Njideka Akunyili Crosby: From Nigeria to LA

Njideka Akunyili Crosby didn’t pick up a paintbrush until she was 16 years old and was taking a community college class in Philadelphia. Now she’s 35 and is one of the biggest rising stars in the art world.

Last year she won a MacArthur Genius grant, her paintings sell for millions of dollars to private collectors and museums like LACMA, the Whitney and the Tate Modern.

Akunyili Crosby is still coming to terms with her rise to fame.

Grand Avenue Mural, Courtesy MOCA

“I am really grateful for my success,” she said. “I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly and to this extent- just the intensity and the speed at which it happened. But what it makes me feel is gratitude, because the more I succeed, the more people see the work. I loved that last year my pieces were on view in Turkey, in New Orleans, in Baltimore, in Venice.”

Large-scale reproductions of some of her paintings are now covering the walls of LA’s MOCA building, visible to drivers headed down Grand Avenue.

“That’s why I’m so excited about the MOCA mural,” she said. “Because you don’t even have to be part of the museum going demographic to see it. You can just walk up and look at it.”

Akunyili Crosby lives and works in Los Angeles (her studio is in the Arts District), but she comes from a small town in Nigeria, by way of Philadelphia, New York, and Connecticut. She brings that sense of living between two cultures to every aspect of her work.

She talked to Press Play about her success and her work.

I Still Face You, 2015

I Still Face You, Courtesy: Njideka Akunyili Crosby

“I Still Face You is loosely based on the first trip my husband made to Nigeria,”Akunyili Crosby said. Her husband, Justin, is white and is from Texas,and both of them had to make the case to her family that they wanted to be together. At the same time, Akunyili Crosby was also breaking other news to her family– that she had decided to be an artist instead of a doctor.

“Justin was there for an impromptu family meeting. He did not expect it, he was visiting as my friend. There was a big gathering in the living room, which had this circular feel to it, with my uncles, aunts and siblings. And Justin had to explain his…. intentions. He hadn’t even proposed at that point!”

I’ll Always Face You, Even When It Seems Otherwise, 2012

I’ll Always Face You, Even When it Seems Otherwise, Courtesy: Njideka Akunyili Crosby

“I made ‘I’ll always Face You, Even When It Seems Otherwise’ at that moment I realized it was this concern that being with him would take me away from my people… I still don’t think it’s an issue but I think the main concern, as I understand it, as I get older is that the culture moves through the father. So if I marry a non-Igbo person, my children are not Igbo. So it’s almost like I have left my people. That’s what I’m grappling with in my work.”

Super Blue Omo, 2016

Super Blue Omo 2016, Courtesy: Njideka Akunyili Crosby

“Super Blue Omo” is one of the pieces that appears in the MOCA mural. The title is actually based on a Nigerian commercial for laundry detergent, thatAkunyili Crosby remembers from growing up in the 80s.

She described the jingle for “Super Blue Omo” as the soundtrack to her childhood, a song that every Nigerian will recognize. In Nigeria at that time, most people didn’t have satellite television so there were only a handful of commercials. “So I probably heard it every 30 minutes from six in the evening to ten at night,” she said.

Akunyili Crosby uses many references like that in her work in order to create a sense of collective memory for a time and place that is so important to her life. She blends those references with objects from the modern day.

In her piece, “Super Blue Omo,” her sister sits in a blue room (a reference to the commercial jingle) in front of a Nigerian tea set, inherited from the country’s time as a British colony. All around her are prints of old family photographs from Akunyili Crosby’s childhood.

But the futon? That’s from Ikea.

“The work is really asking,what is it to be an immigrant? It is to straddle multiple places at once and carry differing histories with you at the same time. So I’m trying to make works that speak to that and I’m trying to look at that in-between space.”

Akunyili Crosby’s mural will be up on the MOCA building through the end of 2018. You can see more of her work on her website.