You might not have heard about her, but Nigerian born U.S -based artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby has been described by CNN “as one of New York’s most promising new talents”. In pop culture parlance, Njideka is the next big thing in the ART world. I had sought an interview with her in February 2013 but somehow it didn’t work out. So when Victor EHIKHAMENOR, an award winning visual artist and writer – who was in town for the FRIEZE ART FAIR Week and 1.54 African Art Fair – invited me to Tafeta Gallery in Central London, my joy knew no bounds when I met Njideka there. Pronto an interview appointment was fixed for the next day.
A Yale University MFA graduate, her works sold out in the 2012 Arts Basel – the number one fair for modern and contemporary art in the world. She has also participated in a year-long residency with the prestigious Studio Harlem in New York. Ok, quite rightly, let’s skip the introduction and allow you to dig into this exclusive interview with this brilliant artist who Victor Ehikhamenor describes as the “Chimamanda of the Art World”. Another exclusive interview onwww.samumukoro.com
SUI: You left Nigeria at 16 and you wanted to become a doctor, when did you decide to become an artist?
Njideka Akunyili: It was a smooth transmission and I still ended up graduating with biology major, I took my first art class, the second semester of my first year and after that I took one or two art classes every semester, so I ended up as a double major.
Majoring in Art wasn’t really a choice, it was more of I had taken enough classes that I could major in it; so I might as well. Then after I graduated, I took the year off and went back tom Nigeria to do the compulsory National Youth Service Corps and that was my year to really think and make a decision, that was my crossroads moment and I knew I could go either way and it was a lot of weighing where I wanted to go. I loved doing art more; it didn’t seem like work when I was doing it. When you do what you love and it would never feel like work.
It also felt more relevant, that choice felt more relevant, more important like there was more of a stake to it than doing medicine, and of course I don’t want to go into a “medicine bashing thing” – I was very sick in grad school and doctors saved my life, so medicine is fantastic.
SUI: Why was it a defining moment for you?
Njideka Akunyili: For me, just talking about feeling the urgency to do art or feeling like this seems important right now is going back to the conversation we had earlier on about it’s hard to want to do the things you can’t see .
The first time I really thought I could be an artist was through my professor in undergrad. For me seeing an artist who was living as an artist, teaching art classes, very happy with his life, very content, very smart, very engaged with his work, making very compelling interesting work and it was something I wasn’t aware of; of course there had been very interesting artists working in Nigeria for years – the Nsukka group including El Anatsui – but I wasn’t privy to that world and I think a lot of people were not and are not, so just in my mind art wasn’t something visible, my vision of an artist wasn’t the reality of it .
I also felt that there were many people doing non-conventional things, it was at a time when I was hearing of more people going into the creative field, more people choosing to pursue music, more people choosing to pursue dance, and art and curating and writing and fashion and event planning, things I never heard of when I was young.
When I was young people nobody will say what do you want to do and you will say be an events planner the answers were very rigid and then there were all this people challenging what had been the norm for a time and I felt like I wanted to be part of that exciting change so that’s part of why I made that decision.
SUI: Did your parents at anytime oppose your choice of career?
Njideka Akunyili: They didn’t oppose it but I think they questioned it, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I actually think it’s important. I mean, if when I have kids and I think it will be okay for me to question the choices they make especially if it’s something that isn’t a part of my world, or something I have no idea about, so I’m worrying that this is not a feasible thing. I think when parents challenge, it comes from a place of love and I remember reading something once, there was a guy who gave a graduation speech and he was giving life lessons, I stopped for a second because it wasn’t one of the clichés, it was something I had never heard before and it was your parents don’t always want what’s best for you or it’s something like your parents don’t want what’s best for you, and that made you stop like why won’t they want what’s best for you, and then the next sentence is they want what is safe for you or something like that .
So I think it just explains why parents are worried, you know because parents go before the kids and I think they want to know when they leave you won’t suffer, you’ll be comfortable and I think that is why parents push for safe things like with medicine, they are sure you will get a job and you won’t suffer. With art it’s very unpredictable and I think that’s where the challenge comes from, they push because they want to be sure you’ve thought about it and you’re invested in it enough to be okay with it when it doesn’t work out and you’re not doing well. I think it was good to have that challenge from them.
SUI: There’s a lot of family in your drawings and paintings and how does this personal narrative influence your visual narrative?
