Watch & Listen
Artist Talk: Njideka Akunyili Crosby
March 21, 2016: In this evening talk with associate curator Jane Panetta, artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby explores the processes and sources that drive her work including her project for the billboard on the façade of 95 Horatio Street, Before Now After (Mama, Mummy and Mamma).
NAC:I’d like to thank you all for coming tonight to this talk, and I would like to thank Jane – everybody can hear me, right – I’d like to thank Jane and the Whitney Museum for being so supportive of me by inviting me to do the billboard project, by purchasing a major work, and having me here tonight to talk about my practice. So the format of this lecture is going to be very image heavy. If you know my work, I love pictures so I’m going to do this presentation through lots of pictures, and I just hope I get through them before my time is up. I’m going to start with – the first half of it will not be my work, it will just be some of the images you’ll see transferred in my work, some of the images I have up in my studio, some of the images that have been very influential to me, and some of the images I feel really encapsulate what I want to do in my practice. Some images I think do it better than I do. And then I’ll slowly move to images of my work. And the format might seem a little bit scattered and not related, but by the time we get to the end it will make sense and you’ll realize that everything is connected, which ties into how I work with images in my work. So this first photograph is a life photograph from Nigeria. So before I start this presentation, just a little bit of a background. I was born and raised in Nigeria, and I left the country after secondary school. So when I was about 17, I left to come to the United States for university. And a bit of background of Nigeria that plays a big part in my work, Nigeria used to be a British colony up until 1960 when we became independent. So I really do think about the different generations and how they really have influenced the cultures of the country, so thinking of my grandparents’ generation to my parents’ generation to my generation. So this is an image of a Nigerian family, a Yoruba family called Achike Coumba de Malaise (sp?). The guy sitting down is father to the man standing, and I like this picture because they correspond to my grandparents’ and my parents’ generation. So thinking of the shifts in generations from the people who really were there, thinking of my family, who were then in Eastern Nigeria when the British people finally came and had contact with that part of the country. To my parents’ generation, that coincides to the guy standing who were some of the fraise dastell (sp?) leaving the villages to go to the cities, to go abroad, to get jobs, to get educated, and what that move meant and the things that were lost in the move, and also how would that first wave of educated Nigerians, there this was this relationship, there was this link between being Anglicized and being educated and being upper class. So there was an intense move from tradition – and I’ll come back and talk about this further down. So I’m really thinking about that generation, and I’m jumping into my generation, which is the generation after the independence generation. So this is a picture of me with my sister in a house in the village, and with this I’m really thinking of what Taiye Selasi, who is a writer of Ghanaian descent, talks about as the Afropolitan Generation, which are the young Africans, young people from various African countries that have left the continent for various reasons, for school, for jobs, escaping wars and things like that, but they really do end up becoming citizens of the world and existing in this liminal space between different countries and different cities, and they don’t belong to a single geography. This is a picture that I do use fairly often in my work. It’s a picture from my First Holy Communion, and with this I’m thinking of traditions we’ve inherited, and how new things are borne out of mimicry, how a culture or a group can start by mimicking a tradition that was given to them or they’ve inherited. But the thing with mimicry is that it’s similar but it’s not quite the same, and in that difference something new actually comes out of it. And with religion in Nigeria, it’s almost like the extreme we take it to, where I have this crazy outfit that would even fit in a place in the U.K. or something like that. So something I also do a lot is I use a lot of images of pop culture. I use images of pop culture almost as a way to trace changes in the country over time because the Nigeria I grew up in is not the Nigeria I left and is definitely not the Nigeria that is there now. And it’s a very vibrant space that is active and is always changing, and so I use pop culture to map it. So looking at a picture like this, which is an album cover of Prince Nico Mbarga – if anybody listens to highlife – one of the most popular highlife songs is Sweet Mother. I mean, anybody who grew up in an African country in the Eighties, Nineties knows this song, but he’s the one that sang it. So this is one of his album covers. So I’m really trying to put my finger on place and trying to use pop culture images to do that, thinking of what has changed over time and what has stayed the same, but also what are the things that have influenced pop culture in Nigeria. So looking at an image like this from the Eighties, and looking at a counterpoint of today, this is 2face Idibia, so anyone who is really into contemporary African music he’s the one that sang African Queen, which was also another hit across the continent. And I mean with pictures like this, I use this image a lot in my work, too. I love how you see the influence of American pop culture, but it’s actually become its own different thing. So this picture is not mine, but this is a picture that is current. It’s from modern day Nigerian. It was taken at an event. And the reason why I like this picture, and I use it a lot, is that it really does encapsulate Homi Bhabha’s idea of third space or syncretic culture – this space where multiple things have come together and they make this stew that gives rise to something else that is beyond the parts that came together to make it. So it’s not just like British culture and Nigerian culture mix – you get this in-between, there really is something new that comes out of that confluence. So just thinking of the guy in the wheelchair, and the guy standing next to him but wearing an outfit that would be called the traditional outfit from the Niger Delta. Some people call them Biafran suits, but that’s actually something different, but of course you can see references to something like the British tail and the top hats that have now been consumed, and they’ve become part of our culture from when we had contact with British so many years ago. So, and I mentioned early about why I was interested in this third space and how Nigeria is a liminal space. So the reason why I want to make work that deals with it, and is situated in that space, is that it’s a space that isn’t constant. It’s a really active space, it’s a space that vibrates because there’s always this constant appropriation and negation. It’s not something that ever stops. So it makes for interesting studio practice because I’m trying to put my finger on something that moves every day. This is another photograph by the same guy who took this picture – this one – but thinking of this space that isn’t static and wanting to look at my work in this space. So now I’m going to shift a little bit and show a few artists, mainly photographers, that I look at and have been influenced by. So this is Seydou Keïta, who is a Malian