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When Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s American husband first accompanied the artist on a family visit to her native Nigeria, he wondered why on earth they had a sink in their dining room. Sometimes, it’s only when someone else points out the oddity of your cultural customs that you question where they’ve come from in the first place. Akunyili Crosby laughs heartily as she recounts the story of her husband’s encounter with the dining room sink. For her family, she tells me, the sink was a symbol of pride and prosperity; a luxurious commodity in a country where you eat with your hands, and where many homes don’t have access to clean running water. A cross-cultural experience gives plenty of opportunities to question the peculiar construction that is individual “culture”: we cobble together personal and national histories, practical needs, and folklore to assemble a sense of self identity.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby grew up in Enugu, Nigeria, and later moved to the US. More recently she resettled again, in Los Angeles, where she currently has her studio. She grew up in a family that was lower-middle class, though they would later become quite wealthy. As she has migrated, between cultures and between economical classes, Akunyili Crosby has been a keen documenter of the objects, interiors and domestic scenes in the places she has lived. Her close-up study of her surroundings then pans outwards in her large-scale, multimedia wall works (many of them as large as 11 feet). By using fragments of her family archives, her own photographs, and hand crafted elements such as Xerox and paint, her collages have a unique texture, that disrupts the idea that globalization brings cultural homogeneity.
The dining room sink makes an appearance in Tea Time in New Haven, Enugu (2013), a 7 x 9.25 foot dining room scene, consisting of painting, collage, pencil, charcoal and transfers on paper. As the work began to travel, Enugu (which refers to the town in which Akunyili Crosby grew up) was mistakenly dropped from its title; consequently, the work circulated throughout the US as if it were an interior scene in New Haven, CT—where the artist had in fact studied. She, of course, was delighted with the misreading, since the work had proved its message by itself. We approximate, and, in doing so, we inadvertently appropriate cultures; we find the things that resonate with our own experiences, and use them to express our agency.
The ritual of taking tea in Nigeria is a vestige of British colonial times, but one that Nigerians have since made their own. Nigerian “tea time” is another way of refering to breakfast, and the table is set and left out all day. “I’m very interested in the habits and cultures we have in the country that are left over from when we were a colony, and in the ways they’ve been preserved and at the same time turned into something else: We’ve inherited a culture that has been pushed on to us, that we had to adopt, not by choice. Yet we’ve been able to find a way to co-opt that and make it our own, to change the inherited tradition to make it authentic to ourselves,” Akunyili Crosby enthuses.
Akunyili Crosby’s work relies on the recognizable, but its originality hinges on a scrutinization of the familiar domestic world. Though Crosby culls from her own constantly growing catalogue of quotidian vessels (that with passing time become archives of social histories), she continually introduces fictional elements into the composition. Brand-name products placed on the table in Tea Time in New Haven, Enugu are to be read like a puzzle: a set of clues as to the time, the place, and the lives of the inhabitants who once animated it. “I want to put the viewer inside the scene, to activate the visual queues and open up a liminal space,” Akunyili Crosby explains.
On the table in Tea Time In New Haven, Enugu is a wrapped loaf of bread. Each side of the loaf is treated in a different medium: one collaged, one painted, and one side transferred. The loaf is wrapped in packaging that reads “Will of God;” This specific packaging is something a Nigerian viewer would recognize. Akunyili Crosby starts to laugh infectiously again as she describes the brand. “In Nigeria we have this kind of humor to religion, to this Pentecostal Nigerian Christianity, that is a mixture of traditional and inherited religious practices. God comes into a lot of the names of products. We’ve taken this humor in the religion really far!”
Then there’s Millo—a refreshment marketed as a sports drink in many countries in Africa. Each country had a unique packaging for Millo, with a different sport depicted on the label: in Nigeria, it’s soccer. In Enugu, alongside a St. Louis Sugar box—the most widely used sugar brand during the ‘80s and ‘90s in Nigeria—there’s a box of Weetabix (a popular, low-cost British version of Australian breakfast cereal Weet-Bix), and a jar of Cadbury’s Bournvita (a powdered hot chocolate drink, first manufactured in England in the 1920s). I grew up in the UK, and both were common everyday products there, but in their Nigerian context, these items denote cultural status and wealth, signifying travel abroad and access to more expensive imported products. “I depict Nigeria as it existed when I left in late ‘90s, which is not the same as Nigerian culture now. A lot of my work is looking at Nigeria then and now, and how things have changed and stayed the same. It is very specific to Nigeria as I understand it and see it: It doesn’t speak to all parts of Africa, or Nigeria. It is my life, my autobiography, my family—but these cultural, economic and geographic experiences talk about something that is bigger than just me: They are a confluence of disparate things.”
The artist’s intense visual mining of interior space is a kind of investigation into how material details define time, place, and people. Akunyili Crosby’s work reveals the way we instinctively identify the nationalities of tourists, walking in the street—especially if they’re from our own country. It’s a game I’ve often played too (the shoes are usually a real giveaway). Consciously or not we’re constantly placing ourselves in relation to the things around us. In The Twain Shall Meet, a work Akunyili Crosby completed last year, the focus is again a table. The piece was painted from a series of photographs the artist took at her Grandmother’s house in Nigeria, after she had passed away. Everything was left as it had been before her death: a thermos, a kerosene lamp, pictures in frames, cups, and bowls. The composition is an altar of everyday life in a Nigerian village. Again, the table is laden with some objects that are familiar to the Western eye, but most that are not. Pan out from the table, and the background suddenly looks discordant. You won’t realize it at first, but the room the table is set in looks too European somehow—the interior architecture is too straight and solemn to come from the same place as the contents of that table. You can’t say why, you can just feel it, (as instinctively as I know how to spot a fellow Brit abroad). When I ask the artist about it, she reveals that the backdrop of the table scene is a replica of a Danish painting (by Vilhelm Hammershøi).
The more time you spend with the works, the more they reveal. The carefully connected strands of fiction, fact, truth, memory and experience that the artist weaves so masterfully together in her work slowly unravel. (The references to the masters of European painting come from Akunyili Crosby’s studies in America, while the table represents her personal ancestry, for example.) With these same gestural quotes Akunyili Crosby also asserts her unique dialogue with the history of painting, which of course has been previously dominated by male painters.
How do we conserve a sense of self, after so many migrations, and with the weight of so many histories, learnt, borrowed and lived? The layers of our lives are literally and fastidiously applied in Akunyili Crosby’s works. Despite all of the external matter they draw in, ultimately they give a very vivid sense of how unique identity construction is. Back on the Skype video on my computer screen, the artist leaps up suddenly and exclaims with excitement as she finds a quote she’s been trying to dig up by Brenda Cooper, from the book, A New Generation of African Writers: “…the massive weight of little things, the small solid possessions… are what embed one in one’s time and place.”1 Akunyili Crosby sources these little things to create her massive paintings. Though, they embed her like so many of us in our time, in many times and many places, all at once.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 4.