My first encounter with Akunyili Crosby was during a talk at Tate Modern, the night before the preview of her show at Victoria Miro. She spoke about her work with a catching enthusiasm, confidently guiding her audience through the many layers of her work projected onto the screen behind her. She flicked back and forth between works, drawing attention to their thematic links. No individual piece, I came to realise, can be considered as separate from the others, but is rather a continuation of a story. That story, which unravelled during my interview with Akunyili Crosby, is beautifully multifaceted and resists confinement, forever coming into contact with other spaces.

Q

The White Review

—  You talk about your work in very playful terms – as a game, a puzzle, as like playing Where’s Waldo. Could you elaborate on this playful element to your work?

A

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

— I think it has its origin in the composition stage, when I’m putting the work together. Each work takes months and it’s hard to not mentally check out. So for me to be engaged the whole time – because if you’re not engaged in your work it shows – I have to set hurdles for myself. That’s where the game aspect of it comes in. I need to have a challenge that I’m trying to figure out or get past. Sometimes the challenge can be as simple as using colours that wouldn’t usually go together. I saw this orange colour the other day and I thought it was hideous, there’s no way that anyone can work with that colour, but I want to try and work with it anyway.

 

I’m excited about ‘Portals’ because you can see multiple pieces together. My work is all connected, and usually each work continues a conversation from another piece. When they’re all together like this, you can really begin to put those conversations together. This ties in with the way that I want the viewer to engage with the work. For example, if you spend five minutes with Thriving, Garden (2016), different layers begin to reveal themselves. If you spend an hour with it, even more elements will reveal themselves. I think that those morsels, like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, are fun and really add another element to the work. It becomes something that isn’t easy to dismiss, because it unravels so slowly.

Q

The White Review

—  Your work is distinctly autobiographical. You paint a lot of domestic scenes of you, your Nigerian family and your husband. Alongside these very personal, intimate images, you have transferred cut-outs from magazines and designers that you like, images which you’ve collected and stored over years. How have these become part of your autobiography? Is there something in that process, of holding onto images?

A

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

—  I pick a picture because I feel a connection to it. It resonates with me. Some of those pictures I collected years ago, and now, since there’s a history of having worked with them for so long, they’ve become closer to me.

 

It was encouraging when my cousins from Nigeria came to see my work, because some of the images I’ve used also resonated with them. Usually I choose pictures that tap into Nigerian culture in the eighties and nineties – popular musicians, iconic album covers, movie stars. For a long time, there was just one main Nigerian soap opera and everyone watched it – Thursdays at 8 p.m. – because we didn’t have a lot of choice. Not only in terms of TV programmes, but things like products, music – there was a very limited selection. So the selection that we did have became a part of everyone’s memory, conscience and life-story.

 

I look for images that give me a feeling of recognition, like ‘Oh! This is that person whose song we listened to all the time when we were young.’ Because if I have that feeling, then someone else who grew up in Nigeria in the eighties and nineties will have that feeling. We have shared memories.

Q

The White Review

—  So a lot of the images you use return to your childhood. You left Nigeria when you were 16 and moved to the US, but you don’t use any images from US pop culture in your paintings.

A

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

—  I also use contemporary Nigerian pop culture, because I watch a lot of music videos online. The photos I transfer juxtapose old school and contemporary pop culture. It’s like mapping changes in the country through pop culture and photographs.

Q

The White Review

— You quoted George Gerbner in your talk at Tate, on that point.

A

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

—  The quote was: ‘representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.’ I thought that was so incredibly true and powerful. You don’t exist if you’re not represented.

 

Someone I admire who really is invested in that idea is Kerry James Marshall. He didn’t see dark bodies in certain arts cultural spaces and museums, art institutions, so he decided to make it happen. There are writers who did this too, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chinua Achebe, who felt like their stories weren’t out there so they decided to tell them. That’s definitely something that fuels my work. I felt that after I moved to the US, which was where my interest in imagery started. It’s just a really weird feeling, to feel like you don’t matter, or where you come from doesn’t matter, because it’s not represented. If people don’t know about it, if people don’t see it and don’t care, how does it exist? I felt a need to claim my own social existence by making the representation happen.