photographer. So I look at him a lot, but I’m also looking at Malick Sidibé who is also from Mali, and both of them are taking pictures of Mali from the Seventies. So this is right after the wave of independence swept across West Africa and a lot of other African countries from the early Sixties into the late Sixties. And something I like about Malick Sidibé’s photograph – this is Malick Sidibé – is that he’s able to really capture the excitement of this post-independence generation and the hope of the time, but he’s also able to really put his finger on the desire of the people to present themselves as glamorous and cosmopolitan, this need to be connected to a global community, and that ties to what I’m trying to point to in my work. This is also another Malick Sidibé photograph, and I know he’s known a lot for his photographs of people wearing pattern fabrics in front of pattern backgrounds, but what I really like him for are his social images – images of people at parties, people dancing – because he really captures the joy that came with this generation after they got independence, and just this feeling of hope that they could do anything they wanted, and this putting his finger on the continent that was just on the cusp of something great happening. This is a photographer from Zimbabwe. Her name is Nontsikelelo Veleko, and these are, she takes photographs in South Africa, I believe these were taken in Johannesburg, but she really is trying to capture the urban culture, the urban fashion of a place, and that work resonates with me because I’m really, in my work I’m trying to put my finger on what it means to be a cosmopolitan Nigeria, what does contemporary Lagos look like, and what is the energy of it. And something I like in a photograph like this is how you can see, it’s very clear that the individuals are taking things from the outside, but the way they’ve absorbed it and digested it, something unique comes out of it. So even though they are wearing things everybody recognizes – shoes, trousers, jacket, hat – something about the way it’s been put together really begins to speak of these characters as not being in Brooklyn or Berlin or Geneva. And so that’ something I do try to do in my work – what is the specificity of how people dress or how people combine outfits that begins to speak to place and time and things like that – and I’ll talk about that more later. This picture is from a book titled Gentlemen of Bacongo by Daniele Tamagni. So in this book, it’s this area in Congo – I don’t know, has anyone, Solange had a video, does this seem familiar to anyone, Solange had a video that was shot in South Africa, but she was referencing the Gentlemen of Bacongo, which are these guys in this particular area that dress us to reflect the world outside them. So they’re wearing outfits that come from Scotland. They are dressing in ways that are very Parisian and ways that are very British. So that’s a book I love and I look at, but really also thinking of what I mentioned earlier of how mimicry can be subversive, but something else I like about this project is Daniele did a whole book about these guys and Paul Smith, the British designer, did the intro to the book and was so taken by it that in Paul Smith’s next season, the season was a riff on Gentlemen of Bacongo. So it’s just the like, I don’t, like cycle of mimicry where you’re mimicking the people who mimicked you, and it’s like this constant back and forth that doesn’t stop. So now I’m going to an image that I use a lot in my work. This is a Nigerian musician called Kris Okotie. This is an album cover from one of his very popular – he was a huge musician when I was growing up—and this is an album cover of his. So with this picture I’m really thinking of Mary Louise Pratt’s theme on “contact zone,” which is the space where different cultures come together, and I think of this as a visual proof of Nigeria as a contact zone where you can see references to British Redcoats, references to Beatles, but of course the most obvious is the reference to Michael Jackson. Because at this point what’s happening is that after Nigeria became independent in 1960, by the late Sixties into the early Seventies we had the oil boom, and with the oil boom we really were able to begin to purchase programming from the United States because the country was awash in money and was doing very well economically. And so with all this programming coming in, what begins to happen is that you a shift happen, you see a shift go from Britain being a mark of cultural progression, or Britain as a cultural center, to the United States as a cultural center. So you have an image like this, which is also an image I use a lot in my works. This is a very recent picture. It’s not more than seven years old of a Nollywood actress called Genevieve, and lots of people who look at it thinks it’s something from 1970s, something from the United States, and the reason why it has all those references, why it looks like a 1970s blaxploitation movie is because we did consumer that in Nigeria and still do. Thelma Golden was telling me she was in Nigeria a few months ago and was shocked to turn on the TV and see a lot of programming from the United States, from the Eighties and Nineties playing. This is another picture I use a lot, and I use different versions of this, but this one is quite obvious, but a British lawyer still wear the British wig, so just this moment where you can see the vestiges of the British presence that are still there in Nigeria. So something I explore in my work is hair. So when I make my work and I build my characters, I’m trying to think of signifiers of place, signifiers of class, signifiers of time, and to that I look to fashion, jewelry, hair, landscape, architecture. And one of the things I really have been pushing recently is hair, and what a hairstyle says about my character, or what class the character belongs to. So I use images like this for reference, but even looking at hair. So when I look at an image like this, this is from an old magazine in Nigeria, and most people will tell you this is traditional hair, or hair my grandparents and great grandparents made, but something fascinating is that even within this “tradition” you begin to see this hybrid space. So these are photographs by a Nigerian artist called J. D. 'Okhai Ojeikere, and these are pictures of traditional hairstyles, but they have names that are like Roundabout, Flyover, Eko Bridge. So what begins to happen is that these traditional hairstyles begin to become made to reflect a modernizing Lagos and reflect the buildings and architecture and structures that people were seeing going on around them. So it’s actually one of the spaces where even tradition is already becoming hybridized. I look at a lot of fashion, so I use pop culture to map changes but also to try and capture the essence of a place. I also use fashion to do that. This is a Nigerian designer called Jewel by Lisa, and this is her Spring-Summer 2012 Collection called, I believe, Vintage Love. And in this picture she’s using vintage imagery but also vintage patterns and costumes. So this outfit is based on what would be called agbada, but she’s done it in such a way that it has a cosmopolitan bent to it. This is a Nigerian actress called Omotola, and she’s wearing this outfit that is made with Vlisco, and I’ll talk about Vlisco in a little while, but it’s made in such a way that it looks very British, and this is a contemporary picture. So talking about Nollywood and Omotola, just as an aside, I don’t mind saying we had a fun conversation the last time I saw her about Nollywood and how – Nollywood is the Nigerian film industry. And is anyone here familiar with it? But it’s huge, and it’s something that has really taken