From this November 'till February 3rd 2019, the National Portrait Gallery sees its latest exhibition The Beautyful Ones, a series of some of the most relevant artworks by the Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby.
Inspired by the Ghanaian novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, the series depicts Crosby’s siblings either posing or caught in domestic scenes, surrounded by typical Nigerian interiors that have been enriched with ‘extraneous’ elements belonging to either the western culture or to a new multifaceted local tradition. This ongoing series is dedicated to a new generation and the hope for this generation to live its potential, have possibilities to develop in a more open and multi-ethnic society; a possibility that her parents' generation didn't have.
Born in 1983 in Enugu, Nigeria, Crosby moved to Lagos at the age of 10 where she stayed for six years until she moved to the United States after her mother won the US green card lottery. One year after, Crosby moved back to Nigeria to serve the National Service and it was in this occasion that she realized how much her motherland had changed and how many aspects from different cultures had merged into the local tradition, creating a new, multicultural and more global society.
The influence of British colonialism with its customs and traditions along with the American pop culture with its myths and status symbols have generated the naissance of new social behaviours; Teenagers began dancing, posing, dressing and acting differently. Similarly, their dreams and aspirations changed. We find a great example in the portrait of her brother Series #2 where one of her six siblings is portrayed in a Nigerian military style outfit but also wearing a pair of black loafers with white socks, as clear reference to Michael Jackson. As well as the way he poses reminds us about the typical movements that the entire generation was emulating at the time. Among the photographs in the background, the Nigerian singer Chtis Okotie is wearing a red jacket, that brings us back to the images in the video "Thriller".
Crosby’s interest in this complex flux of social and cultural events has turned into the development of a meticulous artistic process in her artworks, which includes photographic transfers, paint, collage, pencil drawing, marble dust and fabrics. A process that she has developed during her studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and then at the Yale University School of Art, where she got a Master of Fine Arts degree.
Carefully and considerably chosen, there is always a thorough process of research behind each photograph included in her artworks. Their own ambiguous composition and also the logic behind the way Crosby inserts them in the collage, can reflect the concept itself of her works, mixing and overlapping additional layers. Celebrities, politicians, models, actors, singers, news from around the world, they are all put together in a profoundly structured composition.
Undoubtedly, when we look at her paintings the African and particularly Nigerian references are rather evident. However, something diverts us from it and connects us to something else simultaneously.
Upon entering the exhibition room, the combination of textures and patterns drag the audience into the intimacy of daily life scenes both part of the artist’s childhood and adolescence in Nigeria, but also belonging to her adulthood in the USA.
After the first impact the audience is gently led into an attentive image observation, where details from different cultures come together creating a harmonious balance between colours, shapes and composition. Series #7 shows a young girl in a street scene, standing with her arms crossed surrounded by yellow cars, recalling the colour of her dress. This portrait is one of the few ones in exterior, as usually they are all depicting domestic scenes.
In a separate room we can find another painting that actually doesn’t belong to the series, which is called Something Split and New, inspired by the essay written by the Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance 2009, about the consequences of colonialism and the important role of native languages for the African memory. The painting depicts a scene inspired by the time when Crosby introduced her husband to her family in Nigeria.
The importance of exhibiting artworks embodying not only the integration of two cultures, but also showing the birth of a new, enriched heritage as consequence of colonialism, migration and integration, is fundamental in today’s climate.
In such a delicate and controversial moment for various countries facing strict migration’s policies, including England with the imminent Brexit final steps, Crosby's work becomes even more vital and significant to reflect on the concept of identity in the current era.
The Beautyful Ones - Njideka Akunyili Crosby
17 November 2018 - 3 February 2019 Room 41 & 41a, Floor 0 National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London, WC2H 0HE
Open daily: 10.00 - 18.00
Free entrance https://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/display/2018/njideka-akunyili-crosby
- Carolina Rapezzi