Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili is flipping through a stack of images in her studio inside the Brooklyn Army Terminal in New York. Some of the images are taken from personal family photos. Other images come from Nigerian popular culture. Picking up one of the Nigerian magazines that are scattered by her feet, she explains that people buy these image-heavy publications to get ideas to design their aso-ebi, or wedding outfits. All of these images are central to her work, which tells her story of Nigeria.
Akin to many immigrants to the United States, Akunyili’s story is a mishmash. Akunyili was born and raised in Nigeria, but went to University in the United States, and is married to an American. When looking at her paintings at the show at the Harlem Studio Art Museum, the viewer gets a sense that cultural identity is at once fragmented and cohesive.
The images embedded in the paintings are part of Akunyili’s mission or “coup,” as she puts it of introducing viewers to everyday Nigerian life as filtered through her experience.
“It has to be a Nigeria that I recognize,” Akunyili says and continues, “Not Boko Haram, which I’m not saying doesn’t exist; it does. But it’s not my experience, and nobody I know has. This [work] is more what everyday looks like. This is my Nigeria. This is my life at home. This is what I do. These are the places where I hang out.”
Nigerian artists “needed more than doctors”
A double major in art studio and pre-med in college, Akunyili explains her decision to become an artist this way: “Nigeria needs more artists than doctors. There’s nothing wrong with medicine. But if you think about our population. The estimate is 150 million of something ridiculous like that. But we don’t have a presence with a lot of things. Especially in the creative field.”
But Akunyili senses that this trend is changing. She speaks of attending a talk given by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, staying behind, and running into other Nigerians in the creative field.
“It was Chimamanda,” says Akunyili. “It was me…and then it was the actress Adepero Oduye, who was in [the movie] Pariah, and born to Nigerian parents. And then it was another Nigerian actress, whom I went to high school with actually: Frances Uku … It was such a beautiful gathering, and not just of (whispers) powerful women. We were all genuinely excited to be in the creative field, and you could tell that we all knew (pauses) we were doing something.
“The funny thing that came out of that story is that we realized that we had all been pre-med. All of us. Chimamanda, Frances, Adepero, and I. We had all been pre-med.”
When Akunyili left Nigeria in 1999 as a teen, there was barely a contemporary art scene. But, the space is being created. In 2007, curator Bisi Silva opened the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos. The Centre showcases work by Nigerians in the diaspora, as well as locally-based artists. Through Silva’s efforts, prominent Nigerian artist based in London Yinka Shonibare traveled back to Lagos to do workshops, and exhibitions have traveled to esteemed museums in the West like the the Tate.
As for what is next for Akunyili. she plans to shift her paintings away from figures, and delve into the interior of the Nigerian home. As a way of demonstrating this idea, she shows me a photo of a past painting, “5 Umezebi Street, New Haven, Enugu” (pictured above). Out of an expansive painting with several figures, she points to the tea set sitting on a table in the background. “It’s a table with stuff on it,” she says, “but it’s so typical, typical of Nigeria. I can’t explain how Nigerian it is.”
Other details Akunyili is interested in are light switches, fan boxes, phone stands, and terrazzo floors in Nigeria. As you can imagine, looking for images of these little details on the Internet is very difficult. These things are so typical, nobody even thinks about them.
Next up for Akunyili is going home—her parents are still in Nigeria—and taking pictures of all the little details, and risk, as she says, looking a little crazy. When she’s done, she’ll bring back these images and mash them up with images of American interiors to create spaces that are altogether something new, but at the same time, familiar.
Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili was a 2011-2012 artist in residence at the Harlem Studio Art Museum. She has just been awarded the Van Lier Fellowship at the International Studio and Curatorial Program (ISCP). In January, she will show her work alongside pieces by artist Abigail DeVille at the gallery Zidoun in Luxembourg.