over the continent and the Caribbean and different places. But it really is fascinating because I remember when Nollywood started, and a lot of us were, like my friends and my siblings and I were a little bit irritated with it because it was trying to imitate things outside but wasn’t quite. The sound was always bad, you always looked like handheld reality TV, the soundtracks were horrible, there was so much that was wrong with it. But something that has happened with Nollywood over time is that all those little things that didn’t match up, or didn’t make it good because of practical reasons and economic reasons and things like that, has actually led to it being its own unique thing right now. And something Adoma (sp?) pointed out about it was that it doesn’t have any genre, so if you’re watching a Nollywood movie it could go from comedy to drama to like a horror movie, and then the ghost turns up, but then you go to church, so it really does this jump across different things. So that’s also a space where this new transcultural thing came out from something that originally was tying to mimic. So I do look a lot at Nollywood DVD covers, and Nollywood actresses and clips coming out of Nollywood. And this is one of the big stars in Nollywood, and I don’t know if I mentioned it but Genevieve is probably the biggest Nollywood star. She’s probably a version of Angelina Jolie maybe. OK, so here is Omotola Ekeinde. And so this fabric she is wearing here and the fabric in this, and a lot of those pattern fabric you see in my pictures, which are African fabric, are made by Vlisco. So just remember that, and we’ll come back to it. So this is Omotola Ekeinde wearing a Nigerian designer called Alter Ego, and I do own this outfit and almost wore it today. But the reason why I love this outfit is that’s it doing this thing I’m interested in. So Alter Ego, this is a fabric that, the fabric is either polyester or silk or a mix of both, but the pattern on it is one of Vlisco’s iconic patterns, and Vlisco is the fabric house that is based in Holland that supplies a lot of the African fabrics. So this Nigerian designer, Alter Ego, is taking Vlisco’s pattern, putting it on a different pattern – Vlisco prints on cotton so it doesn’t flow as much, which was one thing I never liked about them, so she solved it. She’s just lifted the pattern, she’s put it on flowy fabric, which is some kind of polyester, and she’s made this style with it. But the style she’s made with it is actually iro and buba, which is what, not mine, but in Western Nigeria, Yorubas, that’s what their grandparents and parents would have worn. So it’s just this wormhole (?) of multiple things. And I keep thinking of fashion as a very good place to observe hybridity and different influences, so I do look at a lot of fashion photographs. So this is Vlisco that I’ve mentioned a number of times, and I look at them fairly often. So Vlisco is a fabric company that was founded in 1846, and they do the, I guess we could call it simple repeat patterns, very colorful, on fabric, that they ship to a lot of African countries, and we’ve co-opted it and made it part of our tradition. Now if you say Vlisco, most people just call it African fabric even though it’s still not ours. So it was founded in 1846, and they were trying in Holland, (inaudible), they were trying to find a market for it, and they had a few hiccups. I think they tried selling it in Europe, it didn’t catch; they tried shipping it for the East to Indonesia and other countries, and it didn’t catch; and finally they decided to try the African markets, and they sent it to various African countries and it really caught on, and has really been embraced by the continent. And the funny thing about Vlisco is that Indonesia and a lot of those countries rejected it because it was too machine, it spoke too much to being made by a machine, and they really like the handprints of their batiks. So the things that made it not desirable for those places was exactly what made it desirable for African countries with this group of, with people who really wanted to be associated with contemporary fashion and trends. So that’s Vlisco. People in the market saying Vlisco. And even until today, I don’t have a picture of it, but if you buy it at the corner it still says, “Guaranteed Dutch wax, veritable Hollandais.” And if you go to the market and you want to buy Vlisco, that’s what you search for. But anyway talking about a cultural back and forth, something that you begin to see is that the Vlisco House is actually acknowledging their market so they do specific patterns that speak to their consumers. So one of their big iconic ones is called Nkrumah’s Pen, so you’ll see them do things like that where they’ll make a design or an image that speaks to something on the continent. This is a Vlisco ad that I saw a few years ago, but I like this because it’s speaking to paintings of Venuses and reclining nudes, but it’s also speaking to Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta, and all the photographers that were working on the continent in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties that were using a lot of these patterns to design and create space. So, talking about fabric, so Yinka Shonibare, the Nigerian-British artist, does phenomenal work dealing with Vlisco and its history and the fluidity of culture. So with fabric, what I’m more interested in is for me what I think of as the expansion on Vlisco, which is this point where we’ve taken this idea that doesn’t belong to us, this technique of roller printing on fabric, simple repeat designs, very heavy color choices, and we’ve actually done something to it, and in doing that we’ve co-opted it and made it ours, and that that is the portrait fabrics and adding portraits to it. So these are commercial customized fabrics that you make for different things. So this one up here was done for my brother’s wedding. So that’s my brother and that’s my sister-in-law. Sadly, I didn’t get one for my wedding, which I was very upset about. And these two, which if you went to the Armory, I used this one in my latest work. But those two were done for my mother’s senatorial campaign. And I have a lot more; I have a few from Ojukwu’s burial. Ojukwu is a Nigerian leader that fought under, led Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War, and I have another one that is for the beatification of Father Tansi. So he’s the only Nigerian saint we have, and when they canonized him the Pope came to Nigeria and they made a fabric for him. And I’ve been trying to figure out the origin of it, and I’ve only gone as far back, I think I saw one from 1956, which was done when the Queen visited Nigeria, so that will be fascinating if that was the origin of it. So this is a guy, this is a picture I took on my last trip to Nigeria of someone wearing a portrait fabric, and this is the governor of my states. So this is just to give you an idea of how people wear it. So you make this fabric, you give them to people, and people make outfits for it and wear the outfits to your event, but then after your event it becomes part of their wardrobe and they wear it whenever. This is a photograph of my sister. I took this on my last trip home in September, and she’s wearing a portrait fabric, this is my mother, so this is from an event for my mother. And the funny thing with this picture is that what she’s wearing would be considered traditional attire. So that’s also something I interrogate in my work, is this question of what is tradition at this point in a country like Nigeria. So I was talking about the British influence, the American influence, but also the 200-plus tribes that are coming together into line one unified culture. So to that end, what I do is I