When you’re a first-generation American, you seek home in everything. At first, you reject the old for the new because the old feels wrong. You’re told your lunches smell funny, or that you have an accent, or that your country is poor. But sooner or later, you return to the one you knew—you see it when the plantain sizzles or those songs come onto WEAA every Saturday morning—and it’s imbued in the home you make for yourself.
Arriving shortly after Njideka Akunyili Crosby received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, her show “Counterparts” in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Front Room features six large-scale mixed media paintings depicting domesticity in that liminal state of expatriation. Many center kitchens, dining rooms, and the figures that make them. The pieces depict interior life in juxtapositions, often between the artist’s Nigerian past and American present. Her amalgams of paint, cloth, and collage are sharp and bright without becoming busy, achieving a synchronicity rare when clashing colors and cultures at the same time.
Crosby left Nigeria in 1999 when she was 16 for her studies. The most formative years of her life happened in Enugu, and undergoing such a drastic change at a fragile point in one’s adolescence can make one ripe for cultural dissonance. This shows in her work, as ‘Dwell: Aso Ebi’ depicts a room filled with paraphernalia from her past; the teapot and plastic jug and family photo, all painted against walls cut from commemorative cloth, illustrate the ways Crosby projects how she’s come to understand home in her new home.
Perhaps her most subtly political piece is ‘Tea Time in New Haven, Enugu’, which features no people at all but a table filled with tea-time necessities that even this writer recognized: Weetabix biscuits, Nestle Milo chocolate, and canned condensed milk. Crosby’s country (Nigeria) and my own (Barbados) were colonized by the same people (the British), so there is some overlap between our cultures. Her Nigerian household, along with many others, has adopted ostensibly European domestic customs such as tea time while molding it into our own. This portrait displays just how infiltrated her inner life has become. Even in our most intimate spaces, there remains room for our colonial past to infiltrate what makes us who we are.
But the first thing you notice in Crosby’s multimedia pieces is the clothing. Such as in ‘Dwell: Aso Ebi’, in which a sable woman dons a midi dress in commemorative fabric speckled yellow, teal, black, and white, and paired with dark blue stockings and heels that meet the woman’s gaze. Across from her, past a mint coffee table holding a black-and-yellow striped teapot, is a portrait of what we presume to be her parents wearing traditional Nigerian garb in gold with metallic spots. Recently, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discussed the importance of fashion—or, at least, looking presentable—in Nigerian culture: “My mother always dressed us well. Me in little girl dresses cinched at the waist, my brothers in suits and well-ironed shirts. To go out, she said, we had to ‘di ka mmadu’, which translates literally to ‘look like a person’.” Crosby’s figures look to follow the same credo: looking like people where they otherwise may not.
Crosby’s paintings evoke the vulnerability of what we call “home,” but empower the figures (and by extension, the artist herself) by establishing each as the focus in their own space. If Crosby extends Adichie’s train of thought, her figures are dressed brightly to assert their presence in an environment that would otherwise overpower them—a small but vital step for immigrants in a new home.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s solo show “Counterparts” runs through March 18 at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this review described two paintings that were not in the exhibition “Counterparts.” The Baltimore Beat apologizes for the error.