Njideka Akunyili Crosbys first solo exhibition in Europe features a new body of work made especially for Victoria Miro
The Los Angeles-based artist, who relocated from Nigeria to the United States at the age of 16, draws on art historical, political and personal references to make luminous, densely layered figurative compositions whose intricate surfaces combine disparate materials and aesthetic traditions. The title of the exhibition, Portals, is immediately suggestive of windows or doorways, though one might equally think of TV sets or computer screens. It also refers to the title of a recent work by the artist, Portals,2016, now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. In Akunyili Crosbys work, doors, windows and screens function as physical, conceptual and emotional points of arrival and departure, while in a broader sense the work itself is a portal through which mutable ideas about transcultural identity flow back and forth.
On initial impression the work appears to focus on interiors or apparently everyday scenes and social gatherings. Many of Akunyili Crosbys images feature figures images of family and friends in scenarios derived from familiar domestic experiences: eating, drinking, watching TV. Rarely do they meet the viewers gaze but seem bound up in moments of intimacy or reflection that are left open to interpretation. Ike Ya, 2016, captures an embrace between a couple that seems as conciliatory as it does affectionate. These are, on one level, snapshots of everyday life, and an invitation to share in the artists world (Akunyili Crosby and her husband are often the models for the work).
However, ambiguities of narrative and gesture are underscored by a second wave of imagery, only truly discernible close-up. Vibrantly patterned areas are created from images derived from Nigerian pop culture and politics. Akunyili Crosby applies these to the surface of her work through an acetone transfer technique, sometimes in discrete areas, sometimes in arrangements that seem to proliferate across the walls and floors of the rooms she describes and the clothing and skin of the figures contained within them. It is partly via this labour-intensive process that she addresses the idea of cultural overlap and the complex layering of influences personal, cultural and political on people and places.
These are images necessarily complicated in order to counter generalisations about African or diasporic experience. Describing her interiors as wormholes, Akunyili Crosby articulates the nuances of post-colonial identity and encourages leaps of time and space, across cultures and continents. Featuring a lone figure in an interior, an unwatched TV and a tea tray set for two, Super Blue Omo, 2016, is a scene of deceptive simplicity whose tilted planes become, on close inspection, an invitation to consider a more complex narrative. Titles for Akunyili Crosby can serve both poetic and narrative ends. While Super Blue Omo refers to a well-known brand of washing powder, with a long-running advertisement that ran on Nigerian television during the artists childhood in the 1980s (which can be seen on the TV set in the work), it is also the jumping off point for an extended meditation on chromatic and psychological states of blueness the glow of the room and its atmosphere of introspection.
While the artists formative years in Nigeria are a constant source of inspiration, Akunyili Crosbys grounding in Western art history adds further layers of reference. Her still lifes are both highly personal and freighted with cultural meaning. The Twain Shall Meet, 2015, is one of a number of works that incorporates an image of the table owned by the artists grandmother, who appears in a framed portrait. Laden with familial and other possessions it also plays host to a range of visual cues about geographical and of changing socio-economic circumstances. A recurring motif is the kerosene lamp. Ubiquitous in rural areas of Nigeria, where electricity supplies are at best unreliable, it shares space with plastic containers used for storing, cooking and serving food. Here, ideas of home, hospitality and generosity mingle with thoughts about cultural inheritance in a broader sense. There are references to a tea culture derived from British colonialism. Christianity, another colonial import, is alluded to in two framed images of the Virgin Mary.
A sense of cross-cultural currents moving through Akunyili Crosbys work is heightened by the architectural spaces she describes. The Twain Shall Meet makes reference to Interior, 1899, by Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi. In his painting, Hammershøi depicts a figure in an interior in which both doors to a room are closed. By contrast, in The Twain Shall Meet Akunyili Crosby opens the doors of her interior to reveal other spaces, other doors. Further works in the exhibition continue to dissolve boundaries. Vegetation in the form of houseplants, wallpaper, patterned fabric or views of foliage snatched through windows serves to break down distinctions between interior and exterior space, while in a recent still life, a window that frames the composition is, on close inspection, composed of small transfer images of similar scenes of views through windows, endlessly reflected and refracted. It is in this respect that her work operates in the liminal, in-between zones that post-colonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha refers to as the third space, a point of overlap, conflation and mixing of cultural influence specific to diaspora communities.