Njideka Akunyili Crosby is walking around the Victoria Miro gallery in east London, calmly examining her paintings. The collaged pictures of herself and her family lie on the floor, waiting to be hung; she brought the last two in her own luggage from Los Angeles, having stayed up all night before the flight to finish them.
She is seven months pregnant with her first baby, though you would barely notice. “People in LA say, ‘what’s your birth plan’, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know!’ My whole mind has just been on this show,” she says, her laughter resonating around the vast white room. She adds that, being from Nigeria, the whole fuss around pregnancy in California seems a little unnecessary. “I’m from the village,” she says, wryly, “and women there seem to give birth just fine without all this stuff.”
She moved to the US at the age of 16, and discovered that her homeland didn’t really matter to the outside world, other than as the scene of crises. “I don’t want to write off the horrible things that happen in various African countries, but we’re not all walking around thinking about Aids and Boko Haram all the time. Those things affect us, but lots of times our problems are the silly daily problems that you have here. How do I get a date? Will my pay cheque be enough for this dress I want to wear to the wedding?”
Her heroine is the author Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, who also moved from Nigeria to the US to study. They have met a couple of times: “She has this short story where the main character goes to a writing workshop, and she writes about someone whose boss is sexually harrassing her. And the teacher says to her, ‘Why don’t you write about an authentic African experience?’ Well, what is authentic – you think we don’t have these issues in Nigeria, too? Stuck in traffic, 30 minutes late for a meeting – that is the bulk of life. It’s a horrible example, but even in the midst of a tragedy like the Ebola epidemic – most people are probably just living their lives. That’s why so many of my figures [in the paintings] are really doing nothing. I think people sensationalise places in their heads, so I wanted to show just how normal life is in Nigeria.”
Akunyili Crosby left Nigeria with her older sister to study in Philadelphia. She considers herself an American artist, as well as an African one, having studied art at Swarthmore College and Philadelphia University of the Arts, before taking her MFA at Yale, where she was also a teaching assistant. None of this was expected – she left Nigeria thinking she would become a doctor just like her father and several of her five siblings. Her earliest memory is of poring over her dad’s Atlas of Diseases, fascinated by the human body. Yet when, aged 16, she added painting – a “fun class” – to her “really intense and science based” community college courses, her art teacher encouraged her to take it further. “That was my first painting class ever in my life,” she says, clearly still surprised by how her life has turned out. Her teacher wasn’t wrong though: she has since been awarded the Prix Canson 2016, the 2015 Next Generation prize at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the 2015 Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and was listed in Foreign Policy’s Leading 100 Global Thinkers of 2015.
Initially, her paintings seem reasonably simple, with their domestic scenes of living rooms, couples, families. But there are so many layers: the collaged materials she uses as background, taken from Nigerian popular culture, or portrait fabrics printed with people’s faces from her family’s weddings. Her marriage to a white Texan, Justin Crosby, is there too, with their difference in colour, in family background. Although that difference became perhaps too obvious for her. “I felt I was making too many pieces with the couple in it, so then I thought, what if I take the couple out? How do I still say everything I want to say? I try to keep it interesting for myself because each piece is a puzzle.”
After growing up in the city of Enugu, Akunyili Crosby moved to a girls’ boarding school in Lagos. “I was used to spending weekends and summers with my grandmother in the village. Kerosene lamps only, so everybody goes to bed when the sun sets at seven, and there is nothing to do. Get up at 5.30 and sweep the floor with palm fronds. So I experienced those two spaces, growing up, then went to Queens College, which is probably the most prestigious girls school in the country. It really was my first contact with a cosmopolitan life.”
The reason for this change in circumstance is quite astounding, and Akunyili Crosby tells the story with great pride. Her mother, Dora Akunyili, who died in 2014, had studied pharmacy and taught at a university, among other jobs. Diagnosed as needing major surgery, she was given £12,000 from a work insurance fund to go to London and have treatment. But the London doctor said it was a misdiagnosis, so she went home again and gave the money back. “Nigeria is not a country where anybody ever asks for your receipts,” her daughter explains, “and knowing how poor we were at the time, it’s amazing that she didn’t keep it.” But Dora was unaware that the story of the incredibly honest pharmacist rose up the ranks until one day, years later, she got a phone call at home from President Obasanjo. He was desperate to solve the problem of counterfeit and fake medicine that was killing so many Nigerians, and asked her to help. Akunyili was made head of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, took on frightening crime cartels and won – becoming a national hero.
Does it make her daughter feel duty-bound to live a moral life? “Oh yes! I always feel my life in Nigeria is quite different from my life in the States. Every time I come back, I go from being anonymous – I hand my passport over and it’s the same every time. They look at it, look up at me, say, ‘Are you who I think you are? I hope you’re like your mother!’ And I say [she whimpers], ‘I try!’”
I ask her what Yale was like, but she isn’t too keen to talk about it. “Have you seen Mean Girls?” she asks, comically, “or the season of Project Runway where everyone gangs up on Michael Costello?” Arriving at the Studio Museum in Harlem, a space for black artists, was her salvation after that. “Yale was not a community. But I think of the Studio Museum as a family.” She says that almost every successful black artist in the US was nurtured there. In fact, she feels the debt so strongly that she recently gave them “a substantial amount of money. I told my husband that in Nigeria there are two kinds of giving, and one of them hurts. I want to feel like I lost something. That’s how much they mean to me.”