The Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) presents a selection of six works by Njideka Akunyili Crosby (b. 1983), Yale MFA 2011, from September 22, 2022 through January 22, 2023. The exhibition will travel to the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, where it will be on view February 15 through June 12 2023.
This is the third and final exhibition in a series curated by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author Hilton Als in collaboration with the YCBA and each artist. Previous exhibitions featured works by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (2019) and Celia Paul (2018). Als’s essays about the series will be published by the YCBA and Yale University Press in fall 2023.
“Our museum offers a rare opportunity to view Akunyili Crosby’s contemporary painting assemblages in close proximity to numerous examples of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British portraiture,” said Courtney J. Martin, Paul Mellon Director of the YCBA. “Within this context, her works emerge as a part of this longer tradition while providing a fresh appraisal of that history. Her show also marks the first solo exhibition of a Yale School of Art graduate at the YCBA.”
Als and Akunyili Crosby selected works from The Beautyful Ones, the artist’s ongoing series of intimate portraits of Nigerian children, including members of her own family. The title references a classic 1968 novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, by Ghanaian author Ayi Kwei Armah. Published in a year of worldwide civic and social unrest, Armah’s book comments on the challenges of revolution, addresses the unfulfilled political promises of the postcolonial African nation-state, and looks ahead from a place of lost hope. The YCBA exhibition will also feature the painting “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born” Might Not Hold True For Much Longer (2013), a precursor to the series that anticipates the arrival of a new generation of children free from the corruption and self-interest depicted in Armah’s novel.
Using acrylic paint, textiles, collage, and photocopy solvent transfers, the artist creates a substrate of images culled from Nigerian pop culture magazines, commemorative printed fabrics, personal family albums, and her own photography. These fragments, which can include fashion models, dictators, or family portraits, are carefully pieced together in layers rich with Nigerian and American culture and politics.
“Akunyili Crosby’s paintings present a world that is built out of layers, and deeply committed to the depth to be found on the surfaces that make up intimate and private spaces, including the body,” Als noted. “Her canvases are alive with, and to, her understanding of her various subjects’ layered, complex, and vulnerable lives.”
History, philosophy, and fantasy permeate the walls of Akunyili Crosby’s quiet domiciles. Furnished with vintage decor and analog electronics, the interiors evoke her own 1980s-era youth, suggesting that childhood is as much a construct of memory and culture as it is a temporal stage of existence. Everyday scenes and spaces become sites of dislocation and harmony, vulnerability and hope, as Akunyili Crosby delves into the diasporic experience to explore what it means to belong or to be an outsider.
Akunyili Crosby is a leading contemporary artist whose work offers critical perspectives on postcolonial history and experience as well as transnational identities. Born and raised in Nigeria, she came to the United States in 1999 to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Swarthmore College, before obtaining an MFA from Yale University. Now based in Los Angeles, Akunyili Crosby has been the subject of acclaimed solo exhibitions in both the United States and the United Kingdom, notably at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and the National Portrait Gallery, London. In 2017 she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant.”
The exhibition is organized by the Yale Center for British Art and curated by Hilton Als, staff writer for the New Yorker and associate professor of writing at Columbia University.