look at a lot of photographs of traditional weddings because I feel this is one space where people believe we’ve hung on to tradition or maintained tradition. So this is – that’s me down here – this is my brother, from the portrait fabric, and his wife. So something that happened – and I showed that first image of the guy sitting down, and the guy standing next to him, and talked about the shift from generations – so my parents’ generation really moved away from tradition because they wanted to more Anglicized, they wanted to be more educated, and it was just what they felt would give them a better life. And in my generation, I feel there’s this, a lot of anxiety over cultural loss, like there really are things that have just faded away or weren’t preserved. I mean, something I thought about fairly recently is that when I was young and we used to go to the village – my dad grew up in the village so he has more knowledge about the traditions than any of us do – but because he grew up in the village he was initiated into this age group that teaches you how to talk to masqueraders. So when we were young and we went to the village, during Christmas masqueraders walk around and if they come to a house, my dad goes out and has a conversation with them. And I feel saying conversation doesn’t capture it because it’s a song, it’s a call-and-respond, and it’s, they’re singing but it’s a language I don’t know and you don’t know it unless you’ve been initiated into it, but we all grew up in the city, my dad’s children. So my two brothers, who probably should have learned that tradition didn’t. So even thinking of my family, that’s a tradition that has died out, and nobody can do it. My brother lives in Houston, he can’t do it; his son is not going to learn it. So that’s just like one example of something that has vanished. Anyway, so what you see in my generation is that there’s a lot of anxiety over things like that, things that haven’t been kept, so people are really trying to hang onto what’s left. But the thing is like if you’re hanging onto something that wasn’t really carefully preserved then what you’re doing is you’re just kind of picking up whatever is left, and so you see people cobbling different things onto each other. So even what is tradition in Nigeria is a hybrid or like a confluence of different things, and you see it a lot in traditional weddings. So in a picture like this – I mean, this is not ideal to explain it – but in a picture like this, they are doing something called aso-ebi, which is where you give people the same fabric and they sew different patterns from it. We’re Igbo, we’re from Eastern Nigeria. Aso-Ebi is something that comes from Western Nigeria, but it’s now part of this new Nigerian traditional wedding phenomenon. But you see different things like that. Even for my wedding, I was wearing coral beads that come from an area that is more southeast than I’m from, so it’s just this mixture of different things to give rise to like Nigerian traditional wedding culture. So this is a page from a magazine called Ovation. So there are a lot of, a number of social magazines that are quite ubiquitous in Nigeria and West African and a number of other African countries. Ovation is one of them; Gallery, Accolade, and a lot more. And so with these images I look at them to see how they present photographs, and this really influences how I use photographs in my work, and really understanding that the way photographs are used in these magazines are quite formalized and very rigorous in its rules and regulations. So it’s very heavy grid-like, there’s very little text, and there’s just this oversaturation of imagery that tries to capture the essence of what happened in an event. And so that’s something I’m extrapolating from this and trying to use in my work. This is another example of that. This is from my wedding but just to get an idea of how I see, or images I used in Nigeria, or ways I see images in Nigeria. This is a store that sells Nollywood films, and with this I’m thinking of it two ways. One, just the crazy grid-like oversaturation of images, but also if you look at the Nollywood film jackets, the way they use imagery and the way the, collage picture is something I look at, the graphics used in the DVDs. And sometimes in the work you’ll see specific Nollywood movies used. So something you see a lot in my work is also images from my wedding, and I use images from my wedding because I think of my wedding as significant, because in my life my wedding became my contact zone. My wedding really became the moment in my life where I became rooted to Nigeria, my place of birth, and the United States, my country through marriage, which is my husband’s country, and so you see that a lot, and I’ll talk about that more. So now we get to the artworks. So before I start showing my work, I wanted to show the artwork that influenced the first painting I’m going to show you. This is Manet’s painting of The Dead Toreador. So, a little bit more life history. So after I left Nigeria, I came to the United States and I went to Swarthmore College for my undergrad. After undergrad I went to the Pennsylvania Academy for four years, and that really was where a lot of my painting training happened, and the training at PAFA really is probably the same as the way you would have been trained in a French Academy a hundred years ago. So we’re really getting the tradition from the French Academy but also the Spanish School of Painting, so it’s one of those institutions where you paint and draw from the model, still life and cast morning to night every day of the week. So this really is a tradition I’ve come out of. So something like this is a painting that would have resonated, still does resonate with me as a PAFA student. So after leaving PAFA, what I was really interested in doing in my work, or what I was asking myself in my studio was how can I keep working within this tradition but separate myself from it. It’s almost like find a way to dirty it up a bit or let something else happen to it. So you’ll see the painting that was influenced by this. So this is a nine foot by eleven, nine by eleven foot painting, and the title of this is The Rest of Her Remains. And so when I look at a painting like this, and I make a painting like this out of it, I’m really thinking of how color, the compositional structure, the gestures and things like that can function not just as picture-making tools but also as historical references that I use to create a bond between my work and the history of painting. This is another piece titled I Refuse to be Invisible, which is the title that is used for my Norton show. And in this piece – this is going to be tough – I feel for each piece I can spend ten minutes on them, so I have to decide what to say and what not to say. We’ll leave it. So a lot of my early work was the couple, based on me and my husband. So with this presentation, I’m going to break it down in series. So I work in series within my work, so I’m going to show The Couple Series, The Beautyful Ones Series, and end with the Predecessor Series. So this is another Couple Series, the title of this is Nyado: The Thing Around Her Neck. And there’s a Nigerian write called Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whom I love and has really been influenced by, and she has a short story called The Thing Around Your Neck. So sometimes with the titles of the work, I use them to underscore the influence of literature in my practice. What is the influence of literature in my practice? I feel I look at, I’ve been influenced by writers coming out of African and Caribbean countries just as much as I’ve been influenced by painters and printmakers and other artists. So with literate, what I’m doing and what