 

I started collecting pictures as a way to stay connected to the Nigeria as I knew it, which wasn’t the same Nigeria that I was experiencing in the US, in terms of the questions people asked me. You are asked questions which leave you speechless, where you think, ‘just keep smiling.’ I became aware that people had no clue, not just about Nigeria but about Africa as a continent, or life in that part of the country, at all. I had a desire to share the Nigeria I knew with people, in a way that felt real or sincere to me. This was my life – this still is my life. Just people going about, living their lives. I wanted to give people a glimpse of this other space that they weren’t familiar with.

Q

The White Review

—  You’ve used a lot of portrait fabrics in your work, which have a very rich and complex Nigerian history attached to them. Could you tell me more about their history, and the ones that you’ve chosen to use in your work?

A

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

—  There’s one in See Through (2016), which is from my mum’s campaign when she ran for senate in eastern Nigeria. As is the one in Mother and Child (2016) which is also from her senatorial campaign, just a different pattern. “The Beautyful Ones” Series #5 (2016) has one from her funeral. And the last one is Wedding Souvenirs (2016), which is of my brother’s wedding.

 

Portrait fabrics speak to the history of African fabric. You’ll see a lot of the people in my transferred images wearing these. Those fabrics still are, but not all of them, a really high brand called Vlisco, which is a Dutch company, and it’s still produced in Holland and sold across the African continent. Then local, fabric houses starting mimicking Vlisco’s mechanical printing and production, and something different came out of it. The postcolonial theorist] Homi K. Bhabha does a good job explaining how hybridity is a product of mimicry; it usually starts as mimicry, but in trying to mimic something it’s never perfect. It’s always close enough but not quite, and it’s in those ‘not quite’ moments that new trans-cultures are born. This can be seen in commemorative fabrics, which are unique to the continent.

 

The parallel for me is using art traditions I’ve inherited, from Swarthmore College, the Pennsylvania Academy, and at Yale University, but then trying to find a way of signalling a difference from the culture I’m working from. Whether that’s putting transfers into it, or making the work a combination of drawing, painting, print-making, collage.

Q

The White Review

—  How often do you go back to Nigeria?

A

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

—  I go back once or twice a year, which is very exciting because I go back with a list of things I want to photograph. Like the terrazzo floor in Mother and Child (2016), which is something you don’t see anymore – it had its heyday in the nineties. Terrazzo floor is made from crushed up stone or marble, and it was something people started doing in the east, where I grew up. People would make pictures in the terrazzo, which almost all of the time were religious; in houses in the village, there would be Jesus mosaics done with terrazzo in the lobby.

 

I couldn’t find any pictures of it online, so when I went back to Nigeria in 2012 I took lots of pictures of the terrazzo floor in our village house, which I’ve used in Mother and Child. It’s a cross that says ‘No Cross No Crown’, because my dad went to the College of Immaculate Conception, and my mum went to Holy Rosary College. There’s a lot of religious iconography in Nigeria, and I allude to it in some of my work.

Q

The White Review

—  It’s interesting hearing you talk about collecting things from your home in Nigeria and bringing them back to the US, where they are transformed into works of art. Your work is about points of contact, between Nigerianness and Americanness, between you and your husband. It’s about cultures coming together.

A

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

—  At grad school I took a postcolonial theory class, where I was introduced to Mary Louise Pratt. She talks about the ‘contact zone’, which is the space where cultures come into contact with each other and grapple with each other. This involves a lot of appropriation and exchanging of ideas, and usually something new comes out of that. This really resonated with me, since I come from a country that is a contact zone – first, from being a British colony up until 1960, and then with American movies and pop culture coming into the country. You begin to see traditions that have become a weird mix of different cultures.

 

The last time I was in Nigeria I went to a church service, and usually at the beginning of a church service the priest comes down into the congregation. But at this service, it started off with all of these religious leaders coming in, and then the priest and bishops, but in front of the whole procession was this guy in really traditional garb playing this huge elephant horn. It was such a bizarre thing! It looked like a traditional ceremony, but it was in a church. It’s like they’d just found a way to put it all together. I was trying to get a photograph but I didn’t have my camera, but there was a camera guy and I kept signalling to him like, ‘That’s a picture I want! Take that picture!’

Q

The White Review

—  Did you get the picture?

A

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

— No! And that’s why I like living outside Nigeria, because when I come back home I can see these things better. It’s like I have the eyes of a tourist and a Nigerian at the same time. But for the camera guy there was nothing exciting or unique going on. He just couldn’t figure out what I wanted! He thought I was excited about the guy in the traditional garb, as opposed to the guy in the traditional garb with the bishop behind him who was dressed in his full regalia. He was just taking a picture of the guy playing the elephant horn. God, that’s a picture I can’t believe I missed. I need to go back and restage it! The two of them together was just too bizarre. But that’s the kind of thing that can happen in a contact zone.

