Njideka Akunyili Crosby uses paint, pencil, collage and Xerox transfer techniques to render interior spaces where swaths of solid color meet contrastingly grainy cutouts. Her large-scale mixed-medium canvases thus assert a formal dichotomy that seems to parallel her dual identity as a Nigerian-American. Self-portraits and group portraits relate the story of the artist and her family, while the tiny figures Xeroxed from newspapers and magazines add the depth of historical and political narratives. The Hammer Museum’s presentation of five works made between 2010 and 2013 marks the Los Angeles-based artist’s first solo exhibition in her adopted city. (More recent works were on view through November at Art + Practice, a Hammer affiliate, alongside films by Akosua Adoma Owusu.)
Three of the works depict Crosby herself. In Janded (2013), she appears in shadowy tones on a black background. The sobriety of color counters the vibrancy of her other works, and a cameo earring adorning her ear is its sole collaged piece, further distinguishing it from the other canvases, which teem with cutouts. The three-quarter turn of her silhouette and its ornament recall Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring (ca. 1665). Yet while the artist mimicked the composition of Vermeer’s portrait, she imbued the painting with an assured sidelong glance all her own. The slang word for England (which governed Nigeria until 1960) in the title signals Crosby’s interest in the continued influence of colonialism on Nigerian and Nigerian-American culture.
Janded was a study for And We Begin to Let Go (2013), a portrait of the artist and her husband, in which he bends over to whisper in her ear. His head is obscured by hers, and their bodies seem fused in the tender gesture. While her skin is painted black, his white skin is rendered in collage, as if tattooed with figures from Nigerian history and culture, from military officers to fashion models. Reproductions appear on the artist’s body as well, but only over blue stockings. Crosby’s husband bears this history on his skin, while she could remove it if she desires. The walls, floor and chairs are also depicted as clusters of Xeroxed images, enveloping the artist in this layered history.
The trappings of a typical West African tea spread (Lipton tea, Oxford Sweetened Cabin Biscuits, Will of God Special Bread and so on) appear in Tea Time in New Haven, Enugu (2013). The same table surfaces in the background of the family portrait 5 Umezebi St., New Haven, Enugu (2012). In these and other works, Crosby collapses space, conflating domestic settings in southeastern Nigeria and in Connecticut while simultaneously merging the visual culture of her native country with a Rauschenbergian, American aesthetic. By collaging geography, Crosby affirms both her history and her present, while reminding us that the past always surrounds us in the now.