I feel is analogous to the people I read – so thinking of someone like Junot Díaz from the Dominican Republic; Edwidge Danticat, originally from Haiti; I already mentioned Adichie from Nigeria; also Chinua Achebe really was one of the first people who started it all – is this idea of writing with an inherited tradition. So whether it’s writing in English, writing in French, or finding a way to co-op this inherited language, or this inherited tradition, so you can begin to use that language to talk about a place that the language did not originally come from. And Chinua Achebe has written a lot of beautiful essays about this including The Language of African Literature, because there was a big debate, I believe in the Eighties, between Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and Achebe about the language of African literature, and is this idea that if language is Abez (?) culture, if culture is, if language is integral to culture and carries culture and passes culture to the next generation, what does it mean if writers are not using the traditional languages and are writing in English. And I think the way people have come around that, including Achebe, is that you can write in English but what you can do is find a way to co-op the language, so you actually create a different version of English. And the thing Achebe and now Adichie do, they use an English, a variant of English that is so different from British English, that it’s now being called Nigerian English. And then you have someone like Ken Saro-Wiwa who is writing in Pidgin or Brokin, dirty English, or you have Junot Díaz who inserts Spanish words and doesn’t translate it for you, so it really is a way of writing back to the dominant center. So I’m thinking of taking those strategies and using it in my work, and I might extend in this connection to literature with my titles. So this is My Delicious Darkness, so still continuing this move between visual ads and literature while borrowing liberally from various art historical and literary sources. This is titled Re-branding My Love, and with my work I’m, so thinking of Achebe and someone like Junot Díaz who is talking to a dual audience, whether you’re from within the culture the language is come, that particular variance of English is coming from where you’re outside it. And I’m thinking of doing the same thing with my work lots of times with the title. So this piece is called Re-branding My Love, so if you see it, it could reference the girl on top branding the man underneath it, but there also is another way it can be read for someone who was living in Nigeria in the late 2000s. So with this piece, the point this was made, which was also right after I got married, my mom was a Minister of Information in Nigeria, and she was heading one of the big campaigns of the time which was called “Rebranding Nigeria,” that was the campaign. And it really was this campaign that was marketed in Nigeria as an incredible place to do business with investing, visit, really talking about a growing economy. But my family ended up getting some flak about this campaign because when my mom was doing this campaign, my sister got married and she married an Ivorian; and then not long after that I got married and I married an American. So there was a lot of national discussion about what it means for my mother to be running this campaign, about how great Nigeria is, but none of her children are marrying Nigerians, so that was odd to have my wedding be talked about in newspapers and blogs and websites and things like that. So this is a play on that, but also acknowledging that my husband and my country are the two loves of my life. This is a piece called Efulefu. This is quite a small size, it’s about this size. But this is also one of those ones where the title speaks to a dual audience. So the title of this is Efulefu: The Lost One. Efulefu in my language is what you call, I mean it’s an insult. To call some an efulefu directly translates to “ you’ve lost your way,” but it bears more weight than that. It’s what you call someone who has betrayed their people or turned their back on their people, which is what I felt a lot of people considered me because I had made this decision to marry outside my country and outside my tribe. And to understand it, you also have to think of Nigeria in this space where there was a lot of anxiety about loss and people were really trying to go back to tradition. There’s this renewed sense of Nigerianess. It really was at a period where you could feel the country finally coming out of the inferiority complex of being a formally colonized country to this sense of pride in self, and so to be seen as leaving it at that point really hit a nerve with a lot of people. So with this, I was thinking of, so if someone saw this, they could see me as the efulefu in this work, but if you’re just looking at it formally, the efulefu, the lost one, the one that is not actually painted in will be the man in the work. This is a piece called Nwantitni, and it was influenced by – you can see it here – this, which you also see here, but it was a song that was very popular when I was growing up called Love Nwantitni. And I was listening to a lot of old-school songs in my studio, and for this the question I had for myself – because I know there’s like a collective memory, people who grew up in Nigeria in the late Eighties into the Nineties have, and I was trying to see if I could have a title that tapped into it. Can I give something a title, so if you saw it the song would play in your head? So with this, a lot of the transferred images are music related. So you see the Nigerian version of American Idol, you see the album cover of the Michael Jackson guy again, and lots of various Nigerian musicians show up in this. And I mean with this work, something I’m doing, and I do it in a lot of my work, is this push and pull. So I feel like I’ve talked a lot about the work dealing with my autobiography as a Nigerian who now lives in the United States, but those are not the only two things I’m exploring. I’m kind of exploring the various places in my life where I’m straddling disparate spaces or disparate things. So I was born in Enugu in a very little town where everybody knew everybody. We were middle class, sometimes lower middle class. Then when I finished elementary school, I left Enugu and I moved to Lagos, which is a huge cosmopolitan city. And I feel the culture shock for me going from Enugu to Lagos was bigger than going from Lagos to the United States. Because when I went to Lagos, I mean I came from a town where I had no connection to life outside Nigeria, not even outside Nigeria, outside my town. I had never left my town, I had never traveled, I had never been on a plane. We weren’t rich so we didn’t have satellite television, so my life really was this little place. And then I go to Lagos, which is a huge global city, and I have contacts with people who spend summer in London, they know all the new Disney movies, and I was one of the bush girls in my class, which is what you call like a backwards village girl. So that’s like one of the disparate spaces I’ve experienced in my life, but also something that happened when I was in high school is that my mother went from being a university professor to, through a really random series of events, being the head of the Nigerian FDA. So we ended up, we went from being lower middle class to being part of the Nigerian ruling elites and having the president come to my wedding, having like senators come to our house. So it was that huge change, so I’m really thinking of all those spaces of negotiation in my life where I had to code-switch or find and forge a new space for myself out of difference. So, of course, thinking being