Artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby opens the doors of her home

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On display at the National Portrait Gallery, the Nigerian artist’s work extends a special invitation to visitors. What happens when we accept?

Art curator Ekow Eshun described his work as a “process of looking and seeing through the eyes of different people.” In the last room of his exhibition, The Time is Always Now at the National Portrait Gallery, however, I did not feel like an observer, a mere spectator.

For each of the people portrayed there, I felt invited to enter their worlds. I felt invited to get to know, feel and be amazed.

It was hard to accept just one invitation. In Jordan Casteel’s Yvonne and James (2017), the elderly African-American couple are sitting on a bench in Harlem, holding hands. I am sure they have a lot of stories to tell.

In Hurvin Anderson’s Back (2008), the barbers are sitting with their backs to me at their workstations, which I discovered were much more than a beauty parlour for the Caribbean community.

In Toyin Ojih Odutola’s A Grand Inheritance (2016), a young boy admires a painting by visual artist and historian Samella Lewis, which hangs prominently in an ostentatious room.

Painting in which a black woman is sitting on a wooden chair on a balcony, wearing a pink, blue and white patterned cotton dress. On her lap, a baby is distracted by something. Perhaps by the rich foliage around him, which takes on different shapes and shades of green.
Still You Bloom In This Land of No Gardens (2021) by Njideka Akunyili Crosby [Natália Magalhães]

In the self-portrait Still You Bloom In This Land of No Gardens (2021), Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby is sitting on a wooden chair on the balcony of her house in the United States, wearing a pink, blue and white patterned cotton dress.

On her lap, her youngest son is distracted by something. Perhaps by the rich foliage around them, which takes on different shapes and shades of green. Akunyili Crosby’s smile is gentle, and I get the impression that she is looking deep into my eyes, as if she is already waiting for me.

Behind her, the door is open. And I let myself in.

The first thing I see when I walk through the white sliding door is the brown vase filled with pink flowers. On a table, the vase is carved with traditional designs from the artist’s homeland. To the right, I see the cabinets with their navy-blue doors, as well as some notes and a photo of her late mother stuck to the wall.

It is a simple gesture, but one that says much more than the gesture itself. When Akunyili Crosby opens the door to her house, it is not just her house that she lets me into — but her intimacy in different temporalities, nuances of her past and present.

She herself told The New York Times: “Objects have this specificity that tell stories of place and time. That’s why I like doing still life.”

Through a unique composition that mixes drawing, painting, collage and printmaking, I manage to navigate the environment with attention and care in order to realise every detail. But I am in no hurry.

In this brief glimpse into her private world, I see tenderness, love, the beauty of motherhood and respect for her roots. Akunyili Crosby, as well as being an artist, is a daughter and a mother, Nigerian and American, protagonist of her own story and an important character in the lives of her loved ones.

At the end of this visit, all I have left to say is: thank you, Akunyili Crosby, it was a pleasure to meet you.

Featured image by Natália Maria de Oliveira Magalhães.

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