When Ayi Kwei Armah, a Ghanaian writer, wrote ‘The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born,’ his debut novel in 1968, the beautiful ones were truly not born then. Today, there are many beautiful ones around, especially in the creative arts who are showcasing high levels of ingenuity in their works.
One of such gifted beauties is Njideka Akunyili-Crosby whose works have garnered global recognition and patronage within 10 years of practice.
Njideka’s story is interesting. When the Nigerian-born painter left her country with her sister at age 16 to study in the United States of America, all her parents were expecting was a medical doctor on her return.
Of course, considering the fact that her father was a surgeon and her mother was a professor of pharmacology at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, their expectation of her studying medicine was not out of place. But like most gifted people, Njideka followed her passion and studied arts instead of medicine.
Today, the graduate of Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Yale University School of Art has no regrets following her passion as her works are sought after by galleries, art collectors and auction houses across the world.
Speaking on her reasons for studying arts instead of medicine, she says, “There are plenty of people doing medicine, especially Nigerians. But art is where I really felt I had something to contribute, something fresh, something relevant, and something needed.”
Njideka is exceptional. She mixes painting, drawing, photo transfer, printmaking and other materials to make art. On a visit to her studio in East Los Angeles, California, one marvels at the dexterity of the visual artist. At the studio, you will witness her using photos she has taken by herself, layered in her works by collage and acetone-transfer prints, and creating a fabric of images throughout her paintings. More also, her ethnic heritage and African experiences, inform her art in the Diaspora.
On a closer look, a keen visual art lover will see the influences of classic and contemporary painters such as; Édouard Vuillard, Alex Katz, for western paintings and Chris Ofili for the Nigerian/Africa landscape. The artists were top among the influencers of Njideka’s works today. Beyond that, she draws her daily inspiration from her experience as a Nigerian in the Diaspora living in America in doing her work.
Explaining “The Beautyful Ones” Series #3 (2014), one of her works featuring two sisters she says the paintings reminds her of herself and her sister at a similar age. She photographed the two sisters on a trip to Nigeria and hopes to make such trips as often as she can because of the inspirations she gets from such trips.
She is aged below 35, but has garnered some of the biggest awards and recognitions in the global art sector. Sales for the Nigerian-born artist have soared from less than $100,000 to more than $3 million since her works started appearing on art auctions. Her high mark was achieved on March 7, 2017 at Christie’s London when her work, “The Beautyful Ones” sold for $3,075,774 (including fees). The artist is not tired yet. She has works that will surpass her 2017 revenue mark this year.
While her works make global mark in auctions, her career is on the rise as well with recognitions. She was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship recently.
The MacArthur Fellowship, also referred to as the Genius Grant, awards $625,000 to artists, writers, teachers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and people from all works of life who have shown exceptional creativity. She joined the list of past recipients of the awards including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who received the grant in 2008.
At the presentation of the award, the foundation described her as “a figurative painter whose large-scale works express the hybridity characteristic of transnational experience through choices of subject matter, materials, and techniques.”
She was the Financial Times Women of the Year 2016, Future Generation Art Prize 2017, Shortlist Prix Canson 2016, among others. In addition, New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and London’s Tate Modern have decorated Njideka with honours for her artworks.
However, Nigeria can truly call the global artist her own because she always traces her roots to Nigeria and infuses her works with African themes and influences.