Skin, Or Surface: Njideka Akunyili Crosby

The artist's layered, tender paintings consider the history of being seen and touched by black women

Marble dust is one of many materials Njideka Akunyili Crosby ‘layers’ in her paintings. ‘Layers’ is a word that appears frequently in the growing body of commentary on her work; it is a word that is supposed to fix the Nigerian-born, Los Angeles-based painter in the field and history of mixed-media painting. Crosby applies photographic transfers, paint, collage, pencil drawing, marble dust and fabric, among other things, to gigantic paper surfaces enlivened with scenes from private life: gatherings at home, the after-leavings of parties. Her paintings are populated by black and brown persons outfitted in a mix of Western and Nigerian clothes, the African fabrics made specially for occasions such as the political campaign of the artist’s mother. Mostly black and brown persons – notably excepting many pictures of intimate scenes between the painter and her husband, a white American from Texas. In Crosby’s work, which was widely exhibited in 2017 (a year of big wins, including a MacArthur Fellowship), materials and subjects layer into and over one another, in rooms that blur, at critical points of contact, the distinctions between the figure and its surround.

She is famous now, Crosby. Everybody wants a piece of her. And I am a suspicious black woman. What do they want from her, I wonder? Something. Something.

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Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Mother and Child, 2016, acrylic, transfers, coloured pencils, collage and commemorative fabric on paper, 2.4 x 3.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice © Njideka Akunyili Crosby

What the word ‘layers’ does is this: it conjures a disembodied action of plopping one thing upon another that normalizes Crosby’s practice, working to limit its field to one within the discourse of painting, which necessarily neutralizes its criticality. This word functions to estrange me from the peculiarity of her application of materials and from her work. I make too much of words. I find myself wondering about the origin and preparation of marble dust, which ‘everyone’ (everyone equipped to view her work having, of course, the same baseline knowledge/position) knows is pretty ordinary, not fancy. But the choice of materials is an invitation to rove over all the possible meanings. (Cotton is ordinary, too. Great God a’mighty, I can pick a bale of cotton, Great God a’mighty, I can pick a bale a day.) Does she sweep the pulverized material from the floor of a sculptor friend’s studio? Do you have to make a deal with a quarry that provides its tiniest, easiest-to-grind remnants? How many hours of non-machine labour would it take to grind down a few ounces of the good stuff? What is the true colour of dust?

In Crosby’s two-panel painting Predecessors (2013), the subject’s gaze turns, as in most of her portraits, away from the viewer and towards a pale web of images that lies across and covers most of the exposed skin of her own left arm. The effect is subtle and yet stunning. It is as if the figure and subject of the painting (Crosby) reads the tattooed surface of her own skin, upon which is composed an indelible, if faint, message comprised of multiple images, photographed, duplicated, transferred to paper. Skin, or surface – the painting’s surface itself – is thus implicated in a history of (unexamined) ideas about seeing the black woman.

Crosby’s interference with the surface of the painting-as-paint is part of a broader invitation in her work to address the question: what does she see? A radical question, indeed, where the history of black women artists, in what Sylvia Wynter calls the ‘present ethno-class concepts of the human’ and most people call the West, has involved, at one pole, absolute denial of the black woman’s intellectual capacity to have ideas worthy of witness and, at the other pole, straight-up fetishization of the fact of our labour (and distress) as thank-god-that-ain’t-me back-handed admiration. What is the mystical or symbolic sum of Zora Neale Hurston (‘De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see’) plus Billie Holiday as perceived by Amiri Baraka (‘sometimes we are afraid to listen to this lady’)? It very much matters who is speaking. This is Crosby’s discursive inventiveness as a painter: insofar as her works make use of photographic transfers, paint, collage, pencil drawing and marble dust, they draw the viewer gently into a conversation about how ‘painting’ might extend and exceed the traditions of exploring the application of paint to surfaces. The complex and simultaneously thin ‘skin’ of her work refuses easy presuppositions about the primary markers of seer and seen in this, our ‘present’: skin colour combines with other forces, social patterns and visual activities. Bodies are points through which world programmes are run.

