In his book Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Frantz Fanon (an influential voice among post-colonial studies) wrote of the possibility of shaping your own story: “In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.” Half a century later, Akunyili Crosby is materializing her own narrative in the post-colonial discourse, in which Nigeria isn’t a victim, nor is the West an oppressor. Her paintings don’t create a feeling of dissonance or opposition; rather, everything becomes one. You get the feeling that she’s comfortable moving between worlds, as she is moving between materials. That’s partly, of course, because her own stories and migrations have been, for the most part, happy ones. It’s a story of agency that needs more visibility. Take the Nigerian “tea time” tradition. “In a work such as Super Blue Omo (2016), I’m looking at tea culture in Nigeria and how, at this point, it is so different from tea culture as we inherited it,” she says, referring to one of the newest works at Victoria Miro. “I’m interested in how those colonial imports get owned by the places that import them, and become unique as they evolve and become their own thing. The way you have tea is not the way we have tea,” she offers. “The way we have tea is with powdered milk, powdered chocolate drink, and sugar… It’s actually hot chocolate, but we call it tea!”
Different viewers will find different elements of these works that resonate, but as a product of British colonialism myself, I find something comforting in the harmony between Akunyili Crosby’s worlds, which is so different to the typical story that’s often told. That’s not to say her paintings lack tension, but it’s subtle and complicated—you literally have to look for it. Tension lies in a familiar composition, which points to the white male-dominated history of painting (The Twain Shall Meet
, 2015, recreates ’s
1899 painting Interior
), and in the patterns of textiles that furnish her works, which suggest of the corruption in Nigeria’s recent political history. It’s in the blue-tinged figure of Super Blue Omo
, who sits alone while a tea tray is set for two.
In one of the key works of “Portals,” titled Ike Ya (2016), a couple embraces, in a gesture, as the exhibition text describes it, “that seems as conciliatory as it does affectionate.” This, above all, may be the overarching story Akunyili Crosby’s paintings tell. They equally embrace a spectrum of narratives—of Nigeria, Europe, and the U.S., of 50 years ago and of yesterday, of colonialism and independence, the familiar and the foreign, black and white. And they do so with fondness and acceptance.