The Los Angeles-based artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby – her first name is pronounced “nnn-jee-deh-car” – is having her first European show at the Victoria Miro Gallery in London. Born in 1983, she moved to America from Nigeria at 16. Her work is figurative and richly patterned, combining collage, drawing, painting and printmaking. Home, family and the artefacts and trappings of diaspora are recurring motifs. What doesn’t come across in reproduction is the scale. These are big works, measuring three or four metres across. A recent Whitney Museum commission was a billboard viewed from the High Line in New York. Yet for such large pieces they are extremely intimate. Her settings are domestic and her sitters come from a tight circle: Akunyili Crosby herself, her American husband, her family and friends.
Another surprise is that she works on paper: big, thick, deckle-edged sheets of it, hung up in the gallery with bulldog clips. The surfaces of her pictures are built from layers of acrylic paint, charcoal and coloured pencil in vintage, jewel-like colours: mahogany and maroon, peach and lime, ice-blue and old rose.
The patterns she creates open up many readings. Dresses, wallpaper, furnishings and fabrics are rendered with attentive detail. She also uses transfers: a technique in which ink is applied to the paper from photographs using solvents. She weaves images from her Nigerian childhood – family photos, pictures of pop stars, generals, politicians, failed coups and adverts – into the surface in ways that overlap and merge with the figures and their surroundings. Like scenes from a private scrapbook these can only be read close-up.
“Facets: Screen Wall” (2016)
The title of the exhibition is “Portals”. Akunyili Crosby’s doors, grilles, windows and screens are painted with confidence, off-kilter colours and zones of intense pattern. This is one of the more minimal works in the show. Space in her pictures is either overloaded with detail or depicted with blocks of saturated, ice-cream colours. “Facets” is highly ambiguous yet pleasingly solid and painted in two shades of deep raspberry.
“Ike Ya” (2016)
Sometimes these paintings resemble sets for daytime-TV shows with the props carefully chosen: toothpicks, bowls, a set of glasses. The kerosene lamp on the coffee table in “Ike Ya” is a recurrent theme: electricity in rural Nigeria is intermittent. Spaces are cluttered and ordinary. As in many houses, there is too much furniture. People sit around, embrace, think, talk, stare into space. The air of the paintings is stilled, lethargic. They are like still lives that happen to include figures.
“Super Blue Omo” (2016)
Time hanging heavy is a feature too in “Super Blue Omo”. As in a short story by Raymond Carver, the effect lies not so much in action but in the accumulation of observed detail. A lone woman sits by a table set for tea for two. An advert plays on the television. It is for Blue Omo, a Nigerian brand of washing powder from the 1980s that has been discontinued. It is a melancholic image. The woman looks pensively into space. The room is saturated in blue light from the television but the woman is not watching it.
“Mother and Child” (2016)
In the 1890s, Jean-Édouard Vuillard painted interiors featuring his mother and sister. The domestic world was fused together by pattern; his figures were camouflaged and constrained. Here, a glamorous woman is turned away from us. Her dress, the wall, the floor, the rug and the crochet cover on the chair all vie for attention. The image is laced with mother-child imagery. The wallpaper behind her is a commemorative wax cloth. It reads, “Vote Prof. Dora Nkem Akunyili, For Service to the People”. This is the artist’s mother, a well-known political figure in Nigeria. Yet the picture doesn’t feel claustrophobic. It feels cool, distanced. The way to the exit is clear. Spatially, the room flows to the door and the gaze of the woman goes with it.
“See Through” (2016)
A feature of these paintings is how Akunyili Crosby deals with space outdoors. Daylight has to be imagined. The outside is accessed through photographs, televisions or laptops. Glimpses through windows or doors are screened by vegetation or filled with flat colour. Here, Grace Jones is on the television, which has been infected by the green-orange sprigging of the wallpaper. What seems to be a window is not a window but a pale screen blocked out with repeating photographs of other houses, other windows, other people.
Portals Victoria Miro Gallery until November 5th