Njideka Akunyili Crosby ’04
Good morning. Congratulations Swarthmore Class of 2019! Thanks to President Smith and the Swarthmore College community for this immense honor.
Swarthmore was vital to forming me into who I am today, so it’s really special to be back. As a student, I held the intellects of my peers and professors in high regard; I know that you all have maintained the rigorous academic standards, so to get this recognition is a big deal to me.
I graduated 15 years ago with a double-major in biology and studio art. To add to the spectrum of emotions that comes with finishing college, I was abandoning my longtime aspiration to become a medical doctor in favor of pursuing a career in painting, much to the chagrin of my Nigerian parents. However, I felt confident that the skills I’d developed at Swarthmore—the ability to solve complex problems—prepared me to navigate future uncertainties.
Before Swarthmore, whenever I thought of an artist, the word “starving” was never far behind in my mind. My conviction that an artist was someone to be pitied went unchallenged until I enrolled in art classes and actually interacted with professional artists — esteemed faculty members like Randall Exon and Syd Carpenter. By graduation, I actually hoped for a life like theirs — making art and hopefully teaching smart and inspiring students like you. This 180 degree in my mindset showed me that being seen matters. Stories matter. It took proximity to real-life artists to alter the singular narrative I had harbored my whole life.
The late Nigerian author Chinua Achebe called for Africans to take charge of telling their own stories. A generation later, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of “the danger of a single story” about Africa as a homogenous continent of poverty, war, and suffering. These are some of the concerns that drive my art practice. I use the aesthetics of traditional Western figurative painting — a tradition that rarely represented Black people and, when it did, relegated them to dark corners and backgrounds — to tell stories of cosmopolitan Africans. In creating works that center a Black-immigrant experience, I am showing counter arguments against dominant historical and contemporary narratives about who matters and who merits representation. My art is motivated by my desire to tell stories and make images that I wasn’t seeing in art institutions and books—images that reveal the multiple worlds immigrants simultaneously straddle, images of people of color living very ordinary lives, images of a woman of color and a white man in intimate scenes.
Cultural theorist George Gerbner asserts that “representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.” According to Gerbner’s logic, representation—especially complex, multidimensional representation from African artists — matters a great deal because it stakes a claim on our existence, it asserts our humanity, which is oftentimes denied. For evidence of this dismissal, look no further than the language our current administration uses to characterize African—and Central American and Middle Eastern—people and countries: “infest,” “shithole,” “animals,” and so forth. In light of recent political rhetoric on the place and desirability of immigrants—especially Black and brown immigrants—I have never felt more urgency in my art practice.
I would like to wrap up by saying that I share this honor with all the people who’ve made it possible for me to be here today, especially the incredible women who went to bat for me in various ways over the past decade by nominating me for prestigious residencies, introduced me to gallery directors, curating museum shows of my work. Many of you will excel in your field and find yourselves in positions where you are the gatekeepers. I challenge you all to champion people whose voices have historically been excluded from the dominant conversations—women, LGBTQs, immigrants, people of color, people with disabilities etc. This is not pity. YOU benefit from working with, listening to, and living among diverse people. The world is complex, and proximity to people from different locus points—race, gender, wealth, class, culture, age, religion, etc.—it broadens your understanding of this complicated place. Thank you.