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Beautyful Ones: The Mixed Media Paintings of Njideka Akunyili Crosby

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Njideka Akunyili Crosby, "5 Umezebi Street, New Haven, Enugu," 2012. Acrylic, charcoal, pastel, color pencil, and Xerox transfers on paper. 84 x 105 inches. Collection of Craig Robins. | Photo: Max Yawney, image courtesy of Tilton Gallery, New York.

Even docents stare at expatriated Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby's paintings, mesmerized. Their sumptuous intricacy hypnotizes and her work provides yet another reason critics must stop sounding the death knell of painting. Los Angeles-based curator Jamillah James, who introduced the artist's work to the Hammer Museum, describes Akunyili Crosby as "pushing the boundaries of painting at large," and she employs both subject matter and mixed media techniques to accomplish this gesture.

Akunyili Crosby's work rests on an undeniably classical bedrock as she renders large-scale paintings of domestic scenes and daily life which reference the composition of Dutch Golden Age paintings. However, binder clips pinch the edges of these works-on-paper, suspending them and eschewing traditional framing. The artist frequently localizes herself and other African women as subjects and she endows her female figures with strong gazes that challenge the viewer to sustain eye contact and meaningfully engage. In this regard, Akunyili Crosby pioneers the female gaze, making her female subjects agitators instead of objects. In addition to her feminine figures, the artist paints her American husband Justin Crosby, her Nigerian family, and imagined people with nuanced noblesse. The strife that typically advances stories in many Western representations of Africa is absent from her work. Akunyili Crosby replaces this element with suggestions of middle class comfort and diasporic cosmopolitanism.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, "Predecessors (Left Panel)," 2013. Acrylic, color pencils, charcoal and transfers on paper. 7 x 7 feet.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, "Predecessors (Left Panel)," 2013. Acrylic, color pencils, charcoal and transfers on paper. 7 x 7 feet.

Classical motifs are updated and enriched through introduction of mixed media including color pencil and pastel accents, charcoal shading, marble dusting, collage, commemorative textile application, and Xerox photo transfer. The layering of Xerox photo transfers referencing Nigerian pop culture and politics yields a mosaic-like Tumblr aesthetic and these images exponentially increase the human subject matter of her paintings, boosting their populations. The Nigerian faces and bodies embedded in these photos fill and texturize inanimate objects ranging from walls and clothes to bushy houseplants. Akunyili Crosby's use of political imagery serves as both a thematic and decorative undercurrent, but in her hands, it never grows pedantic. Ultimately, her masterful use of sampling infuses painting with both an Internet and hip-hop sensibility.

James organized Akunyili Crosby's concurrent exhibits at Leimert Park's Art + Practice and Westwood's Hammer Museum. The Hammer Projects exhibit is the artist's first museum show in Los Angeles and features a sampler of her work, ranging from a stark self-portrait to a large-scale still life. She completed these pieces between 2010 and 2013. The Art + Practice exhibit is the artist's Los Angeles debut. It is titled "The Beautyful Ones," which references both a Ghanaian novel by writer Ayi Kwei Armah and a jazz album by Branford Marsalis. "The Beautyful Ones" displays six paintings completed last year. These works demonstrate the artist's refinement of Xerox transfer techniques, which seem to be her artistic fingerprint.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, "Tea Time in New Haven, Enugu," 2013. Acrylic, collage, color pencils, charcoal, and Xerox transfers on paper. 84 x 111 inches. Private collection. | Photo: Jason Wyche, courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, "Tea Time in New Haven, Enugu," 2013. Acrylic, collage, color pencils, charcoal, and Xerox transfers on paper. 84 x 111 inches. Private collection. | Photo: Jason Wyche, courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York.

James met Akunyili Crosby in 2011 while she was working at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the artist was in residence there. Both women relocated to Los Angeles where they were reunited during a chance encounter at the Hammer. James then shared Akunyili Crosby's work with her fellow curators and it was met with universal enthusiasm. This seems unsurprising given that the artist's work has a very Los Angeles feeling. James acknowledges this, stressing that though Akunyili Crosby's scenes could as easily be set in New York or Lagos, "L.A. really informed this new body of work."

Being introduced to Los Angeles led to the artist's work being introduced to a woman whom James describes as "the most famous person on the planet, bigger than Obama, and not even hyperbolically." It was Beyonce. The pop star was visiting the Hammer and this crossing of paths seems less serendipity than fate. The story was plastered across celebrity media sites and news outlets. In the same way that Beyonce's work captures new century's zeitgeist, so does Akunyili Crosby's. To this point, James says, "She is a Black woman mentoring herself in a visual tradition that has not included Black women. She is putting herself front row and center and the fact that she is centering herself in this conversation in this very male dominated field is very contemporary. Her painting accounts for the global condition."

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Njideka Akunyili Crosby, "The Beautyful Ones, Series #4," 2015. Acrylic, color pencils, and transfers on paper. 5.1 x 3.5 feet.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, "The Beautyful Ones, Series #4," 2015. Acrylic, color pencils, and transfers on paper. 5.1 x 3.5 feet.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, "Then You Lost Me," 2013. Oil and acrylic on printed paper mounted on board. 2 x 1.67 feet.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, "Then You Lost Me," 2013. Oil and acrylic on printed paper mounted on board. 2 x 1.67 feet.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, "I Always Face You, Even When It Seems Otherwise (Right Panel)," 2012. Acrylic, pastel, charcoal, colored pencil, collage and Xerox transfers on paper. 6.5 x 6.5 feet.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, "I Always Face You, Even When It Seems Otherwise (Right Panel)," 2012. Acrylic, pastel, charcoal, colored pencil, collage and Xerox transfers on paper. 6.5 x 6.5 feet.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, "Something Split and New," 2013. Acrylic, pastel, color pencils, charcoal, marble dust, collage and transfers on paper. 7 x 9.25 feet.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, "Something Split and New," 2013. Acrylic, pastel, color pencils, charcoal, marble dust, collage and transfers on paper. 7 x 9.25 feet.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, "I Refuse to be Invisible," 2010. Ink, charcoal, acrylic, and Xerox transfers on paper. 120 x 84 inches. Collection of Connie and Jack Tilton. | Image: Courtesy of the artist.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, "I Refuse to be Invisible," 2010. Ink, charcoal, acrylic, and Xerox transfers on paper. 120 x 84 inches. Collection of Connie and Jack Tilton. | Image: Courtesy of the artist.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, "And We Begin to Let Go," 2013. Acrylic, pastel, color pencils, charcoal, marble dust, collage and transfers on paper. 7 x 8.75 feet.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, "And We Begin to Let Go," 2013. Acrylic, pastel, color pencils, charcoal, marble dust, collage and transfers on paper. 7 x 8.75 feet.

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