Njideka Akunyili: I relate that to when writers say write what you know, so for me it is painting what I know and there is lot of intimacy in my work – it’s very central, very intimate. I want you to feel, for me it’s about trying to maybe envelope someone into a domestic space, so for me there’s a wealth. For me intimacy has to come across, it has to be sincere, it’s hard for me to make an intimate work if I’m making images of people I don’t know or care about, so I think making images of people I know and love and have known for years, grew up with, help push that for me and it really goes back to what I am doing.
A lot of it is trying to put my finger on the Nigeria I grew up in, thinking of Nigeria in the mid-eighties, early nineties, I’m thinking of the change from that to the Nigeria of now and it makes sense to do it through the lens of me because I lived in it and the other people who lived in it with me like siblings.
SUI: I’m glad that you brought that up, your work captures intimate and sensual situations. What role does your husband play in this creative process?
Njideka Akunyili: (laughs) He is quite involved in the work. He has a really good eye; he’s a very good critic and I run a lot of things by him. A lot of artists do it, a lot of times we have studio visits, we have critics coming in and they give you feedback because you’re in this little room by yourself for hours every day making work and after a point you don’t see the work anymore, you’re so close to it same way a writer will give a friend or an editor a manuscript to read and they come back and they give you feedback.
So I will text him pictures of things in progress and he will give me feedback – no, take that green out… that orange doesn’t match that. So he’s very helpful there. But his aesthetic is very different from mine. When we started dating or when I first started doing art, a lot of my colours were very limited.
I did a lot of round based paintings and he’s a very colourful person, sounds weird but he loves a lot of colours, he is very into urban culture and street art and just like influence of street art and things like that, so he’s very into bright oranges, turquoise and I think me being with him, I’ve started buying into that urban aesthetic and my colours have become brighter and bolder, so it’s nice to have him to play off on.
SUI: It’s that interesting; do your loyalties to Nigeria and your American husband create a contradiction to your works?
Njideka Akunyili: Somewhat…
Njideka Akunyili: I think what it is is trying to negotiate both, trying to find the in between space or the space where I can straddle both cultures… and I think it’s a story of contemporary Africans, especially people my generation, who are a lot and are scattered throughout the globe in the UK ,in America, Nigerians are everywhere, in Cuba, in India. How do we maintain identity as proud Nigerians but also integrate into the new society we find ourselves in, to create this new hybrid identity for ourselves?
There is this Ghanaian cultural critic who wrote a beautiful essay on “Cosmopolitanism”, and his whole thesis is that cosmopolitanism is actually not about a melting pot, people think it’s about all these cultures coming together and melting to be one thing, whereas it is more about difference existing next to difference and maintaining their differences but next to each other, that’s what I’m fascinated by.
And it’s the story of contemporary cosmopolitan Africans, how do you exist as a Nigerian in America, or a Nigerian in the UK, or a Kenyan in South Africa; just as the world is globalizing and all these movements are happening, there are more and more people in those situations and my work exists on that, and so just thinking of myself as a Nigerian and also an American – through me having an American citizenship but also with my marriage – which has further rooted me to the country, how do these two differences exist alongside each other and trying to explore that with the work.
SUI: Literature coming out of Nigeria and Africa play a major role in your work; can you name the writers that have influenced you?
Njideka Akunyili: (Laughs) Definitely Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie. But then of course there are other people. I was just talking to someone recently about a book I had heard a lot about growing up but didn’t read it till recentlyNervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, it was fantastic. But I mean with Achebe, I think Achebe just opened the doors for so many people not just writers.
There is a Nigerian curator, Okwui Enwezor, who talks about Chinua Achebe as being important to him, because he (Enwezor) does a lot of promotion of artists of African descent and I know he gets a lot of people question that, like why are you always working with Africans, why is it always about people of Africa and all that. I went for a lecture he gave once and he said nobody ever ask that of somebody doing work on say Andy Warhol, they are people who devote their life to just one artist but they give him a hard time for his focus being on Africa. He brought up Achebe and he talked about this urgency again, where there is just like there was this whole and that created more of an urgency for him to focus on, nobody is doing it and if he doesn’t do it, who will and it just seems relevant for him.
