Behind this picture’s intimacy, a complex portrait of the artist

Njideka Akunyili Crosby makes artwork that transcends the traditional scope of identity politics

I have loved the work of Njideka Akunyili Crosby since encountering her dazzling take on Manet’s “The Dead Toreador” at the Yale University Art Gallery in 2014. Since then, the 39-year-old artist, who was born and raised in Nigeria and now lives in Los Angeles, has quietly established herself as one of the most closely watched artists alive.

Her works often portray herself, her husband, her friends. Their mood is sweetly muffled and intimate. They show real people in domestic interiors, sometimes partying, more often sitting, lying, embracing.

For all their quietude, they are also expansive in their cultural and historical reach. Most have the scale and rich coloring of paintings but are actually works on paper. “Portals,” a diptych at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, was made with acrylic, solvent transfer, collage of fabric and paper, and colored pencil.

The left panel shows a woman (the artist) sitting at a bare table. She appears pensive. Her body is in one of those abstracted, in-between physical states so often revealed by photographs. Pictures are stacked on the floor in the right panel, suggesting a temporary residence. But we also see a cropped wedding portrait and a television set.

A wide horizontal window reveals palm fronds against a blue-black night. Are we in the tropics? The walls show patterned fabrics emblazoned with commemorative portraits, a combination commonly favored by Nigerians.

[Death becomes him]

The two panels together measure about 17 feet across and 7 feet high. Their sturdy composition is striking even at a distance. But they draw you in close — thanks largely to the artist’s novel use of photo transfers.

Nigeria was a British colony that gained independence in 1960. Akunyili Crosby was born 23 years later. She left the country to study in the United States when she was 17. She sees herself as part of an “Afropolitan” generation (the term was coined in the mid-2000s by Achille Mbembe and Taiye Selasi): urban, mobile, transnational and occupying threshold states between tradition and change, appropriation and authenticity.

At the same time, Akunyili Crosby is acutely aware of the generations before her. She has seen how colonialism stimulated in her parents’ generation, for instance, a desire to emulate certain British cultural forms (even as it remade them). And she has noticed how her own more cosmopolitan generation feels somewhat anxious in its relationship to pre-colonial traditions.

The photographs the artist transfers onto her backgrounds, in the form of suggestively faded collages (in this case across the floor and up part of the wall), speak to all this. They touch on Nigerian fashion and pop culture. They sometimes evoke or appropriate the portrait photography of Seydou Keïta and the party photographs of Malick Sidibé, both of whom captured the excitement of the post-independence generation in Mali, when modern European mores mingled with African traditions in that country’s big cities. And they suggest the African diaspora, including its mark on Black American pop music, which in turn has influenced African music.

Akunyili Crosby uses complex systems of perspective to accentuate the feeling of multiplicity in her imagined scenarios. The space in the right panel of “Portals,” for instance, ripples and buckles as you walk by it.

Political antagonisms, too, can ripple and recede, softened by history. Injustices persist. Sometimes they deepen. But not every generation wants to fight the exact same battles its parents fought. Optimism and love can get the better of people’s impulse to fight. Economics comes into it, too. People move to cities, find jobs, seek better opportunities. They marry foreigners, have children, consider returning and so on.

Akunyili Crosby has done all this in her own life. Her paintings do honor to the complexity of cultural exchange. She is anti-essentialist. She builds her “characters” with props that include hairstyles and fashions evoking different places, times and influences. These are all packed with historical ironies sufficiently acute to become, in the right light, liberating.

Her take on complexity gives rise not to chaotic, jumbled imagery but to ordered, enigmatic, even calming works. “Portals” has a serenity born of experience. It calls to mind domestic rituals, such as putting young children to bed in an urban apartment, making coffee as the morning light pours into the kitchen of your parents’ home, or looking out the window of an Airbnb in a foreign city at dusk.

Portals, 2016
Njideka Akunyili Crosby (b. 1983). At Whitney Museum of American Art.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Joanne Lee, Leo Dominguez and Junne Alcantara.

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Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.