Portals, the first major solo exhibition in Europe by Nigerian experiemental photographer and painter Njideka Akunyili Crosby, is about to launch in London at Victoria Miro Gallery.
Akunyili Crosby was born in Enugu, Nigeria in 1983 and currently lives and works in Los Angeles.
By combining an amalgam photo-transfer techniques, drawing and painting in large-scale works, the artist, who relocated from Nigeria to the United States at the age of 16, creates densely-layered, figurative compositions that integrate disparate materials and aesthetic traditions.
In Akunyili Crosby’s work, doors, windows and screens function as physical and conceptual points of arrival and departure.
On initial impression, the work appears to focus on apparently everyday, interior scenes and social gatherings. Many of Akunyili Crosby’s images feature figures – images of family and friends – in scenarios derived from familiar domestic experiences: eating, drinking, watching TV.
Rarely do they meet the viewer’s gaze but seem bound up in moments of intimacy or reflection. An image like Ike Ya (2016) captures an embrace between a couple that seems as conciliatory as it does affectionate.
Akunyili Crosby and her husband are often the models for the work, inviting us, on one level, to share snapshots of their everyday life, and an invitation to share in the artist’s world .
But ambiguities of narrative and gesture are disturbed by a second wave of imagery. Vibrantly patterned areas are created from images of Nigerian pop stars, models and celebrities like Nollywood actress Genevieve Nnaji, as well as lawyers and military dictators. The images are drawn from the artist’s personal archive, magazines and advertisements, while others are sourced from the internet.
Akunyili Crosby applies these to the surface of her work, through an acetone transfer technique, in arrangements that seem to proliferate across the walls and floors of the rooms she describes and the clothing and skin of the figures contained within them.
Through this labour-intensive process, Akunyili Crosby addresses the idea of cultural overlap and the complex layering of influences – personal, cultural and political – on people and places.
Describing her interiors as ‘wormholes’, Akunyili Crosby hope to articulate “the nuances of post-colonial identity,” she says.
Featuring a lone figure in an interior, an unwatched TV and a tea tray set for two, Super Blue Omo, 2016, is, again, a scene of deceptive simplicity whose tilted planes become, on close inspection, an invitation to consider a more complex narrative.
While Super Blue Omo refers to a well-known brand of washing powder, with a long-running advertisement that ran on Nigerian television during the artist’s childhood in the 1980s – it can be seen on the TV set in the work). But the title is also polyvalent, a meditation on psychological states of ‘blueness’ – the glow of the room and its atmosphere of introspection.
While the artist’s formative years in Nigeria are a constant source of inspiration, Akunyili Crosby’s grounding in Western art history adds further layers of reference.
A good example is the image titled The Twain Shall Meet, one of a number of works that incorporates an image of the table owned by the artist’s grandmother, who appears in a framed portrait.
Laden with familial possessions, the image also plays host to a range of visual cues about changing geographical and socio-economic circumstances. A good example of this is the kerosene lamp. Ubiquitous in rural areas of Nigeria, where electricity supplies are unreliable, it shares space with plastic containers used for storing, cooking and serving food.
Here, ideas of home, hospitality and generosity mingle with thoughts about cultural inheritance. There are references to a tea culture derived from British colonialism. Christianity, another colonial import, is alluded to in two framed images of the Virgin Mary.
A sense of cross-cultural currents moving through Akunyili Crosby’s work is heightened by the architectural spaces she describes. The Twain Shall Meet makes reference to Interior, 1899, by Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi.
In his painting, Hammershøi depicts a figure in an interior in which both doors to a room are closed. By contrast, in The Twain Shall Meet, Akunyili Crosby opens the doors of her interior to reveal other spaces.
It is in this respect that her work operates in the liminal, in-between zones that post-colonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha refers to as ‘the third space’, a point of overlap, conflation and mixing of cultural influence specific to diaspora communities.
Portals by Njideka Akunyili Crosby runs 4 October to 5 November 2016 at Victoria Miro, Gallery II, 16 Wharf Road, London N1 7RW.