a Nigerian living here, but also going from lower middle class to upper class, going from a small town to a big city, and so what I’m trying to do is to figure out a way to make the work so that it recapitulates this content of the work. So I’m playing with working with painting, drawing, collage, printmaking, and I’m always playing with dualities or pitting disparate elements against each other, so playing with realism and abstraction, playing with areas that are skillfully painted – yeah, maybe that like there – to areas that are more crudely painted, areas that are very quite, maybe this area to areas that are quite noisy – I mean, this would be considered quiet. So areas that are quiet and noisy, moving between image and language, moving between past and present, and I’ll expand more on that later. So it’s not just the postcolonial scenario, it’s also an immigrant scenario as well. And then something I do in my work is to think of the specificity of things, so if I want to play with these different spaces – with lower class, upper class, Nigeria here, 1980s to 2000 – to really be able to play with that, I have to be able to name or make things that lock into a space or a time or a group or a place. So I’m always trying to be specific with everything in the work, so then I can play with it and create this complicated space. So this is one of those, where the girl has this hairstyle that is really rural, it’s not something you’ll see a young cosmopolitan Lagosian, Lagos girl wearing. The only time I see – well, some people are trying to challenge it or change it – but for a long time, the only time I saw people have that hairstyle was if I went to the market or if I went to the village. So here I am creating this girl that is in this relationship with a white man which indicates a contact outside Nigeria, but she also has this hairstyle that roots her to a certain group that doesn’t really fit with everything else that is going on in the image. So I’m always trying to create this character that defies being boxed, that really does straddle multiple things and is multidimensional, almost like kaleidoscopic. This is a piece titled And We Begin to Let Go. And something that is happening in my painting, if you’ve not noticed it yet, is that there’s actually a development of a lexicon within the work. So one of it is the screen walls, which shows up a lot, so there are these like objects or things that are becoming a language within the work. Another one is this plant, which is a cassava. It’s a plant that was very familiar to me growing up in Eastern Nigeria. So for me it’s a stand-in for place and time. That’s a detail from that work. And this is a small painting that is made entirely in blues and blacks, but I was thinking of Chris Ofili’s blue paintings. And I’m thinking of doing something that was optical, very hard to photograph, to really think about the specificity of painting and the subtle optical shifts that happen when you’re in front of a work, but also thinking of this character that isn’t easy to be boxed, that has this hairstyle that speaks to life outside Nigeria, but if you see this painting in real life, it’s really subtle, she has a tribal mark here, which is something that died out after my parents’ generation. My mother does have one, but in my generation it’s very rare to find someone who has it unless they grew up in the village or in a very traditional household. So you have this character, like if you can read all the cues, doesn’t quite make sense because someone who has this mark doesn’t really fit what you’re seeing in the work. This is a painting called Wedding Portrait, and if you remember from earlier on I talked about portrait fabrics. So this is a piece of my mother’s portrait fabric – and remember I said they didn’t make one for my wedding, so I wanted to create my own portrait fabric, so I did that. And with this I cut out the fabric and I glued it on it, but I went back in and did a wash over it. So it really did take away from it because it’s there reading as a collage instead of fabric, and later on you’ll see me use portrait fabric again in a way I was happy with. And this one has like funny things in it, so down here it says, “Nkem (sp?) weds oyinbo man.” And Nkem is a short form of my name. The full form of my name is Nkem Njideka (?). So I’m Njideka, but I can also be Nkemji (sp?). So Nkem is a weird short form of my name, and it says, “Nkem marries a white man.” And that was a play on one of the newspaper articles that came out the day after my wedding. I wish I kept it, but it was like, “Dora Akunyili’s daughter marries a white.” And that was it. This is my studio from when I did the residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and this is a piece in progress to give an idea of scale. And this piece – I don’t know if I said already – this piece was influenced by (inaudible) painting. And that’s a finished version of it, and the title of this piece is I Always Face You, Even When It Seems Otherwise. And of course this goes to that anxiety about turning my back on my people. So with the title of this I reread Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, and in the book there’s a scene where the main character is about to go to the United Kingdom for school, and the whole village had contributed money for his education, so before he left they all called him, and they had to give him advice about his future, the dos and don’ts of when you get to the U. K. And one of the things that kept coming back to is that he shouldn’t marry a foreigner, and they were all trying to explain to him why, and finally this guy got up and said, “The problem with marrying a foreigner isn’t that she’ll leave you,” which is what a lot of the people were saying, and he said, “The problem with it is that while she is with you she’ll make you turn your back on your people.” And I felt like that really hit the nail on the anxiety I felt in my extended family about my marriage. So this work is really talking about that. It’s almost saying like it’s not an either-or choice, there’s a space where the two can exist, and it is possible to face my husband and my heritage at the same time. And with this work the transfers in it, because I use transfers in different ways – sometimes I’m using it to imbue the work with cultural and historical content, so I talked about the one where it was a music theme – and with this one the work is chronological. So this was my brother’s wedding from 2011. A lot of the pictures in this area were from 2004 to 2009, and then it goes back to images from my childhood, from pictures from the Eighties and Nineties, and so I was thinking of it as going back in time in my history and my heritage. So for this area I was thinking of if that’s as far back as I can go in time. So just thinking of the process I used to come up with those images. The question I had for myself was if I had to take my culture, Igbo, which is my tribe, and put it into photographs, what will it be, how do you, what is the essence of Igobness, if that’s possible, in photographs. So just the little things I will point out. This is Igbo-Ukwu pots which is the oldest artifact that has been found in my part of Nigeria. This is Nnamdi Azikiwe who was the only person from Eastern Nigeria to fight for Nigeria’s independence. This guy here, it’s hard to see, but I saw him again in September when I went back home. He’s a huge Nollywood actor, and his name is Pete Edochie, and the reason why he’s popular is that when I was young they did a TV version of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and if you’ve read it Okonkwo is the main character in it, and he’s usually thought of as, like you don’t get any more Igbo than Okonkwo, and he played