Njideka Akunyili: The Beautyful ones
“There’s that joy of light bouncing through layers of pigment and hitting something else and bouncing back into our eyes which is really the excitement of painting, visually, so I play a lot with mediums I am always pushing the acrylics.”
Pushing acrylic, pastel, colour pencils, charcoal, marble dust, collage, and transfers, Njideka Akunyili creates work that spans many materials and techniques to evoke a duality of cultural and social references. And it is exactly this bringing together of disparate and multiple perspectives that gives Akunyili’s work a sense of excitement and relevance as she achieves a synergy of surface in her image making. Akunyili was born in Enugu, Nigeria in 1983, and moved to the U.S. in 1999 to complete her higher education. Before embarking on an undergraduate course, Akunyili took a year to adjust to life in America, studying at Philadelphia Community College. Alongside her studies in American Literature, American History and Calculus, Akunyili took her first oil painting class. She has gone on to receive a BA (hons) at Swarthmore College, PA in 2004; a Post Baccalaureate Certificate at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2006; and to graduate with an MFA from Yale University School of Art, CT in 2011. With this sturdy grounding in Western art history, Akunyili has been finding ways to test and subvert the canon she was schooled in to express a different kind of experience, and the momentum surrounding this bright emerging artist is steadily building.
In 2011 Akunyili was appointed Artist in Residence at The Studio Museum, Harlem along with artists Meleko Mokgosi and Xaviera Simmons. Akunyili has been included in a number of group exhibitions in the U.S., such as Primary Sources, a group exhibition with her fellow resident artists at The Studio Museum and Lost and Found: Belief and Doubt in Contemporary Pictures, Museum of New Art Detroit, MI where she exhibited a new work,Cradle Your Conquest 2012. It is after these successes that so many keen observers (myself included), have been following her progress Stateside, and eagerly anticipating her presence in London. In August this year, Akunyili was selected for the group exhibition Cinematic Visions, Painting at the Edge of Reality, at Victoria Miro Gallery, and she is currently showing four new works in a two-person show I Always Face You, Even When it Seems Otherwise with American artist Simone Leigh until 14 December at Tiwani Contemporary.
What struck me when viewing these works in person was that, despite the generosity of the images and how they had intrigued me from afar, it is really impossible to fully experience Akunyili’s paintings in reproduction. There is a physical experience engendered when standing in front of the work that allows your eyes to wander through the layers of paint, print, fragments of images and across the entire scene, and this is perhaps the real “joy” and “excitement of painting” that Akunyili shares with us.
Many of her works are life-sized, spanning six or seven feet in height, and as with the works in I Always Face you… the action takes place in interior spaces, depicted in domestic environments, centred on a family embrace or a moment between lovers; surrounded by seemingly neutral objects, such as tables, chairs, crockery and various other utensils of everyday life. The viewer is positioned as if looking in and being made privy to an otherwise private moment. Akunyili has explained this as setting up an act of voyeurism. “That is the feel that I am trying to get – this intimate space that you’re privileged to get a look at.” It is not only the perspective of the viewer that is carefully directed, but also the gaze between characters. In the piece Something Split and New 2013, in which an Introduction is taking place, two men look directly at each other in the centre of the painting, while two women, also facing inwards, are poised awkwardly on the sofas; the central table holds a selections of American and Nigerian beverages. Akunyili achieves a palpable tension in the confrontation between the male figures and the nervous look of support offered by one of the women. Many of her works are imbued with suspense caused by the question of who is looking at whom in that moment.
Despite the recognisable signs of intimate indoor spaces, Akunyili does often introduce a notion of the outside, whether though a slatted window, doorway, or through the repeated motif of a lattice-effect dividing wall that appears in the background of many of Akunyili’s pieces. These detailed areas, employ the rigorous and precise techniques of perspective to give an impression of depth, texture and transparency, they also create some ambiguity and fluidity between the internal and external spaces. Often in Akunyili’s paintings, abutting the illusion of space is an expanse of flat colour impacting and perhaps destroying the reality of the adjacent surface area. But crucially both exist in a single painting, these two disparate moments among many others of varying textures and tempos come together. InPredecessors Left Panel 2013 on display at Tiwani Contemporary, the lattice wall covers almost half of the background, and for the knowing viewer may evoke the Nigerian architecture popular from the late 1970s and in Akunyili’s formative years in the 80s and 90s, whilst the furniture – the futon and chairs – indicate her American lifestyle. Symbols of Nigerian and American culture appear vividly for anyone who can read them, yet it is not clear where this scene is located. This fusion of references and experiences is at the heart of Akunyili’s exploration as she is constantly talking to a dual audience and striving towards a dialogue in a third space. Understood in the trajectory of theorist Homi Bhabha, ‘this third space displaces the histories that constitute it, and sets up new structures of authority, new political initiatives’.
The space that Akunyili creates for this dialogue, in which her multiple cultural experiences appear most persistently, is in her use of transfers. Images pulled from popular Nigerian society magazines, fashion blogs, family pictures and album covers inhabit skin tones, table tops and doorways. In the diptych The Beautyful Ones series 1 and 2, 2012-13 we see the most direct relationship between the portraits and the transfer images. Serving as cultural and historical context, the transfers visualise the memories and associations that we all carry around in our mind’s eye, shaping the way we see and interact with the world. Playing with the history of portraiture, in which Akunyili’s references range from 17th century Spanish painter of the aristocracy Diego Velázquez to South African street style photographer Nontsikelelo Veleko, The Beautyful Ones explore character, self-image, and style. Akunyili made studies for the paintings from photographs of her brother and sister dressed in their ‘Sunday best’, clothes that were worn on a near daily basis for their ability to transform the wearer. She recalls her brother in his green military-style suit with yellow pockets, his posture in The Beautyful Ones confident, hand-on-hip with Michael Jacksonesque footwork, “every time he wore it he was invincible”. The portrait conveys the emanating confidence of the character. The transfers complicate the role-play by drawing on images of the Nigerian military, references to music and through this a connection to America and the U.K. Nigerian musician-turned-pastor Chris Okoti appears complete with curly perm and red military jacket, in the style of Michael Jackson, in turn evoking the Redcoats of the British Army. And these are not collaged to the surface one on top of the other, their borders and layers are transient, blurred and combined.
Drawing on the history of figurative painting is an important aspect of Akunyili’s work, if only to subvert and test its boundaries. Parallels can be drawn with an older generation of artists such as Kerry James Marshall – in the approach to portraiture, compositional devices and colour palette; both Wangechi Mutu and Ellen Gallagher actively push printing techniques and cut and paste aesthetic to similarly address mass circulation of images that form identity in a third space. And as with Gallagher, Akunyili also has a meaningful relationship to literature. Most pronounced in her choice of titling, such as The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, taken from the title of a novel by Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, Akunyili is consistently evoking an African and Diaspora literary tradition including writers such as Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Junot Diaz. And as these great writers have sought to alter and adapt the structure of the English language to enable it to portray a different kind of experience, so Akunyili takes on the traditions of figurative painting to speak of her own contemporary and multiple existence.