Secret Message

Secret Message

Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s child portrait series “The Beautyful Ones,” a portion of which you can view starting tomorrow at the Yale Center for British Art, speaks loudly and quietly, in multiple languages and at untold depths.

Derived from photographs, the children she depicts—relatives and friends from her childhood in Nigeria as well as strangers living in the country’s present—are real people in real environments. This documentary truth lends the mixed-media paintings a visceral realism even while the many styles and techniques used to render them convey that there’s much more to decode. Most prominently, Akunyili Crosby uses a “photocopy solvent transfer” technique to graft tightly arrayed images “culled from Nigerian pop culture magazines, commemorative printed fabrics, personal family albums, and own photography” into varying elements of her scenes, filling some of their walls, floors, furniture, appliances and clothing with contextual or associative material that I imagine only the artist could adequately explain.

The transferred images are wispier and more fragile-looking than literal cut-and-paste collage—like “tissues of memory,” says YCBA deputy director Martina Droth, quoting the artist—yet they’re strong enough to create decisive visual boundaries. Objects and surfaces not filled with photocopy transfers are expressed in acrylic paint, the application ranging between moderately and extremely minimal. There’s variance in the portrait subjects’ clothing, but their faces and exposed skin are rendered mostly in that moderate style, their contours visible but looking somewhat flat as if overexposed. The photocopy transfers create an isolated scrapbook effect, but the hard distinctions between the paintings’ broadest elements take the effect much further, evoking the fragmentary nature of memory itself.

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Indeed, Akunyili Crosby is “insistent that the works are not about nostalgia but about memory and experience,” Droth says, and it’s a revealing distinction. The artist’s resistance to nostalgia tracks with what Droth calls a “pessimistic” view of her home country in light of rampant corruption, a view that was edified or perhaps crystallized when she read a novel published many years before her birth: Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968). It was set in nearby Ghana, but in “comment on the challenges of revolution, address the unfulfilled promises of the post-colonial African nation-state, and look ahead from a place of lost hope,” as the YCBA describes it, the book hit home for Akunyili Crosby. Started in 2013, her “The Beautyful Ones” series—now you know where she got the title—is in part an attempt to find hope in the people of Nigeria, the ones who will be better than their parents.

Droth reports that the artist had observed some degree of positive shift in her homeland after she moved to America, where she still lives, in 1999. You can spot that ever-so-slightly improved outlook in the title of a 2013 painting that, according to the exhibit’s curator, Hilton Als, “anticipated” the broader series: “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born” Might Not Hold True For Much Longer. The painting is a self-portrait, with the artist’s body and head turned away from the viewer. She sits on a quilt of images featuring portraits of “powerful women,” says Droth, who added that one of those women is the artist’s mother, Dora Nkem Akunyili.

Dora, who died of cancer in 2014, was indeed a powerful woman, but more than that, she was by various accounts a civic hero—an all-too-rare “beautyful one.” She was a pharmacist and academic who served within Nigeria’s Petroleum Trust Fund—a program intended to invest a portion of national oil profits into public improvements—before heading up NAFDAC (Nigeria’s FDA equivalent) and later the country’s Federal Ministry of Information and Communication. In a 2009 interview, she revealed that she got the appointment to lead NAFDAC, which came as a total surprise, because Muhammadu Buhari, then the leader of the PTF and now Nigeria’s president, was impressed that she had returned an excess disbursement instead of pocketing it—not a high bar in either my or Dora’s estimation.

She went on to say that as the top regulator of Nigerian food and drug systems, her efforts to root out fraud, corruption and widespread public endangerment led to constant death threats against her and her family, a kidnapping attempt against her son, bombings of NAFDAC facilities across the country and, in 2003, a literal assassination attempt by at least half a dozen shooters. (“A bullet grazed my skull… It was a miracle that I survived.”) She continued that Nigeria’s laws were so weak that the fines they prescribed would never be enough to deter established offenders, and that the court system was so slow and ineffectual that, six years later, the people who allegedly ordered her assassination hadn’t even been tried yet. Indeed, she said, the cases of alleged drug counterfeiters caught as early as 1996 hadn’t yet gone to trial.

At the time of that interview, Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group now famous for its use of child soldiers, had just been formed with the goal of ruling Nigeria. Eight battle-torn years later, an interview in W Magazine quoted Njideka explaining her attempts to show international audiences the side of Nigeria they won’t get from headline news: “People forget that life exists in these places. There are serious things that are wrong in the country, but people exist and thrive. We hang out. We get married. We talk as a family. We lie in bed together.” Four years after that, just last year, Dora’s husband and Njideka’s father, Dr. Chike Akunyili, was killed in a targeted hail of bullets. One day after that, Njideka and her siblings published a tribute to their father and an appeal to the public, writing in part:

In his final days, his heart was heavy about the state of things in Nigeria. He lamented about the struggles of people unable to pay for treatment anymore and about the unfortunate state of unrest where human life had lost its value.

His hope echoed that of his beloved wife and our mother, that Nigeria might lean on the forces of unity and shun disunity. That we might do the right thing, trusting that our potential lies in the goodness of the people and the greatness of the nation.

What happens if we move closer to these ideals?

His murder and death leave a gap that sorrow cannot fill.

May it not be in vain.

Remember, at the beginning, when I said Njideka’s “The Beautyful Ones” paintings speak at untold depths? What I was pointing to, in part, is the story of resilience hidden not just among the formal artistic merits and the charming domestic scenes and the innocent faces of children but also within the artist herself.

Written by Dan Mims. Image 1 features “The Beautyful Ones” Series #4 (2015) by Njideka Akunyil Crosby. Image 2 features “The Beautyful Ones” Series #1c (2014) by Njideka Akunyil Crosby. Photos © Njideka Akunyil Crosby and provided courtesy of the artist, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner.

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