Intimate Moments of Predecessors
Like a hidden gem tucked away on the second floor of the Contemporary Arts Center, sits Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s recently installed exhibition, Predecessors. This solo exhibition on the CAC’s second floor, lower level, narrates Crosby’s life as a Nigerian-born American citizen, who navigates ideologies such as the “third space” and aspects of post-colonialist culture, while redefining our understanding of intimacy.
The lighting within the gallery space is astoundingly different compared to the bright, neighboring exhibition, Jane Benson’s Half-Truths. Instead, Predecessors invites audiences into the warm, low-lit space featuring Crosby’s chronicle of assimilation. With the exception of one bold self-portrait, [Then You Lost Me (2013)], Crosby’s mammoth multi-media acrylic and photo-transfer collaged portraits on paper hang by simple binder clips—forgoing frames completely, and remaining as close to viewers as possible. It’s worth noting that while the installation of the works hang close to viewers, selected pieces from Crosby’s encompassing portfolio have sold from $100,000 to $3 million, in the past year.
Though the CAC has taken archival precaution to preserve the works by dimming the gallery lights so low, keeping the work unframed is a courageous move—perhaps to allow the work to be more accessible and personal.
Crosby’s interest in the “third space”, meaning a stand-alone culture in itself created from other cultures and influences, is apparent and a crucial element in her work. Nigeria itself can be said to reflect this theory of a hybrid third space, in that it is a country wherein its European and American influences cultivated a completely new separate, “third” culture.
She also demonstrates the post-colonial shifts in Nigerian fashion, pop-culture, and media. For example, Nigeria was under control of the British government until 1960, and Nigerian leaders were often depicted wearing British-inspired suits and top hats. Crosby likewise includes in her photo collaged transfers later Nigerian pop-musicians who were clearly inspired by Michael Jackson’s iconic military jacket ensembles—reflecting a more reciprocal cultural exchange.
In Crosby’s piece Mama, Mummy, and Mamma (Predecessors #2) (2014), she showcases these generational gaps and influences through her hybrid process of paint, collaged layers and appropriated images.
The artist also toys with how to depict a subject as more than just a mere figure. For instance, Crosby portrays her deceased grandmother through imagery of a decorated kitchen table. This table actually is a recreation of the real table that was left untouched in her grandmother’s Nigerian home after her passing. In the same piece, Crosby also depicts the living via a realistic painting of her sister and a transferred photo of her mother. All of her subjects appear to interact: her sister’s gaze is turned to the aforementioned table, which stands in place for their grandmother; while her mother’s photo smiles at the portrait of her sister from the background.
A year prior, Crosby also explored objects representing people in her diptych under the same name of the show, Predecessors (2013). The artist painted herself on the left side of the canvas, looking across this imagined space to her grandmother’s table—recreated in paint to look as if it is actually in Crosby’s U.S. home. In doing so, Crosby transcends geographical distance and combines her U.S home and her grandmother’s house in Nigeria—playing with her duality of homes to create an imaginary third space.
The works ultimately depict a quietness and sensitivity about their subjects—and do so in a way that feels as though Crosby intimately connects with her viewers by illustrating moments of domesticity.
One of these personal moments can be seen in Crosby’s piece, Ike Ya (2016). The artist depicted herself and her husband in an embrace that begins to feel intrusive if a viewer looks for a little too long. The figures abstain from eye contact with the viewers, and Crosby’s gaze in the work is directed to the back of the living room. Her husband’s face is camouflaged by photo transfers of her family that lead from the background, over the couch, and crawl up her own arm.
In doing so, Crosby portrays her white, American husband as being void of all detail except for his clothing and hair—allowing Crosby to photo-transfer patterns of Nigerian culture like tattoos onto his skin. A viewer might speculate that this patterning on his skin seemingly reflects how Crosby seeks to unify her Nigerian culture into aspects of her American life—physically representing the idea of a third space/hybrid. While the overall work resonates as tender, the scene also gracefully—visibly—marries Crosby’s displaced Nigerian history into her American lifestyle.
The Predecessors exhibition is a definite must-see, as it offers a genuine passion for narrative work and cleverness of multimedia. Crosby’s work seeks to redefine intimacy, and emphasizes the impression that places, culture, and people can leave in our lives.
Predecessors will be on display at the Contemporary Arts Center now through October 1, 2017.
Written by Macartney Greer