Updated: May 15, 2021
On Mondays, I teach art. I love instructing painting and drawing and breaking complex artistic ideas down so that they are able to be grasped by young minds. Teaching art is a lot like passing sand into these little ones’ hands. A lot of sand is going to get dropped along the way, but some is definitely going to stick. I love it. I love spending my Monday morning prepping for a lesson on an artist I love. I love researching more and more about that artist and the themes in his/her work. Along the way, while prepping my lessons, I find myself falling in love more with artists that I already admire. A couple of weeks ago, I taught about Njideka Akunyili Crosby, an artist I have long admired but now love.
I’ve looked up Akunyili Crosby for years, ever since I saw her work at the Baltimore Museum of Arts. I remember walking across the wood floors of the museum, amazed at the clean white lines of the walls and the beautiful architecture of the building. I remember turning a corner and being struck by these huge works on paper. Impressive, was the first word that came to my mind when I saw Akunyili Crosby’s work. I remember commenting to my friend that the figures in her work were larger than life and how difficult it would have been to render. As a figure painter myself, I wondered at her technical skills and longed to be that proficient. Her paintings are about many things--they’re about home, pop culture, politics, civil rights, and so much more. As I started to research her artistic process, I learned about her. Her experience as an immigrant, a Nigerian, a member of the Igbo tribe, an American, a wife, a woman, all are a part of her paintings.
I’ve been working on a definition of good art. I’ve developed a technical one (which you can read here: https://www.coffeeandcreativesproject.com/post/head-heart-and-hand ), which is based on how the artist interacts with his/her artwork. I’ve been thinking more and more about what makes ‘good’ art based on how the viewer interacts with the piece. The definition isn’t ready yet, but one aspect of it is: the longer the viewer interacts with the artwork, the more he/she can find details to enjoy. The longer I stand in front of Akunyili Crosby’s work, the more and more I fall in love with it, and the more details I notice. When I looked at her painting, “Dwell: Aso Ebi,” I noticed it has details that reveal themselves the longer you gaze at it (this is one of the paintings I saw at the BMA). The wallpaper and shadows are a collage of photos. The giant portrait on the wall is of her parents, and her own wedding portrait is below it. She has a tea kettle and a teacup sitting on the table. Plants are evident in the window. The wallpaper is a cloth which has a face printed on it (her mother’s). I found these details fascinating at the time, and now that I’ve listened to several of her artist talks, I appreciate these details even more.
“Dwell: Aso Ebi” is a self-portrait in more ways than one. The female figure in the painting is the artist herself. The artist is also depicted in the smaller photo leaning against the wall. That is the portrait of Akunyili Crosby’s wedding to her husband (an American man from Texas). The photo is leaning against the wall with the wedding portrait of Akunyili Crosby’s parents’ wedding portrait. The tea on the table is an important part of her Nigerian culture: as a former British colony tea is an intrical part of Nigerian history. The two plants that can be seen through the window are from the opposite sides of the world: one is native to California (where she lives now) and one is native to Nigeria.
When Akunyili Crosby talked about Nigeria in one of her artist’s lectures, many things struck a chord with me, one of them being that she hopes to bring dimension to the way people view Africa. She commented that often Americans’ view of Africa can lump the whole continent together, that the experience of being African, in the eyes of most Americans, means poverty and hardship no matter what tribe or country that person comes from. This is just not true, Akunyili Crosby states in her artist talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art (https://youtu.be/pUZijlho9CM). She has a deep love of Nigeria, as well as America. I highly recommend this talk (she says all the things I’m trying to say, far better than I am).
Another thing that Akunyili Crosby discusses in her Artist talk at MoCA, is how each generation of her family is different. Her grandmother’s life was centered around the village. Her parents’ life is centered around the city that they moved to. Now her life is international. My grandmother lived in basically the same place all of her life, my father has lived all over the world. When I talk of Akunyili Crosby’s experience being from many places and having home be many places, I think of my own family. Home base really is this small town in Missouri, but it is also Maryland and Texas and Germany. Home is many things to Akunyili Crosby, and home is many things to me.
When I think of Akunyili Crosby, I think of a woman who thinks very deeply about the things she creates. She is intentional in every image she places in her paintings, whether it is a tea kettle or a sugar bowl or a photograph or plant. She is well versed in her craft; her paintings are lovely to look at. Learning about her, among other artists, gives me a new way to think and create. I hope to create as intentionally and as beautifully as she. I hope to find the art in my home and make my home into my art.