“I think there are more and more people in life, as people are moving around for various reasons, who live in simultaneous spaces at the same time. And with the work, I’m trying to get to that – this feeling of multiple spaces that exist together, and you kind of slip in and out from one to the other. It’s about talking of people who live, or inhabit, liminal spaces, and the liminal space I’m using is one that I know – because I’ve experienced it – which is my life.” Njideka Akunyili Crosby
(N. A. Crosby, “Njideka Akunyili Crosby: Inhabiting multiple spaces,” video, Tate Modern, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/njideka-akunyili-crosby-18974/njideka-akunyili-crosby-inhabiting-multiple-spaces [accessed April 17, 2018]).
Njideka Akunyili Crosby has become one of the most celebrated artists working today covering the very contemporary subject matter of converging identities. Mimetic Gestures, from 2010, is a striking example of Crosby’s early work, created the year prior to her pivotal 2011 residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Within its confident brushstrokes are the seeds for her later collage works that afforded her a 2017 MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant;” by drawing upon the history of Pop Art and its coexistence with images and traditions from her home country of Nigeria, Crosby produces a telling narrative about interstitial identities and the state of our continuingly hybridized world.
Wearing a brightly striped dress of yellow, orange, green, and black, a woman sits upright against a mottled yellow wall. The chair she perches upon is twofold: tan with geometric designs on the upper portion and black with thinly-rendered rainbow flowers on the seat. In front of her, a large red-orange handbag rests as if in a magazine advertisement and links back visually to the woman’s shoes. The floorboards, extending outward from the green wainscoting, are painted a pale blue, their varying sizes giving the impression that the sitter is in an older building. The woman’s face, cocked to one side, is obscured by abstract forms. On closer inspection, these shapes reveal themselves as cutout images that have been painted over to blend with the composition’s color scheme. While examining this bit of collage, one notices that the yellow wallpaper is actually a layer of lace embedded in the paint, giving the entire work a textural complexity that Crosby’s oeuvre is known for.
Crosby’s work often takes the form of collaged images mixed with painted scenes, of which Mimetic Gestures is an early example. Recalling early Pop artists like Richard Hamilton, and his pivotal work Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? (1956), as well as the more abstract cutouts of Dadaists like Hannah Höch, Crosby’s use of appropriated imagery takes the conversation a step further. Culling the images from family photographers in Nigeria, as well as American magazines, advertisements, and the internet, the artist strings together a visual narrative that speaks to her multinational background as well as the influence of colonialism and trade on West Africa (both negative and positive) and its absorption of Western popular culture. Crosby’s work exists in what the artist refers to as a “third space,” a place that is the result of the confluence of history and contemporary politics. “That’s the thing with the third space: You recognize elements of this and this, but it’s not quite anything you can wrap your head around anymore” she said. “With Nigeria, all the tribes mix in, and then the British presence, but then American Pop culture starts coming in, like every other country in the world” (N. A. Crosby, quoted in C. Brutvan, “Interview with Njideka Akunyili Crosby,” in Njideka Akunyili Crosby: I Refuse to be Invisible, exh. cat., Norton Museum, West Palm Beach, 2016, p. 21). By making this convergence known, Crosby is able to start a broader conversation about global identity and its place in contemporary art.
Born in Enugu, Nigeria in 1983, Crosby moved to Pennsylvania at the age of sixteen with her sister. There, she took her first art classes, and started pursuing it passionately. After earning dual degrees in art and biology from Swarthmore College in 2004, she was accepted into the prestigious MFA program at Yale University. Crosby completed her studies at Yale and moved to Los Angeles, where she currently resides. “My work is based on my autobiography,” she said in an interview with Jean-Philipe Dedieu for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “And I feel like my journey has created a character or person who doesn’t fit in any box” (N. A. Crosby, “Njideka Akunyili Crosby on painting cultural collision,” video, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, https://www.sfmoma.org/njideka-akunyili-crosby-on-painting-cultural-collision/ [Accessed April 17, 2018]). This hybrid culture is important to Crosby and her practice, as it speaks to the global nature of today’s art world. Coming from Nigeria, where she was exposed to the effects of both British colonialism and an influx of Western pop culture, the artist is distinctly aware of cultural crossover and its effects. Thinking about this idea as it relates to her work, Crosby noted, “I think there are more and more people in life, as people are moving around for various reasons, who live in simultaneous spaces at the same time. And with the work, I’m trying to get to that – this feeling of multiple spaces that exist together, and you kind of slip in and out from one to the other. It’s about talking of people who live, or inhabit, liminal spaces, and the liminal space I’m using is one that I know – because I’ve experienced it – which is my life” (N. A. Crosby, “Njideka Akunyili Crosby: Inhabiting multiple spaces,” video, Tate Modern, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/njideka-akunyili-crosby-18974/njideka-akunyili-crosby-inhabiting-multiple-spaces [accessed April 17, 2018]). By pulling from her own experiences and finding similarities to those of others, she is able to create works that speak to a larger population.