Artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby '04 Named a Woman of the Year

Njideka Akunyili Crosby '04

Financial Times: Njideka Akunyili Crosby on her breakthrough year

Pushing through the shop-front door of her east Los Angeles studio, laden with bags and 10 minutes late, Njideka Akunyili Crosby ['04] apologises that she has not had time to tidy up. She has a lot on her plate. Wearing large tortoise-shell glasses and with a yellow and purple scarf wrapped around her head, despite her apparent fluster she is a graceful figure, especially given that she is eight months pregnant. 

It’s been a memorable year for the 33-year-old Nigerian-born artist. In June she was awarded the Prix Canson, an international prize for works on paper, and in November she was shortlisted for the 2017 Future Generation Art Prize, worth $100,000. That same month, her 2012 painting “Drown” sold at Sotheby’s for just under $1.1m, more than five times its estimate.

In all fairness, 2015, in which she was awarded the New Museum’s Next Generation Prize in New York among other grants and accolades, was also a good year. But 2016 has been exceptional, she says, because of the increased visibility that exhibitions around the world have afforded her work. Visibility, she tells me, for an immigrant such as herself who does not see her story reflected in mainstream cultural narratives, is everything.

Akunyili Crosby was 16 when she and her sister came to the U.S. in 1999 from Enugu, a city in south-eastern Nigeria, after her mother had won the Green Card Lottery. In the U.S., she was seen not as Nigerian but simply as black. She was dismayed by the lack of knowledge of her country. “It’s hard to explain what it feels like to be from a space that you feel doesn’t matter,” she says. “People confuse Nigeria with Kenya and nobody cares!” 

Over the following decade, however, she became aware of a growing recognition of African artists, particularly those from Nigeria. The country’s film industry, known as Nollywood, has become the world’s third largest and Nigerian artists, musicians and designers have found a global market. A new generation of writers has come to the fore, including Taiye Selasi and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of 2013’s Americanah. Literature is a major influence for Akunyili Crosby, and her titles often borrow from these and other writers. “I could just feel something exciting was happening,” she says. “People who were from a place that had been marginalised and overlooked for so long were finally speaking for themselves.”

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Njideka Akunyili Crosby '04 graduated from Swarthmore, where she majored in art and biology. She later completed a post-baccalaureate certificate at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and an M.F.A. from Yale University School of Art. In 2014, she won the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s James Dicke Contemporary Art Prize