In 2009, the American soap star Victoria Rowell showed up to the Emmys in a dress boldly patterned with a portrait of US president Barack Obama, which bloggers were quick to declare ‘Obamanable’. What the fashion police might have missed is that commemorative cloth like the one Rowell wore serves a specific function within West African culture, where such portrait prints might be commissioned to honour special occasions such as weddings or anniversaries, or to advertise social organizations or political candidates. The images are transferred onto cloth through a wax-print technique, originally imported by Dutch traders, who in turn picked it up in Indonesia. While now identified with West Africa, these textiles are, in fact, an emblem of one culture’s ability to absorb the traditions of others.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who left Nigeria aged 16 to move to the US, traces the seams of this kind of cultural syncretism, through large-scale, mixed-media works on paper that patchwork different modes and techniques of representation to forge a continuity between her experiences in both countries. The artist suspends her domestic interior scenes between continents, depicting family and loved ones trading casual intimacies over the kitchen table or slouched on couches. The quotidian character of their activity is reinforced by flatly applied acrylics, whose lustre is lost to the absorbency of the paper. This same absorbency enables Akunyili Crosby to cover wide swathes of each composition with acetone transfers of photographs, both personal and plucked from society pages and political coverage, She fits the images up against one another like tiles, providing a primer on the visual syntax of Nigerian life. This new form of commemorative cloth flows over from the confines of the figures’ clothing, seeping into the furniture, carpets, walls and even skin.
This autumn, curator Jamillah James culled five of the artist’s paintings for a showcase at the Hammer, which ran concurrently to ‘The Beautyful Ones’, a selection of new works at Art + Practice. While the latter title refers to a series of portraits of Akunyili Crosby’s younger siblings, the back wall of Art + Practice lined up three distinct paintings that together present a continuous view of a single architectural interior. On the far right, an expanse of commemorative cloth from one of the artist’s late mother’s campaigns is folded into the backdrop of I See You in My Eyes (2015). The emphasis on looking repeats in the image on the far left, Bush Girl (2015), which slips a transfer of a photograph of a woman into the fronds of a houseplant. Only one of her eyes is visible, but it is fixed resolutely at the viewer, refusing to go unnoticed. The two images are bridged by I Still Face You (2015), a scene of five figures (including the artist and her husband) engaged in conversation, their gazes tangled over the table. In her rendering, the artist manages to convey intimacy without access to their interior lives. This distance can be partially attributed to the medium, the gritty impermanence of the acetone transfers on paper. But it is also inherent in the staging. As with I Still Face You, faces are often obscured, staring at their phones or one another. In And We Begin To Let Go (2013), the artist paints herself draped like chiffon in a chair. Her husband bends over her, his head eclipsed by hers so that two bodies fuse into one. Akunyili Crosby extracted a sketch of her own profile from this painting to create one of her rare oil on canvas works, Janded (2012), which punctuates the selection of paintings on view at Hammer. The self-portrait sets the artist against a bedroom-dark backdrop, only shades deeper than her skin tone. There’s a Vermeer sensibility in the turn of her head, light pooling voluptuously in the eggshell-coloured cameo earring, but then flickering over her lids, which drape heavily over her eyes. As her own subject, she is at once sensuous and self-possessed, displayed but not on offer. It’s a delicate balance that testifies to the artist’s skill in negotiating the split personalities born of a life between continents.
First published in Issue 176