I Refuse to be Invisible, Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s kaleidoscopic painting, is an illustration of her pioneering practice in which she draws together a wide range of contemporary themes—including the role of traditional cultures in modern society, the proliferation of the mass media and the history of western painting—into one monumental work. Here, in their act of twirling, leading and following, a dancing couple act almost as a metaphor for the struggle faced by many trying to find their place in modern world. Painted in 2010, I Refuse to be Invisible is an important painting in the artist’s oeuvre as it gave its title to Akunyili Crosby’s first major solo exhibition, organized by the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach, and also featured on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. Examples of her work are also held in many major museum collections including Tate Gallery, London; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
The focus of this large-scale work is a couple pictured dancing in a crowded public outdoor space. In the center, a man holds his companion tightly at the waist. But while he attempts to stare lovingly into her eyes, she has turned her face away, staring intently out from the surface to catch our gaze. The couple in question is actually the artist and her American husband as referenced by a photograph that appears on a dress in the lower right hand quadrant. This photograph, along with many other images of family celebrations and significant occasions, has been transferred onto the surface using a process which imparts a mirror image of the photograph directly onto the surface of the work. Although the design of their clothing appears to be western in style, the richly patterned cloth is reminiscent of Nigeria’s traditional highly decorated and colorful fabrics. These “Portrait Fabrics,” as they are known, often contain images of famous people, politicians and celebrities which are printed onto the richly colored fabric. These multi-layered references are intrinsic to Akunyili Crosby’s practice, “I love the idea of taking things that were inherited and running with them and making them your own” she says (N. A. Crosby, quoted in C. Brutvan, “Interview with Njideka Akunyili Crobsy,” in Njideka Akunyili Crobsy: I Refuse to be Invisible, exh. cat., Norton Museum, West Palm Beach, 2016, p. 21).
Akunyili Crosby describes herself as an Afropolitan, that is someone born in Africa, but due to the complex history of colonialism and globalization, is also a citizen of the world. She was born in Nigeria, a place which, with its mix of African and British colonial culture, she describes as a “weird but exciting mash-up of different things” and which provided her with an understanding of the rich and complex nature of history and identity (N. A. Crosby, quoted in C. Brutvan, “Interview with Njideka Akunyili Crobsy,” in Njideka Akunyili Crobsy: I Refuse to be Invisible, exh. cat., Norton Museum, West Palm Beach, 2016, p. 21). After attending the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia she went onto gain her MFA from Yale in 2011. I Refuse to be Invisible emerges from the painterly tradition of Renoir’s La Moulin de la Galette, 1876 (Musée d’Orsay), as Akunyili Crosby echoes the traditions of African culture in the Pop vocabulary of Robert Rauschenberg’s solvent transfer works. “There’s a lot of Nigeria in my work,” she says, “but the paintings are rooted in a very western tradition of image-making” (Ibid.).
Thus her work occupies what Akunyili Crosby terms a “third space,” a place that reflects the unique environment created by 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, ibid., p. 21).
I Refuse to be Invisible is an inherently personal painting, yet it also reflects the rich tapestry of contemporary society. Her cacophonous visual aesthetic reflects the vibrant nature of the artist’s native Nigerian society, but her work also honors the tradition and routines that evolved from the economic, cultural, and geopolitical circumstances; which ultimately manifested itself in hybrid versions of dress, food, language and obvious and subtle cultural references. Cheryl Brutvan, the Director of Curatorial Affairs and Curator of Contemporary Art at the Norton Museum which gave Akunyili Crosby her first major museum exhibition, says “It is a biography that, in part, reflects the evolution of every generation that has departed from one place for another. The ultimate creation is something unlike what was before, and express the resulting anxieties as well as they pleasure experience in a new version of daily life” (C. Brutvan, ibid., p. 11).