The Nigerian artist who is exploding the myth of the ‘authentic African experience’
Njideka Akunyili Crosby was 16 before she took her first art class. She talks about why most of the figures in her paintings appear to be doing nothing at all, Mean Girls at Yale, and the debt she owes Harlem’s Studio Museum. By Sophie Heawood.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby is walking around the Victoria Miro gallery in east London, calmly examining her paintings. The collaged pictures of herself and her family lie on the floor, waiting to be hung; she brought the last two in her own luggage from Los Angeles, having stayed up all night before the flight to finish them.
She is seven months pregnant with her first baby, though you would barely notice. “People in LA say, ‘what’s your birth plan’, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know!’ My whole mind has just been on this show,” she says, her laughter resonating around the vast white room. She adds that, being from Nigeria, the whole fuss around pregnancy in California seems a little unnecessary. “I’m from the village,” she says, wryly, “and women there seem to give birth just fine without all this stuff.”
She moved to the US at the age of 16, and discovered that her homeland didn’t really matter to the outside world, other than as the scene of crises. “I don’t want to write off the horrible things that happen in various African countries, but we’re not all walking around thinking about Aids and Boko Haram all the time. Those things affect us, but lots of times our problems are the silly daily problems that you have here. How do I get a date? Will my pay cheque be enough for this dress I want to wear to the wedding?”
Her heroine is the author Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, who also moved from Nigeria to the US to study. They have met a couple of times: “She has this short story where the main character goes to a writing workshop, and she writes about someone whose boss is sexually harrassing her. And the teacher says to her, ‘Why don’t you write about an authentic African experience?’ Well, what is authentic – you think we don’t have these issues in Nigeria, too? Stuck in traffic, 30 minutes late for a meeting – that is the bulk of life. It’s a horrible example, but even in the midst of a tragedy like the Ebola epidemic – most people are probably just living their lives. That’s why so many of my figures [in the paintings] are really doing nothing. I think people sensationalise places in their heads, so I wanted to show just how normal life is in Nigeria.”