Okonkwo so he’s always thought of as like this (inaudible) Igbo man. But then there are also lots of images – so when I was making this work at the Studio Museum, Ojukwu died. Okukwu, I mentioned him earlier – this is too small – but there is a photograph of him in his military attire, but there are also pictures from his burial. So not my generation, but my dad fought in this, and a number of other uncles. But way before I was born, in the late Sixties there was a civil war in Nigeria where Eastern Nigeria wanted to break away, and Ojukwu as the leader of Eastern Nigeria. And if you’ve read Chimamanda’s Half of a Yellow Sun, it was about that. Even though Igbo’s lost and they didn’t break away, people still think of Ojukwu as the father of Igboness, and just the war is something that is very important to lots of Igbo people because so many families were affected by it and (inaudible) that is never talked of but it’s a time-marker for people of my parents’ generation. So they never really talk about the war, but they always talk of things in terms of before the war and after the way, that really is the big time-marker of their lives. So that’s one of the panels of it. So I didn’t say this, so I was doing a lot of couple pieces, and then I slowly shifted to group and social setting pieces, where I really wanted to challenge myself to keep talking about what I wanted to but not really too much on the image of the two people, me and my husband, as a backdrop to figuratively and literally like project all these other themes onto. So with this, I’m continuing my fusion of references and experiences, working on my lexicon, so if you keep this in mind, this area back here with all the milk and sugar and tea things, it comes back again in another work, and this is called 5 Umezebi, just thinking of a party I would have gone to as a young child. We lived in 7B, so this would be neighbor’s house, and that’s a detail from it, and you see the tea things there again. This is titled Something Split and New, and the title is based off Something Torn and New, which is in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s book about the language in African literature and also preserving cultural memory. And that’s a detail from it. Also loosely based on the first time my husband came to Nigeria, and he was interrogated, poor guy. He hadn’t even, we had just started dating. So you see the tea things coming to this piece and become their own work. So I had done the couple piece, I had done the group pieces, and then I wanted to play with images that didn’t have a figure in it at all so I could really explore the space and have the viewer be more implicated in it. So to work, so with this, this is called Tea Time in New Haven, and I was thinking of tea culture in Nigeria and how it is one of those things we’ve inherited from the British, but of course it’s turned into its own odd thing that if a British person saw this they might know it’s tea because of the teakettle, but it’s not really tea the way they know it anymore. And there are also a lot of class notes being, going on, on what the products are, which products and they are not there. If you see it in real life, the Weetabix has like a dollar sticker on it, which speaks to like you bought this from outside Nigeria and things like that. So the next – and with this, too, this also is like an exercise in the languages of image-making. It’s hard to talk about that if you don’t see this in real life, but with this I kept trying to push this similar transition from one way of articulating something to the other, so it’s playing with painting, collage, printmaking, drawing. So, for instance, if you look at this Will of God Special Bread, half of the – yeah, so thinking of like religion and how it’s kind of grown into this crazy thing in Nigeria. So with this, I didn’t want to paint it because I wanted it to be clear that this exists. So I actually, it was a picture I took from a roadside. So I printed out and half of it is cut out and glued on the thing as collage, and then the bottom half is painted, but you really can’t tell which is painted and which is collage unless you’re in front of it in real life. But also like with the Peak Milk, it’s glued on – the dark part of it is the same picture printed one layer darker, cut out and glued on it here – whereas with the Milo it’s collaged on and the darker part is a wash on it. And with the St Louis Sugar, I think the top is transferred, the side is collaged, and the other side is painted. So it’s like this visual game if you’re in front of it. That’s really talking about hand production but also image-making in the age of mechanical production. So now I’m going to go into the – sorry, I’m going to try and be fast – I’m going to go into the single figure and the portrait series. So this is a painting of Prince Baltasar Carlos by Velázquez who is someone I looked at a lot in undergrad and I still do. So I used him as a starting point, so as my influence, and I did this painting after him. So this is painting called The Beautiful Ones, and the title comes from a book written by a Ghanaian called, the writer is Ayi Kwei Armah, and the book is called The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, really talking of my parents’ generation. So with The Beautiful Ones I’m thinking hopefully that’s my generation and they’ve been born. But, you know, Rob Storr talks about encounters within paintings, or moments in paintings when artists wink at each other, and that’s something I try to do sometimes in the works. So like with the Manet work, and this is another one. So I did this one, but I wasn’t satisfied with the colors, so I decided to do another one. I felt like I wanted to move farther away from the tradition I was, I wanted to move farther away from Velázquez, so I referenced it, but at the same time I was signaling a difference from it. So this is The Beautiful Ones, Series #1, and then this is Series #2, and with this one, and in some of my other works, I am engaging in pop vernacular, so really thinking of areas where the mechanical production is pushed up, so taping things up and rolling it, it’s almost like a silkscreen, and having that exist side by side with the area that is definitely handmade. So with the work there’s always that constant putting of disparate elements together. This is an image of my sister during her First Holy Communion. Oh, just like what to talk about, I’ll try to go quickly about this doll because it’s fascinating, but these are called Clonette dolls and I played with it when I was growing up, but these dolls are produced in Ghana for consumption by West African children, but it’s based on the traditional wooden Akua’ba dolls. So it’s Ghanaians trying to do a remake of their traditional wooden dolls. It’s done in plastic, it’s a little Caucasian girl carrying a teddy bear and flowers, things that are not really part of our experience growing up in Nigeria and Ghana and other West African countries. But then just continuing this back and forth it’s now a big collector’s item for designers in Europe. So this is another single portrait piece. This is called “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born” Might Not Hold True For Much Longer. So with this I was thinking also of the new generation and all the transfers of women. So you have my mother, you have Chimamanda, you have Nneka who is a phenomenal musician, you have my little sister, so like a lot of women in Nigeria who are distinguishing themselves. You have Omotola, the Nollywood actress that I showed earlier. You have my grandmother’s table that has become a stand-in for her, and you’ll see more of it soon. But what I wanted to point out is this area over here. So just talking about