My name is Njideka Akunyili Crosby, I am an Artist. My mum’s legacy intimidates me, you know. Everyone knows the story of how she got appointed to her role at NAFDAC…but while it intimidates me, I’m also very proud of her. Whenever I go back to the country, I’m no longer anonymous. I hand my passport in and it’s the same reaction every time. “Are you who I think you are? I hope you’re the same as your mother?” I always whisper, “I try…” Nobody can be like her…
My first ever art class was when I was 16 years old. I left Nigeria with my older sister to study in Philadelphia and quickly discovered that my homeland didn’t matter to people out here, except as a scene of crisis. Its interesting I never would have imagined myself as an artist- none of this was expected. I left Nigeria thinking I would become a doctor like my father and several of my siblings.
My earliest memory is of poring over my Dad’s Atlas of Diseases, fascinated by the human body. Yet, when I was age 16, I added painting as a fun class to my really intense and science based college courses, and then my art teacher encouraged me to take it further. Turns out she was onto something then, because I didn’t quite believe it till I was awarded the Prix Canson 2016, the 2015 Next Generation prize at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the 2015 Joyce Alexander Wein Artist prize. I mean, now that’s a lot!
My paintings seem reasonably simple, with domestic scenes of living rooms, couples, families. But there are so many layers: the collaged materials that I use as background, taken from Nigerian popular culture, or potrait fabrics printed with peoples faces from my family’s wedding. Then I have pictures of my husband and I showing the difference in colour, and in family background. I try to keep it interesting for myself because each piece is a puzzle. I could just feel something exciting was happening, People who were from a place that had been marginalised and overlooked for so long were finally speaking for themselves.
I consider myself an American artist as well as an African one. I don’t want to write off the horrible things that happen in various African countries, but we’re not all walking around thinking about Aids and Boko Haram all the time. Those things affect us, but lots of times our problems are the silly daily problems that you have here. How do I get a date? Will my pay cheque be enough for this dress I want to wear to the wedding?”
…That’s why so many of my figures [in the paintings] are really doing nothing. I think people sensationalize places in their heads, so I wanted to show just how normal life is in Nigeria.
And of course, I cant remove from my painting the fact that I’m Nigerian. I think its always going to shine through as I’m sure any Nigerian understands. I’m Nigerian and its going to show in my painting…a lot. But beyond that, I’m grateful that people can connect with that, can identify with what I’m trying to say in these pictures. Recently, one of my paintings sold for $3.1 million in Christie’s, and I can only surmise that the person connected with it on a deep, real deep level.
..Art is where I really felt I had something to contribute, something fresh, something relevant, and something needed.”