 

It was also during that time, the summer before grad school, that I’d just gotten married. I began to think of myself as someone from multiple worlds. I’m truly American now, and I can’t deny it anymore. After we got married that really made me feel anchored to the US, and I began to feel this dual allegiance that I hadn’t felt before. The marriage seemed for me the contact zone, which is also when I started using a lot of imagery of the two of us.

Q

The White Review

— Like the one of you passing the palm wine to Justin in Wedding Portrait (2012).

A

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

—  Yeah, that’s always a weird one because people are always like, ‘why is she kneeling in front of him?’ That’s why in this show I have Ike Ya (2016), where he’s kneeling in front of me. Just like, ‘OK we need to rectify this!’
It’s a traditional wedding ceremony thing, where you have to kneel in front of the man you want to marry and give him palm wine, and once he accepts it that’s the moment of marriage. So, for me, my wedding was a contact zone, but if I had to boil it down to one moment, it would be the traditional marriage ceremony when I gave him the palm wine, and if I had to boil it down to one image, one flash second, it would be the moment he took the palm wine. That’s why I did that wedding portrait.

Q

The White Review

—  There are literal contact zones in your compositions, like the blank spaces between your diptychs and triptychs which, as you said at Tate, are very charged spaces. Perhaps this is the right time to ask you about ‘portals’, which is the title of your show at Victoria Miro, and why there are so many literal openings in your work.

A

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

—  The title of the show comes from the title of my piece at the Whitney. It’s almost like I wanted to bang on something that was very clear in my work, shout it out more. It’s about a simultaneous opening of multiple spaces within one work. Doing it in a figurative sense, but also in a literal sense. There are always a lot of openings within my work, be it frames on the wall, images within a fabric, frames within a work (like the framed works on the tables), TV screens, computer screens. And of course the transferred images, which are doorways into other things.

 

I wanted to continue with that in Mother and Child. So there’s the small, framed black and white painting of doors on the wall. And then there’s the open door, leading into another room with an open door in it. That’s something you seen in Vilhelm Hammershøi a lot. With him it had to do with the architecture of his house. He had four rooms in a line, and every once in a while he’d do a painting from one end, and you’d see the three other rooms in the back.

 

I’m interested in these suggested deep spaces, which I also deal with in The Twain Shall Meet (2015), which was composed from two photographs that I took of the same table at my grandmother’s house. I took them from opposite sides, and then when I transferred them I put the two photographs together with the orange food container in the middle. So you’re seeing something that is impossible, it’s like a weird unwrapping of this one scene from two different perspectives at once. The background comes from a Hammershøi painting, the same painting that is in the framed picture in Mother and Child. I changed the shape of the door because there were so many verticals and horizontals, and I wanted the curve to seal the space in a way that I thought was more visually interesting. It also just reminded me of Renaissance altar pieces.

Q

The White Review

—  But what do those spaces mean for you? The viewer can’t see what’s in those rooms that the doors open onto, they are spaces that we will never be able to see.

A

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

— For me they’re more a reinforcement, or a recapitulation, of the themes in my work, which is about this layering of spaces that exist right on top of each other, seamlessly going back and forth between them. And in some cases you don’t know what those other spaces are.

 

It’s not really about a cultural space but a painting language. Beyond each door is a shift in the language of painting. If you think of this room in Mother and Child, there’s the front space where the couch and the table is, that ends with the fabric wall, and then there’s another space that goes beyond that which has the blue wall leading to the door and then the space behind. It almost feels like in each shift in space I switch to a different kind of painting language.

Q

The White Review

—  Maybe this feeds into the way that you like to continue stories through multiple works. Like I Always Face You, Even When It Seems Otherwise (2012) and I Still Face You (2015), which continue a conversation between you and your family, about you staying connected to your home in Nigeria and your new home in the US. And here, at Victoria Miro, you have ‘The Beautyful Ones’ Series #5 (2016), which is the fifth in the series. Are you still working on this? Who’s in the series?

