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MacArthur 'Genius' Paints Nigerian Childhood Alongside Her American Present

Jan 2, 2018
Originally published on January 2, 2018 4:46 pm

Visual artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 34, is having a moment. In 2017, she won a so-called MacArthur "genius" grant, and over the past few months her work has been shown in Baltimore, New Orleans and upstate New York.

Akunyili Crosby was born in Nigeria and moved to the United States when she was 16. Her large-scale paintings (some as big as 8 by 10 feet) reflect her life in both countries. They show groups of people in Nigeria or Brooklyn or Los Angeles, and incorporate photographs of politicians, images of ancestors (mostly women) and objects that signify life in both cultures — a bowl to hold rice, a kerosene lamp, Ikea furniture.

Akunyili Crosby says, "I think the point I make in my work is that my home is Nigeria and the United States at the same time."

The painter holds citizenship in both countries. She listens to both Grace Jones and Nigerian pop in her studio, and, when filling out forms, she never knows what to put down as her permanent residence. "That really is what it means, for me, to be an immigrant, is this navigation of two worlds at the same time," she says.

Many of her works contain a sort of portal between figures, like an open space in a wall, and she often paints members of her family. I Still Face You shows people around a table; the artist is standing and gazing down at the only white person there — her now-husband.

"That is loosely based on what happened the first time he visited Nigeria." Akunyili Crosby says. "Yes, there was a very serious family meeting that probably had three times the number of people in that painting. And it was, 'So, young man, what are your plans? Are you going to marry her? How will you guys make it work in a country that is still very racist?' " (They now have a young son.)

Ian Berry, director of the Tang Museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., says this is a critical time to show artists like Akunyili Crosby, whose work looks like the museum's visitors. "I think Njideka's work presents a complicated ... view of what it means to be from different places and of different places and living in a contemporary world," he says. "So seeing her version of portraiture where people are a complex mix, I think, is very valuable right now."

Trevor Schoonmaker is the chief curator at the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, N.C., and artistic director for "Prospect.4," a New Orleans-wide art show that includes Akunyili Crosby's work. He says, "There's enough beauty and recognizable something [in Akunyili Crosby's paintings] that we can all relate to no matter where we're from, that just pulls you in."

He's especially intrigued with the way the artist layers different worlds and images, mixing acrylics, colored pencils and photos to at least partly cover nearly every figure, from a Nigerian Michael Jackson impersonator to a former dictator to Janelle Monáe.

"She's figured this out in a way that's really brilliant," Schoonmaker says. "And certain elements are American, and other elements are Nigerian; certain elements are Western, others are African. And she just — I mean, that's why she just won a MacArthur."

Akunyili Crosby got the call about the MacArthur grant while she was parking her car. "The only reason why I picked it up is I'm curious — I love answering numbers I don't know," she says. "And I picked it up and it was the MacArthur Foundation. It was very bizarre, but also very happy!"

That curiosity feeds her work. As an undergrad, Akunyili Crosby majored in both studio art and biology. Today, the many layers in her paintings serve as membranes, enabling a cultural osmosis between the living rooms of her Nigerian childhood and those of her current life in Los Angeles.

Tom Cole and Kat Lonsdorf edited and produced this story for broadcast. Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The 34-year-old visual artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby is a creature of two worlds. She was born in Nigeria and has lived in the U.S. for almost two decades. She weaves those worlds together into her large-scale paintings. Last year Crosby was named a MacArthur genius, and she has shows in Baltimore and New Orleans running at the same time. Karen Michel reports.

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Njideka Akunyili Crosby's paintings are really big, some up to 8 feet by 10 feet. They're portraits of groups of people set in Nigeria or Brooklyn or Los Angeles melded with black and white photographs of politicians, images of ancestors, most of them women, and objects that signify life in both cultures - a bowl to hold rice, a kerosene lamp, Ikea furniture.

NJIDEKA AKUNYILI CROSBY: I think the point I make in my work is that my home is Nigeria and the United States at the same time.

MICHEL: Njideka Akunyili Crosby holds citizenship in both countries, listens to both Grace Jones and Nigerian pop in her studio and, when filling out forms, never knows where to call her permanent residence.

AKUNYILI CROSBY: That really is what it means for me to be an immigrant - is this navigation of two worlds at the same time.

MICHEL: In many of her works, there's a sort of portal between the figures, an open space in a wall between them. And she often paints members of her family. There's a striking image in the New Orleans Museum of Art of a group sitting around a table. The artist is standing, gazing down at the only white person in the group, her husband.

AKUNYILI CROSBY: That is loosely based on what happened the first time he visited Nigeria. Yes, it was a very serious family meeting that probably had three times the number of people in that painting. And it was, so, young man, what are your plans? (Laughter) Are you going to marry her? Yeah, like, how will you guys make it work in a country that is still very racist?

MICHEL: They now have a young son. A painting at the Tang Museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., includes a depiction of the artist embraced by her husband kneeling at her feet in their U.S. home. Ian Berry, the museum's director, says this is a critical time to show artists like Akunyili Crosby, whose work looks like the museum's visitors.

IAN BERRY: And I think Njideka's work presents a complex view of what it means to be from different places and of different places and living in a contemporary world. So seeing her version of portraiture where people are a complex mix I think is very valuable right now.

TREVOR SCHOONMAKER: There's enough beauty and a recognizable something there that we can all relate to no matter where we're from that just pulls you in. And you don't have to know what she's trying to do to appreciate it, and I think that's a great part of her success.

MICHEL: Trevor Schoonmaker is the chief curator at the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, N.C. He's also artistic director for Prospect.4, the New Orleans-wide art show that includes Akunyili Crosby's work. He's especially intrigued with the way the artist layers different worlds and different images, mixing acrylics, colored pencils and photos taken by the artist and ripped from magazines that at least partly cover nearly every figure from a Nigerian Michael Jackson impersonator to a former dictator to Janelle Monae.

SCHOONMAKER: She's figured this out in a way that's really brilliant. Certain elements are American, and other elements are Nigerian. Certain elements are Western. Others are African. I mean, that's why she just won a MacArthur.

MICHEL: The call that she'd won came when Njideka Akunyili Crosby was parking her car.

AKUNYILI CROSBY: And the only reason why I picked it up is I'm curious. I love answering numbers I don't know. And it was very bizarre but also very happy. So it's also like you're terrified, but you're also very happy. And it was all sorts of very odd emotions at the same time.

MICHEL: That curiosity feeds into her work. As an undergrad, Akunyili Crosby majored in both studio art and biology. The many layers in her work are like membranes, enabling a cultural osmosis between the living rooms of her Nigerian childhood and those of her current life in Los Angeles. For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.