So I think Achebe did that for everyone, even Chimamanda’s very popular fantastic danger of a single story, I mean that is something that was very dear to Achebe , his insistence on us telling our story, otherwise other people would tell it to you and it would be a single story, so you complicate it by you telling your own side of things, not just any side but I think the more people who tell their side, the more this person, or place or culture or group or country becomes multidimensional , not just this one facet and all the other parts of it are ignored . I think writers are doing that, I’d like to think all the other creative people are doing it, the attention that is coming to the Nigerian fashion industry introduces a different part of the country to the rest of the world with interest that comes to Nigeria. And then the complexity of Nigeria begins to materialize, so that’s why I feel connected with literature. I feel like even though we are all doing different things, there is a connection in terms of what we are doing but also this I’ve talked about before, something that draws me to literature is this borrowing of something like borrowing a tradition from somewhere so when I think of Chinua Achebe writing in this language (English) that isn’t his or wasn’t his, he inherited it but he was able to take that language and use it to talk about the experience of the place the language is not from and I think the way he was able to do it actually has to do with things he was doing in terms of structure and formal decisions he was making with the language to make that happen.
Achebe has the quote that I love to quote, but it’s Achebe quoting Baldwin, he said, ‘English when altered can be made to bear the weight of my African experience.’ I really loved that because I feel the parallel I see is taken, my arts training was in America, the Pennsylvania academy which is very rigid, it’s an academy, so it’s like how do I take this tradition that I’ve now inherited and use it to talk about a place that this tradition is not linked to, how do I alter it to make it bear the burden of this other experience, and so that’s where the experimenting and collage and all those things come from, like how do I break it open and make it do something else, it’s also still evident on where the tradition comes from.
SUI: Very interesting because my next question is why do you combine different materials in your work?
Njideka Akunyili: That’s one, the other one is I also combine different materials because I think it’s very interesting when work is made in such, something which I enjoy seeing is when the formal decisions actually prop up the content of the work, where is like those choices parallel the content and so for me I wanted that to happen in the works.
So if I wanted to make work about all these differences existing side by side and that is the crux of it and that’s one of the big umbrellas that hold the work together, I want to have the way I put the work parallel that or state that, so I’m using different languages of image making from photography to print making, to drawing, to painting, to collage, and having those exist side by side, but thinking of a way for them to exist side by side in a seemingly harmonious way because there is a tension to it but it is held together.
That’s why the multi-medium work process is important to me, also it’s so that when the viewer looks at it and their eyes are scanning the work, there are these immediate jumps that are happening in terms of your looking at an area that is a flat shape of colour and then you shift and you are looking at a place that is painted in a detailed academic, and then you shift and you are looking at a photograph of Nigeria and then you shift and you are looking at something painted very loosely, or something layered or the furniture from my New York apartment, and then you shift and you see something else, so as you move through it, your eyes are actually taking these jumps between worlds and it is in terms of taking jumps between time, in terms of painting references, but also in terms of in the photograph, you are making jumps in place, you are making jumps in terms of the continent, in terms of culture, so I’m very interested in all these sides, differences. Looking at it in various layers but it’s always about difference next to each other, and the jumps you make between those.
SUI: Looking at your creative process, what would you say is the most difficult part?
Njideka Akunyili: The beginning. You obviously you don’t want to repeat yourself, you having to come up with something new; it’s so like your work is one long continuous conversation, so you don’t want to repeat yourself, but you can also still have a conversation from the last few works you did, so it’s complicated, because it’s like you have this quest you’re on and you never quite feel you’ve got it because once you have, you are done so you’re like that dog, you are digging and digging . It’s the same area you are digging in but it has to be different.
So that’s the first thing, just trying to figure out what. The other side is multi-facet, with each piece I’m looking at a different facet of a convoluted shape, so it’s like where do I scan to next because different pieces focus on different things but then also, just something simple, like what is the image I want to do next, do I want to do a group scene, do I want a single person, two people, is it inside; so that takes a lot of time and that work that isn’t immediately apparent in the word because all of those decisions require research. So, when I go on, the next two weeks would just be research. So, for interiors – where do I want it to be, I might bring out all my family albums, go through them all, take photographs, find things on the internet, have a wall filled with pictures. It’s like – let’s say I want a living room scene, where do I want them? Do I want them in a corner? Do I want them straight up? What kind of chairs do I want, what kind of lamp, what kind of table and so it’s a lot of that and the next step is the composition, I could go on forever – the point of view, the lighting of it, once that’s settled and I have my image and the drawing, then the next step is the value study, just how the dark and light move through the piece.