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Multiple spaces existing together: Njideka Akunyili Crosby

I Refuse to be Invisible (2010)

Ink, charcoal, acrylic and Xerox transfers on paper

10 ft. x 7 ft.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby (b. 1983) is a Nigerian American artist whose work explores the merging of cultures and the beautiful yet unsettling spaces created by these fusions.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby was born and raised in Enugu, Nigeria a hilly city in southeastern Nigeria. Her parents both worked in the sciences -- her father as a medical doctor and her mother a pharmacology professor.

She grew up with five siblings at a time when young Nigerians were starting to re-embrace traditional Nigerian language and culture. As she recounts, “…speaking English was a way of showing that you were educated, upper class. Some people did not teach their children the native language because they thought it made you stupid! There was an inferiority complex associated with things too Nigerian. People were being anglicized. Then, with my generation, the pendulum swung back the other way.”

Akunyili Crosby’s mother, Dora, valued the American education system which didn’t force students to choose their paths at 13-14 years old, like in Nigeria and the UK. She applied for and received a green card through the lottery which gave her children the right to live and study in the United States. Three of Akunyili Crosby’s siblings eventually studied in the United States.

When she reached college age, Akunyili Crosby followed the footsteps of her older brother and sister to the state of Pennsylvania, where she planned to study medicine and become a surgeon. But before starting school, she took a gap year to acclimate to American culture and learn American history and literature. She also took an art class – her first oil painting course – for fun. After the gap year, Akunyili Crosby decided to enroll at Swarthmore College, and for three years, she focused on biology, chemistry and other pre-med requisites, taking one or two art classes a semester to lighten her load. Over time, it slowly became clear to her that art was where her heart was. Not only that, she had a story to tell. She felt a sense of urgency to tell nuanced stories of the African and Caribbean diaspora experience, through images, the way that great writers she admired like Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had done with words. During her senior year of college, Akunyili Crosby pivoted her focus from science to art.

After a post-baccalaureate program at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Akunyili Crosby spent two years at Yale University, where she earned a MFA. Here she developed a style that she has become known for.

Nwantinti (2012)

Acrylic, charcoal, colored pencil, collage and Xerox transfers on paper

5.57 ft. x 8 ft.

Akunyili Crosby combines painting and collaged photographs - layered seamlessly through a printing technique - to depict figures in familiar domestic settings, surrounded by interwoven layers of memorabilia from Nigerian, American and other cultures. The effect is a figure who is inhabiting multiple spaces at the same time, reflecting the lived experience of Akunyili Crosby and so many other immigrant and minority communities.

In the video below, Akunyili Crosby likens her creative process to solving a complex equation: “There’s this beautiful union of your brain being on high alert and working through it; there’s this complicated chess game going on in your head about how to resolve a work. You’re making decisions with a painting, and with each move you make the equation is always changing.”

Akunyili Crosby is based in Los Angeles with her husband, artist Justin Crosby, and their two children. Her work is currently on display at a landmark exhibition called Life Between Islands at the Tate Britain.


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