The skilled painter shed light on the behind-the-scenes of her artistic process
This year marks the fifth consecutive year of The Betty Jean and Wayne Thiebaud Endowed Lecture. The lecture, put together by The Department of Art and Art History and the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, invites acclaimed artists to offer their knowledge to the UC Davis community.
The occasion this year, which took place on Nov. 12, was special in many ways. First, the featured artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby, had to deliver her lecture over Zoom. Second, it was also a celebration of acclaimed UC Davis alumni and lecture sponsor Wayne Thiebaud’s centennial! And like any birthday that happened in the last nine months, it wasn’t complete without a ten minute compilation video of everyone you know wishing you happy birthday. After a warm celebration and welcoming, Akunyili Crosby began discussing her work.
She called in from her studio in Los Angeles. Her Zoom background displayed the white walls behind her, filled with paintings in progress and various supplies. She first explained she was born in Enugu, Nigeria, spending her adolescence between her ancestral village and Lagos. She moved to the U.S. at the age of 16 and later went on to study painting at multiple institutions. Akunyili Crosby spoke of how this plays into her personhood and art, how she values her dual identities and the ways they intersect. She explained her perspective as “always experiencing life through a Nigerian lens” and emphasized that “the Nigeria part and America part sit side by side.”
Akunyili Croby continued her presentation with a brief history of Nigeria, clarifying that understanding the past is needed to understand her art. She scrolled through various images. All of them subtly depicted Britain’s colonial rule over Nigeria, featuring clothes and traditions adapted from Britain. Though Nigeria became independent in 1960, the remains of colonial rule linger.
“The things they brought with don’t vanish. Leftover British presence, you can see in our culture,” she said. This adaptation is a driving force for Akunyili Croby. “200 tribes, British presence, and American pop culture weave together to build something new. This is what I’m trying to put my hand on.”
In addition to change and adaptation in Nigeria as a country, she also talked about looking closer and noting the difference in it’s people. More specifically, generationally. She said that she liked mapping the changes in the country throughout her family’s different perspectives, stating “Tradition gets more complex with each subsequent generation.” She used fashion, language and opinion as evidence of this change. “Tradition is not static. It is something that is always shifting, changing and reinventing itself.”
As soon as she displayed her first painting, everyone could feel how personal her work is. The work she showed was Nwantinti, a piece she did in 2012. The effect of looking at one of her paintings for the first time is overwhelming. The eye is instantly captured by the incredible detail in the painting and the bold colors. When looking closer, individuals realize the dimension has a source. Akunyili Crosby’s paintings are all done on paper, normally seven-by-seven and are a mix of paint, photo transfer and collage. Individuals can zoom in to see much of the piece is made up of various small images. This detail makes her paintings compelling. The longer individuals look at them, the more interesting they get.
The audience can tell the images have been carefully chosen. A good work to emulate this is Predecessors, 2013. She walked the audience through painting, explaining “This is really an ode to Nigerian women doing amazing things I admire.” She can pick out each image and explain why she chose it and where it came from, giving the painting infinite layers and stories to tell. She briefly explained her process of acquiring the pictures. She has been collecting them since 2009 on an external hard drive she lovingly referred to as “an extension of my arm.” The process takes a long time; the image must resonate with her to be included.
She explained she is driven by “duality in work” and aims to present her pieces with various pockets of detail. This is evident. It is obvious her painting skills are masterful, but it is the contrast of the detailed areas and the purposefully simplified techniques that complete the composition. She wants to “create space that doesn’t fit in one box” and does it perfectly.
Despite slight technical difficulties, Njideka Akunyili Crosby delivered an impressive, engrossing lecture. Her work renders people speechless and descriptions of her work add layers beyond comprehension. Her paintings are an amalgamation of a person, each piece solidifying a lifetime of memories and meaning.