Njideka Akunyili Crosby wants to take it slow, despite her rapid rise
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Njideka Akunyili Crosby wants to take it slow, despite her rapid rise
The artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby in her East Los Angeles studio, April 6, 2023. The Nigerian artist inaugurates Zwirner’s new Los Angeles gallery with paintings that showcase her artistic vernacular. (Erik Carter/The New York Times)

by Robin Pogrebin

LOS ANGELES, CA.- To listen to Njideka Akunyili Crosby talk about the lengths to which she’ll go in researching the scientific classification of plants to depict in one of her paintings — Madagascar Jasmine? Safari Sunset? — is to begin to understand this Nigerian artist’s slow and exacting approach, as well as why her new exhibition, inaugurating David Zwirner’s first Los Angeles gallery May 23, feels like a significant art world event.

“I had a clear idea of what I wanted the plant to do,” said Akunyili Crosby, 40, in a recent conversation at her East Los Angeles studio, discussing the process behind the self-portrait, “Still You Bloom in This Land of No Gardens,” which features her in patterned pants, holding her youngest child on the porch surrounded by lush greenery.

“There was a certain amount of obscuring that had to happen — you can’t obscure the pants so much that you’re just seeing little pieces of it,” she continued. “Some plants are very dense — you had to see enough of the pants to make sense of it. But the plants also couldn’t be so thin that it just didn’t work.”

She spent hours looking through pictures of flora and fauna from Nigeria and LA, spending time in a plant store and visiting the Huntington art museum’s expansive botanical gardens, where she walked around all day “looking for a very particular leaf.”

“Normally I would have said, it takes me about three months to do a work, but it’s slowly been extending into longer,” she said. “I’ve slowed down to get what I need.”

No wonder, then, that Akunyili Crosby welcomed the additional time to keep working while the gallery’s construction was delayed by excessive rain and bureaucratic hurdles.

Zwirner himself said Crosby’s work in the exhibition — “Njideka Akunyili Crosby: Coming Back to See Through, Again” — which includes new and recent paintings in the East Hollywood space designed by Selldorf Architects, was well worth waiting for.

“She’s been able to create a new vernacular and a new iconography in contemporary visual culture,” he said. “She brought to the art world her own language.”

That language includes a mix of drawing, painting, collage and printmaking. Crosby’s work evokes scrapbooks or patchwork quilts that synthesize her Nigerian and American cultures through layers of visual signifiers, historical references and personal memories.

Look closely at a Crosby painting and one continues to discover pieces of her past — printed fabrics, articles of furniture or fashion, family members, book titles, architectural elements.

The artist, who favors rainbow crocs and has an open-throated laugh, makes lists of what she wants in one of her paintings before she begins. In one recent work, for example, she knew that she wanted bars on the window akin to those she recalled from her childhood home in Nigeria, her wedding dress and an illustration from one of her elementary school textbooks.

Pieces turn up in her paintings that are immediately recognizable to fellow Nigerians: a “Senator suit,” cabin biscuits, jerrycans, painted teakettles, braided hairstyles, clonette dolls. She uses items that nod to vestiges of the British Empire, American pop culture, Roman Catholicism.

“Objects have this specificity that tell stories of place and time,” Akunyili Crosby said. “That’s why I like doing still life.”

This careful thinking through of her paintings is the artist’s favorite part of the process. “I always thought of my studio as a lab — I want to just go in there and cook and figure out what’s going on and make the pieces that are in my mind,” she said.

Crosby also took her time choosing a U.S. gallery, which she finally did in 2018, having been represented by Victoria Miro in London since 2014. “I wasn’t in any rush to have a gallery because I don’t make a lot of work,” she said.

“Something I’ve been very clear about with everybody I work with is, my pace is slow and you cannot push me or force me to work faster,” she continued. “I’m not a machine, I like taking my time. Because for me, my interest in the work is pretty much diminished after the work is done. I never want to feel like I’m just plowing through.”

The artist, who won a MacArthur “genius” award in 2017, is a significant score for Zwirner. Her work is already held by major institutions including the Met, the Tate and the Whitney Museum of American Art, and her prices reached more than $4.7 million at auction last fall.

The critic and curator Hilton Als put Crosby in his series at the Huntington, which runs through June 12, and her work is currently featured at the Sydney Modern Project in Australia.

Several pieces in the Zwirner show were recently included in the artist’s 2022 solo exhibition at the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin. And one painting, “Thriving and Potential, Displaced (Again and Again and…)” (2021), served as the basis for a wallcovering commissioned by the Met that is now on view as part of that museum’s installation, “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room.”

“There are so many aspects of her work that are transfixing — a combination of personal narrative, a larger cultural understanding and something trans-Atlantic,” said Ian Alteveer, the Met’s curator of modern and contemporary art. “It is about generational families, it’s about migration, it’s about moving from Africa to the U.S. and looking back always toward Africa, straddling both continents.”

Born in 1983 in Enugu, Nigeria, Akunyili Crosby was one of six children of Chike Akunyili, a prominent surgeon who was the medical director at St. Leo’s Hospital in Enugu, and Dora Nkem Akunyili, a pharmacology professor who served as director-general of Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control.

Njideka left her home country at 16 and studied at Swarthmore College and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before earning her masters at Yale University. During graduate school, Akunyili Crosby saw the work of the painter Kerry James Marshall for the first time at the Yale Art Museum: his 2009 untitled piece depicting a woman wearing a high headpiece and holding a large palette. “I walked in and just felt like my life changed,” she said.

She was also taken with the paintings of Catherine Murphy. “There is a magic that happens when I’m in front of her works that I wanted to get into mine,” she said. “How do you make these works that read from afar, but when you’re in front of them, you just feel everything in your body slow down?”

In 2011, Akunyili Crosby became an artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, a period she describes as crucial. “I had all this momentum from grad school, which easily could have been stopped or reduced if I had to get a daytime job to support myself,” she said. “The Studio Museum let that momentum continue because it gave me a huge free studio space for a year that I had access to 24 hours a day every day, including the holidays.”

Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum, said Crosby’s studio was right beneath her office. “Njideka worked constantly, with a sense of deep intensity,” Golden said. “In thinking about narrative and biography and history, she’s created space for other artists.”

In 2018, the National Portrait Gallery in London showed work from Akunyili Crosby’s series, “The Beautyful Ones” — intimate images of Nigerian youth and their family members, looking directly out at the viewer from domestic spaces. That same year, MOCA in Los Angeles covered its facade with an Akunyili Crosby mural featuring scenes of Nigeria.

The title of that series refers to the 1968 novel, “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born,” by the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, which deals with issues of revolution, political corruption and hope.

“For me it’s resisting the ways I think people feel they need to become American — that to become American, is to assimilate and to reject or deny what you bring with you,” Akunyili Crosby said. “I’m saying, no, that is not true. You can hang on to those things you bring with you. I’m Nigerian, I’m American — you can be both. You don’t have to give up this history and culture and memories to fit in. I think places are richer for having difference. The story I’m mining is that story.”

‘Njideka Akunyili Crosby: Coming Back to See Through, Again’

David Zwirner Gallery, 616 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles; 310-777-1993; zwirner.com. The exhibition will travel to Zwirner’s New York gallery, opening in September.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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