Still You Bloom in This Land of No Gardens. Art: © Njideka Akunyili Crosby Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner. Photo by Kerry McFate.
The paintings of Njideka Akunyili Crosby — or are they collages? Drawings? — do not exude the kind of Instagram-ready wall power of so much contemporary art. They do not come to you. You must go to them, one at a time, which makes for a quiet, piecemeal experience. I saw people walk into her new show at David Zwirner gallery, scan the room, and walk out. Do not do this. Akunyili Crosby’s subtle art pays off with an investment of time.
The works are on paper, all matte, occupying a middle range of secondary color. Akunyili Crosby, who was born in Nigeria and lives in Los Angeles, has adopted Rauschenberg’s transfer technique, in which a solvent is applied to the backs of images from magazines and books, sealing the images to the surface of the painting. Akunyili Crosby employs this method to create careful hallucinations, layering memories over moments that otherwise live fully in the now.
There is a deep sense of calm in these ultraflat pictures, as if they exist outside the normal flow of time. Still You Bloom in This Land of No Gardens, for example, is a painting of Akunyili Crosby and her child. They are seated in a garden, their figures overlaid with historical images and abstract patterns. They are both startlingly real — the child wears a top that reads “Black Is Beautiful” — and dreamy, the plants drifting across them like seaweed.
Akunyili Crosby looks directly at us, attentive, relaxed. Around her swirl memories of her native Nigeria, scenes of people and places, women holding signs that say, “Bring Back Our Children” — a reference to the children taken by Boko Haram. There is deep trauma here, underscored by the images of military dictators who have betrayed the promise of Africa. We also see happy smiling family pictures, all visually woven together.
Akunyili Crosby implies that her paintings — and perhaps art more broadly — exist in some third space between here and her homeland, between the present and the past. Inside the house behind her, on a refrigerator, is a photograph of a vibrant woman — her mother — taped to the wall. There are generations here.
In Blend in - Stand out, a woman embraces a seated man from behind — a Black person and a white person, Akunyili Crosby and her husband. In the center of the picture is an Igbo pot. Her dress is green and crowded with images of Black figures with raised fists. “I think of this memory bank that I carry from growing up in Nigeria,” Akunyili Crosby has said. Look closely and you will see this storehouse of images embedded everywhere in her art: in the clothes, in the wallpaper, surfaces of thought and feeling.
Brutality also lurks. A Sunny Day on Bar Beach features a public beach in Lagos where the former military government executed people. In contrast, in one of the paintings from the series “The Beautyful Ones,” we see a young Black girl in a white communion dress standing in a gorgeous tapestry of transferred images. This is 13-year-old Akunyili Crosby, marking the beginning of a grand voyage. There’s no pain or suffering here, just a poignant moment on Akunyili Crosby’s road to becoming herself.