having a lexicon and building. These are from my grandmother’s table and I’ve been using those a lot in my recent work. So this piece is called Predecessors, and it’s one, it’s the first of another series I’ve been working on which is the Predecessors Series. And with this series I’m really trying to push thematic colors, so having a painting that is centered around, or centering an image around different types of red. So this is the work in my studio in progress, and this is the left panel and this is the right panel, and with this, it’s hard to point out if I’m not in front of it, but I was thinking of generations. And so what I did for the transfers is that everything that was transferred in this panel had a counterpoint that was transferred in that panel but from another generation. So if Chinua Achebe, who was the Nigerian writer from the Seventies and Eighties was in this panel, Chimamanda Adichie, who is thought of as his literary goddaughter, was in this panel. If Kris Okotie, who is the Michael Jackson musician, was in this panel, then like 2face, who is the younger hip musician is in this panel. If – what’s her name – Bianca Onoh, who was Miss Nigeria when I was growing up and married Ojukwu, was in this panel, Agbani Darego, who was the first African to win Miss World, she was like Miss Nigeria and then won Miss World in maybe the early 2000s, was in this panel. So there was like a conversation between both but across time. And this is the full piece. But then something I also started trying to do in this work, and I’ve continued into my new pieces is to not just depict this third space or liminal space but to actually start making moves that puts the viewer in that. And it’s hard to explain it if you’re not in front of it, experiencing it, but what I’m doing is that I’m playing with western perspective so I’m playing with the point of view and the vanishing points and where the viewer stands, so when you’re in front of it you’re not quite sure were you’re meant to be because sometimes the point of view will favor you if stand here, and sometimes it will favor you if you stand here, sometimes it will favor this horizon, sometimes it will favor something lower. So you really begin to have this weird undulation that happens underfoot if you’re in front of the work where you’re not quite sure where you stand or where you are, or what’s happening. But something I really like about working with the two- and three-panel pieces is that it really begins to give the viewer a cinematic feel, which I’m very interested in. So when you’re looking at the work, so with the works I want people to look at them from far away, but I also want them to come up close and really take a visual journey though it. So I like that you can come up close and spend some time, say, looking at this head, which is painted in a way that reminds me nothing of Northern Renaissance painting, and that you can maybe to some extent the legs, too, but then you can move an inch and then you’re looking at a photograph from Nigeria, from 1994. You can move an inch, you’re looking at an area that speaks to geometric abstraction. You can move a little bit, and you’re looking at my Brooklyn apartment. So actually your eyes are traversing place, time, cultures, continents, and all those things at the same time. So this is the second painting in the Predecessors Series. This is called Sunday Morning, and just talking about my lexicon, there’s my grandmother’s table again, that has become a stand-in for my grandmother, a stand-in for life in the village, but a stand-in also for like Nigeria in the Seventies and Eighties. That’s my Los Angeles apartment, and that’s a family photograph from when I was young. So it’s just making this composition where the past is obtaining a place in the present. This is the piece that the billboard is based on. This is Mama, Mummy, and Mamma. So Mama is my grandmother who is here, but this is also a stand-in for her, her table. Mamma is my little sister and that’s what we call her, and this is my mum when she was young. So it’s like this three, so the Predecessors have been dealing more with generations, and so there’s like three generations in this one piece, and the background is based off of a Hammershøi painting, who is a Dutch painter who did a lot of really intimate paintings of his wife and family and sister. So this (inaudible) of different references. This is the last, actually I’m working on another Predecessor piece in my studio right now, so this is the second to the last Predecessor work. This is called The Twain Shall Meet, and of course the back is also borrowed from a Hammershøi painting, but it’s, it’s borrowed from a Hammershøi painting, but instead of using Hammershøi’s limited palette I’m pumping up the colors so I begin to reference Josef Albers and his nested rectangle and his homage to the square, but also Peter Halley who comes down Albers’ linage and I studied with him when I was in grad school. This is called I Still Face You, but, so I did this first and I wanted to expand that cinematic field, so I ended up making side panels for it. So this is the right panel. And so I go back to portrait fabrics which I had kept for a long time and had wanted to use but hadn’t really found the right time to use it. And so this is the first time I really used it without putting any kind of wash on it and just let it exist as its own thing, so it ended up introducing a new language to the work and also gave the painting a different texture. And this fabric was done from my mother’s senatorial campaign. This is the other panel of it, the left panel. It’s called Bush Girl. The image in here is from Vlisco’s Heritage Campaign. They did an ad of their Heritage series, their old iconic series, and this was an image on that, so playing up this label of bush girl which is what I was called when I went to Lagos, but having this image as very cosmopolitan at the same time. And this is, these are the three works together. So then I got fascinated with trees, and I had worked with cassava before – remember I mentioned this plant – so I did this piece called Cassava Garden, where it’s playing with cassava, which is a farm crop, playing with a potted plant that I’ll have, like people have in their L.A. apartments. The portrait fabric still comes in, and I begin to use outlines in a way I haven’t done before, so really depicting the realities of my multiple world and languages. And this is the last one. This is the piece I did for the Whitney – oh, no, sorry – this was the piece that was in the Armory, and it’s called Portals, but it really continues this idea of wormholes and just things that connect to other places and time, and I wanted to read a short paragraph by Brenda Cooper in her book titled A New Generation of African Writers: Migration, Material Culture, and Language. So she says, “The massive weight of little events, small solid possessions, and apparently insignificant happenings are what embed one in one’s time and place. A visit to the supermarket, a bus ride to work, the tea break, the preparation of meals, the list is infinite, and the details may be minute, and yet this is the fabric that comprises social lives and identities. The dailyness of life becomes part of new realities, invested with past experiences remembered from other places, spaces, landscapes, and climates. Thank you.
More from this series
A Conversation with Beta-Local | Live from the Whitney
Interactions of Color: Alex Da Corte and David Breslin in Conversation | Live from the Whitney
Photographic Activities: A Salon | Live from the Whitney
Curating the Whitney Biennial 2019 | Live from the Whitney
Pier Groups: A Conversation with Jonathan Weinberg
Derek Fordjour in Conversation with Jennie Goldstein