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Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Dwell: Aso Ebi, 2017, acrylic, transfers, coloured pencil, collage and commemorative fabric on paper, 2.4 x 3.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice © Njideka Akunyili Crosby

Crosby drives this point home with dramatic force in such works as Thread (2012). The dark skin of the woman kissing her lighter-skinned lover’s spine is not brown or black but composed of the artist’s signature image mâche. Her skin shares the collaged surface of the room in which they make love; what she is made of – acrylic, charcoal, pastel, coloured pencil and Xerox transfers – rubs off on him. Where she has touched him, he is smeared with the image-memory of his love; or, as the title of the 2011 work Re-branding My Love puts the process of self-transference, he is ‘re-branded’ by it. In interviews, Crosby has addressed the use of intimate scenes between herself and her husband as a way of speaking to her own Nigerian-American hybridity or ‘union between two cultures’. At the consummate instant of the marriage ritual, a bride offers a cup of palm wine to her beloved, whose white arms extend to receive it, though his face remains hidden behind the crowd of bodies present to witness the ceremony (Wedding Portrait, 2012). One imagines the couple in Nyado: The Thing around her Neck (2011), who are unable to keep their hands off each other, have thus become merged in their own necking world, oblivious to the apparent discomfort of their position – the female figure bent awkwardly toward her seated companion – such that their heads are aswirl with the same point of view. Contact, indeed.

Crosby’s insistent focus on surface tenderness, on the embrace – whether of one or many – is evermore affecting, and increasingly troubling, as it migrates in more recent works. These move away from the skin of bodies, where memory metamorphoses to become a surface phenomenon, towards true backgrounds that represent a deep or general surround: a place where there is no interior and we have to think in terms of politics, populations, flora. I recall the warm brown skin tones of the figures in Dwell: Aso Ebi (2017), of how Crosby allows skin to be present here, allows a viewer to share in wearing it. If the rhetoric of contact is frequently one of violence, establishing discursive conditions for the absolute impossibility of dwelling together, then my worn-out black lady scepticism is tickled or irritated when faced with a point of view that insists intimate contact is radically transformative. A white husband (and the promise of unraced future persons) is not a solution to any kind of problem, says the mean black lady inside me. Yet, I love the painting Garden Thriving (2016).

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Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Re-branding My Love, 2011, acrylic, charcoal, collage and transfers on paper, 1.7 x 1.4 m. Courtesy: the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice © Njideka Akunyili Crosby

The viewer finds herself inside the mid-century modern home of a couple she has come to know. The features of the white male body and face are covered almost entirely by the black woman sitting on his lap. His face is buried in her shoulder in loving surrender and trust. She does not see anything because her eyes are closed, or nearly so; or, she sees only her own featureless shadow on her lover’s collarbone. The world come-inside is relegated to the bushes and the furniture. Not that these are silent or useless – they are simply outside the relevant torsion of these people. In my imagination, Crosby’s painterly invention of a scene of domestic uncovering, or the restoration of black feminine rest-in-love, is in conversation with Kerry James Marshall’s startling Still Life with Wedding Portrait (2015), in which Harriet Tubman –  a martial figure in black American life – is portrayed as a glowing, shiny-black bride. What if Crosby’s increasingly celebrated imaginary instructs us that love recodes the nature of the human who initiates contact? What if, that is, the violence of contact is violent because it is conditioned by an epistemology of being different that Crosby’s work attempts to layer out of existence?

I cannot see this as other than a utopian vision of the power of love, true or not. But everything about the previous sentence – I cannot see this as other than a utopian vision of the power of love – speaks to the possibilities invoked by Crosby’s work, through which she may be laying the foundational conditions for understanding. This is what she sees and has become. Everybody wants a piece of her joy.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby was born in Enugu, Nigeria, and is based in Los Angeles, USA. Her work has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA, the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, and the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. In 2017, she was named a MacArthur Fellow. This year, her work will be included in the Hayward Gallery Waterloo Billboard Project, London, UK, and ‘Michael Jackson: On the Wall’ at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Main image: Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Garden Thriving, 2016, (detail), acrylic, transfers, coloured pencil and collage on paper, diptych, each: 2.1 x 2.7 m. Courtesy: the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice © Njideka Akunyili Crosby

Simone White’s new book of poetry and criticism, Dear Angel of Death, will be published this spring by Ugly Duckling Presse. 

Issue 194

First published in Issue 194

April 2018

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