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  • Articles by Sonali

    Exhibition review: Njideka Akunyili Crosby 'The Beautyful Ones'

    There is a new mini-exhibition of works by Visual Artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby (1983) at the National Portrait Gallery. It's a series of portraits called 'The Beautyful Ones’ of Nigerian children. She is an established artist and one of these works recently sold for £3.5 million.

    According to the exhibition’s introductory blurb ‘the series takes it title from the novel by the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) which laments for a better post-independent Africa. In depicting her siblings and family friends, Akunyili Crosby reinstates this hope in her own generation.’ The portraits, featuring her brother and sister, represent a modern, cosmopolitan Nigeria.

    They consist of layers of collage, life-size photos of her subjects and flat planes or blocks of colour (brown, green, yellow, pink). The light and airy effect is reminiscent of a David Hockney painting when he lived in LA.  Akunyili Crosby moved to LA from Nigeria herself at the age of sixteen.

    These large scale works are bold in terms of their composition but also seem quiet and tranquil, focusing on ordinary, everyday domestic scenes. ‘The Beautyful Ones’ Series #8 depicts a young boy wearing a traditional  Nigerian ‘Agbada’ robe, passed down from generation to generation, but a cassette-record player from the 1980s sits in the background. The combination of disparate elements is jarring. Apparently this sense of disconnection suggests Nigeria past and present, two worlds existing together simultaneously. The use of colour in terms of the picture’s terracotta tones gives a sense of Nigeria’s climate: a scorching dry heat.

    She subverts Western Art Historical traditions in 'The Beautyful Ones' Series #1C. It is a portrait of her sister based on Velazquez’s picture of Prince Baltasar Carlos. Akunyili Crosby’s sister wears her ‘Sunday best’ outfit, a jumpsuit, and replicates the Prince’s confident, proud posture. But she inverts the colour scheme of the original painting. Her sister’s outfit is filled with collage tinted a cool light grey-pink in contrast to the deep green black of the Prince’s costume, revealing how this European portrait tradition can be adapted across cultures.

    The portraits do need some decoding though. Every object here is loaded with personal or political significance. The areas of collage in all of these works are made up of paper cuttings (from newspapers and magazines) revealing contemporary Nigeria’s hybrid culture. This is a mix of traditional tribal history, British colonial past and American and Nigerian popular culture. Chances are you might not recognize some of the Nigerian stars depicted here.

    The pictures do have an abstract, patchwork-quilt quality. They work as a whole, from afar, in terms of their bold forms, patterned surfaces from Vlisco brand fabric and vibrant colour. Colour is the key here. Akunyili Crosby is an original and skilful colourist. The exhibition gives us a glimpse of her unique take on a modern Nigeria.

    Ends 3 February 2019

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