Njideka Akunyili Crosby Wins the Prix Canson for Works on Paper
The 2016 Prix Canson was awarded to Njideka Akunyili Crosby on Tuesday evening at the Drawing Center in New York. The Nigerian, Los Angeles-based artist won the sixth edition of the prestigious drawing prize for her works on paper—rich, figurative works that collage Nigerian history, literature, popular culture, and her own personal narratives. The selection was made by an international jury of esteemed curators, led by Brett Littman, executive director of the Drawing Center, the first U.S. institution to host Canson’s annual exhibition of five finalists.
“We felt that your work had a level of complexity, it intertwined the personal narrative with your complex cultural signifiers, your mastery of multiple mediums, your iconic painting, and last, but not least, total dedication to paper,” Littman said to Crosby as he made the announcement.
The award is given each year to a contemporary artist who creates masterful works on paper, which embody the historic paper company’s spirit of creativity and innovation. In addition to Crosby, this year’s diverse group of finalists included ruby onyinyechi amanze, Bethany Collins, David Shrigley, and Lucy Skaer; new and recent works by the finalists are on view at the Drawing Center through July 1st.
“Most of all, I want to dedicate the bulk of my thanks to the artists who are in this show with me,” said Crosby upon receiving the award, a large vitrine filled with sheets of colored paper. “Being in this show and in this space was prize enough; everyone did a fantastic job, and I share this with all of you.” Past winners of the prize include Adrián Villar Rojas, Simon Evans, and Virginia Chihota.
The prize dictates that the Fonds Canson pour l’Art et le Papier, the company’s foundation, will acquire a work by Crosby for its collection and will furnish her with €10,000 worth of Canson paper—“enough paper to do whatever they want to do with it, any form, any width, any length,” said Eric Joan, CEO of Hamelin, Canson’s parent company. He also noted that this year’s winner would be offered a residency at the home of the late, great Brazilian artist Tunga, who sadly died just weeks before he would have served as the president of the jury for this year’s prize. Other jury members included curators Ian Alteveer, Bice Curiger, Amanda Hunt, Helen Molesworth, Frédéric Paul, Katherine Stout, and print master Michael Woolworth.
Crosby’s multilayered paintings on paper (four of which are on view in the exhibition) combine drawing, painting, and collage, but each one is anchored by photo transfers—inlaid images pulled from the artist’s personal archives of photographs of friends and family and found imagery, like clippings from Nigerian pop magazines. The protagonists in each work, often based on the artist herself or her loved ones, are embedded in complex narratives of cultural identity, race, and assimilation. Part of the African diaspora, Crosby draws from personal memory, books and old master paintings, and the history and political turmoil of her birthplace. The Beautyful Ones, Series #1c (2014), for example, is inspired by the 1968 novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, and depicts the artist’s older sister in garb inspired by a boy in a Velázquez painting.
Crosby, who earned her MFA at Yale in 2011, won the prize in amidst a flurry of success, including a show at the Hammer Museum last fall, a billboard commission from the Whitney Museum of American Art and inclusion in the museum’s current portraiture show, and representation by London gallery Victoria Miro, where she will have a solo show this fall. “She’s not alone. I can see her work in the context of Kehinde [Wiley]’s work and Kerry James Marshall; she’s coming out of a tradition of artists of African descent and African-American artists who are looking at the idea of portraiture, trying to invest the history of painting with their own personal overlay,” said Littman, regarding Crosby’s current momentum. “I think that there was this moment of recognition that this is iconic work. These are not works that you forget quickly—that’s what I think moved us in the direction of choosing her.”