A

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

—  They’re all of my relatives, and I’ll probably work on that series for years to come. The first is of my sister, and before I started it I hadn’t done a straight-up portrait for a while. Towards the end of my stay at the Studio Museum, I decided I wanted to do a full on portrait, just someone standing, looking straight at you, saying, ‘This is the history I have come from.’ It was time for me to stop running away from it because, at that point, I had been running away from it for two years.

 

So I pulled out my Velázquez book and I saw a beautiful painting of Prince Baltasar Carlos, the little prince wearing this really opulent, rich fabric with the balloony pants, pulling this really confident pose. Something about it reached out to me. This was a different time, different country, different continent, different socio-economic class, different lifestyle. But the gestures and the attitudes of posing in portraiture, especially when you know that you look good, is the same everywhere. It’s a universal thing.

 

I wanted to do my own version of Velázquez, and I thought of my sister and when she had this birthday party when she was around 10 years old. We weren’t very rich, so we had one or two nice pieces of clothing that we wore all the time. My sister had this one that she was really proud of and wore it to all of her fancy things, a jumpsuit with harem pant legs. I wanted to do an image of her that closely mirrored the image of Prince Baltasar but was also different from it. The Velázquez is a really dark painting, his outfit is dark, but his skin really stands out against all that darkness. My sister is a person of colour, so I needed to do the flip, where I have this painting that is really light and then her head and arms are dark floating shapes.

Q

The White Review

— You remade the piece. What made you decide to do it a second time?

A

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

—  I didn’t like the colours in the first one, I thought they were dirty. At the Pennsylvania Academy I was trained to use an earthy palette – yellow ochre, burnt sienna. I never used fluorescent colours. After I left, I spent the next years trying move away from that training, or trying to not let myself be hampered by those rules. So when I did it the first time, I felt like I was reverting back to the earthy palette. In my first year in grad school a lot of the critiques were, ‘your work is too old, it doesn’t look contemporary’. I spent the first year trying to figure out how to shed that, and I realised changing up my colours helped. These earthy colours are what existed before really intense, acrylic colours were discovered, certain pigments that we have now that didn’t exist hundreds of years ago. So I did another version of this that used more pinks and blues.

Q

The White Review

—  You were quoted in the New Yorker as saying, ‘I feel like my journey has created a character or person who doesn’t fit in any box.’ This surprised me because it gave me the impression of a fractured character, or one who doesn’t have a place anywhere. But when I look at your work I don’t get this impression. I see a full character, or a complete narrative, made up of different elements.
A

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

—  Well, I think of character as being multi-faceted. For instance, if we look at The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (2013), I’m wearing this dress that is made with Vlisco, the Dutch fabric that is now an African fabric, but this is not an African designer, it’s Boxing Kitten based in Brooklyn who makes things with Vlisco. So she’s wearing this dress that speaks to a convoluted history, and wearing a hairstyle that is very local, very rural, very traditional. Someone who is wearing this dress would not have this hairstyle. This is like a cosmopolitan Nigerian living in Lagos or outside the country who wants to show her identity through her dress. But then she’s wearing this village hairstyle, with a kerosene lamp on the table that speaks to a rural landscape, and a radiator that speaks to my life in the US, that speaks to a place that is cold, like my New York or Philadelphia apartment.

 

We were middle class, lower middle class, when I was growing up, and by the time I was finishing high school we were really well off, because my mother became the head of the Nigerian food and drug agency. We went from being nobodies to hanging out with governors: the vice-president (now president) came to my wedding – it was that kind of shift. I moved from a small town, where I used to go to the village every weekend to visit my grandma, where we had kerosene lamps instead of electricity, and we fetched water from the stream, to Lagos, a huge cosmopolitan city, to the US, to marrying Justin. When I go back to Nigeria now, people say things like, ‘You don’t act like you’re rich.’ Even back in Nigeria I confuse people. There’s a way that rich Nigerians act, because rich Nigerians grew up with a lot of help, so they usually don’t work. When I go home and I’ve finished eating, I’ll take my plate to the kitchen, I’ll wash it up, and the house help are surprised. But we didn’t grow up that way, we cleaned the house and did all the house work up until I was at high school.

 

So that’s what I’m talking about, when I talk about a character that can’t be boxed. Things contradict each other, because the character, which is based on my life, has existed in various spaces. All of these different spaces I’ve inhabited, not just culturally but socioeconomically – I’m tapping into all of that. I feel like my character has aspects of all of it. I’m all of these things at once.

 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Cassie Davies is a writer and editor based in London.

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