“There is this air of solemnity, that’s the biggest impression I get,” a middle-aged man with a French accent tells me when I ask him how he feels about the exhibition. I ask because standing in front of the 96 x 124-inch paintings, I feel like someone is giving my life back to me, allowing me to see myself. Four paintings in and I could not help myself from striking a conversation with the other people in the room, I ask them “Do you see? Do you get it? Can you feel it, because if you don’t, I need to show you!”
Aptly titled ‘Portals’, this is Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s first exhibition in London and it allows us into the depth of the multi-layered experiences of a Nigerian-born woman living in Los Angeles. The man I talked to was right; standing there in the face of these imposing paintings, there is an immediate air of solemnity -one you must experience yourself because pictures online do no justice! The subjects in the paintings assume contemplative postures: a woman staring into the distance at perhaps something left behind, a young girl looking ahead in perhaps what she hopes to be her future. From afar the paintings, with their distinct aesthetic, look like beautiful yet simple still life pictures. By virtue of their solemn air, they all have that magnetic force that makes you want to linger on them. Whether it’s the TV, the multi-faceted wall, or the frames of doors within doors, there is an invitation to come and look inside the inner worlds the paintings possess, to see more.
And when that invitation is honored by the viewer, it is rewarded with a gift that keeps on giving as the artist, using photo transfers, has turned these solemn figures into portals of different cultural and personal experiences. Pictures of family gatherings, traditional weddings, and celebrations from the artist’s family albums merge with pictures that recollect a shared Nigerian memory- of Cabin biscuit, models in couture ankara outfits, movies like Beyoncé and Rihanna part 2, #Bring Back our Girls, the military, politicians, celebrities like Onyeka Onwenu, 1970s Psychedelic, Afro-rock and Fuzz funk club signs, the list goes on.
Earlier that day, I was reading the passage in James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son where he wrote of how his search for a reflection of himself in the heritage of European art will forever be in vain and in order for him to find a place in any scheme, he would “…have to appropriate these white centuries”. I would have to make them mine,” he wrote. Frantz Fanon, in his book Black Skin, White Masks also wrote about this need to carve for ourselves our own story: “In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.” Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s Portals is what happens when we give the world and ourselves an opportunity to see us, from our own eyes.
Right at the back of the exhibition room, where I chose to start my viewing, is a stunning portrait of a woman who looks like she is dressed for her traditional wedding. The painting ‘Wedding Souvenirs’ is perhaps the only one without layers of photo transfers but it did so well in welcoming me through into this portal when I looked at the table and saw a wedding souvenir mug from the artist’s wedding – one that my mother has in her own kitchen!
It is “Portals” not only because it takes you through journeys into personal spaces and memories but also because it signifies the artist’s own journey, as an Afropolitan, across different cultures but still carrying a Nigerian heritage. A closer look at the figures in the paintings revealed, not melancholy like I initially thought, but nostalgia. Anyone in the diaspora that sees the layers of plantain, suya, stewed snail and jollof rice in ‘Thriving Gardens’ for example will understand this emotion perfectly.
“Portals” is on at the Victoria Miro Gallery at 16 Wharf Road until 5th November 2016. Be sure to check it out if you are in London. Her 2016 book ‘I Refuse to Be Invisible’ is also available in the gallery store.