Listen: MacArthur "Genius" Njideka Akunyili Crosby '04 Navigates Two Worlds Through Paintings

Njideka Akunyili Crosby '04

Njideka Akunyili Crosby '04 paints in her Los Angeles studio in September. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

NPR: MacArthur 'Genius' Paints Nigerian Childhood Alongside Her American Present

Visual artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby ['04], 34, is having a moment. In 2017, she won a so-called MacArthur "genius" grant, and over the past few months her work has been shown in Baltimore, New Orleans and upstate New York.

Akunyili Crosby was born in Nigeria and moved to the United States when she was 16. Her large-scale paintings (some as big as 8 by 10 feet) reflect her life in both countries. They show groups of people in Nigeria or Brooklyn or Los Angeles, and incorporate photographs of politicians, images of ancestors (mostly women) and objects that signify life in both cultures — a bowl to hold rice, a kerosene lamp, Ikea furniture.

Akunyili Crosby says, "I think the point I make in my work is that my home is Nigeria and the United States at the same time."

The painter holds citizenship in both countries. She listens to both Grace Jones and Nigerian pop in her studio, and, when filling out forms, she never knows what to put down as her permanent residence. "That really is what it means, for me, to be an immigrant, is this navigation of two worlds at the same time," she says.

Many of her works contain a sort of portal between figures, like an open space in a wall, and she often paints members of her family. I Still Face You shows people around a table; the artist is standing and gazing down at the only white person there — her now-husband.

"That is loosely based on what happened the first time he visited Nigeria." Akunyili Crosby says. "Yes, there was a very serious family meeting that probably had three times the number of people in that painting. And it was, 'So, young man, what are your plans? Are you going to marry her? How will you guys make it work in a country that is still very racist?'" (They now have a young son.)

Ian Berry, director of the Tang Museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., says this is a critical time to show artists like Akunyili Crosby, whose work looks like the museum's visitors. "I think Njideka's work presents a complicated ... view of what it means to be from different places and of different places and living in a contemporary world," he says. "So seeing her version of portraiture where people are a complex mix, I think, is very valuable right now."

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Akunyili Crosby graduated from Swarthmore in 2004, 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.