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Issue 240

Njideka Akunyili Crosby Assembles Extended Family Trees

At David Zwirner, New York, plants drawn from Eastern Nigeria and Los Angeles coexist with figures and settings sourced from magazines, books and family photographs

BY Zoë Hopkins in Exhibition Reviews | 26 SEP 23

A profusion of leafy matter spills out across the surface of Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s Dwellers: Native One (2019), wresting the eye into an ambiguous somewhere patterned by pointed leaves, nimble branches and a screen wall evoking an urban home. Underneath – or amidst – it all, float the faces of three women, whose steady gazes pierce through the lush veil that simultaneously protects and reveals them. The faint presence of these figures within the plants is eerie, almost phantasmic: it is as if we’re encountering ghosts, as if a distant time dwells within this painting.  

Installation view of two works: one of plants, the other of a girl in wedding attire behind salmon pink strips
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, ‘Coming Back to See Through, Again’, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and David Zwirner

Tree green pervades ‘Coming Back to See Through, Again’, Crosby’s first solo exhibition at David Zwirner New York. The depicted plants – a new theme in the artist’s oeuvre – are culled from her extensive research into the vegetal life of Eastern Nigeria, where she is from, and Los Angeles, where she currently resides. Critics have often (and rightly) marvelled at the care and finesse with which Crosby assembles vast multiplicities of time and place into singular sites of visual contestation: her work harnesses photo transfer techniques to marshal images tied to Nigeria, the United States and elsewhere, sourced from magazines, books and family archives.

Installation view of three works: a pair behind foliage; plants on a checkered background; a figure bent over another in an armchair
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, ‘Coming Back to See Through, Again’, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and David Zwirner

The plants that bloom through this most recent body of work introduce yet another layer of contemplation, occasioning a slippage between interior and exterior space, foreground and background, self and environment. In these scenes – which are rendered on paper and fastened to the wall with binder clips and nails – painted and photographed figures are embedded in effusive worlds of foliage, blurring (and at times completely tearing asunder) distinctions between humans and the biotic forms which give us our breath.

An installation view of two works: to the left, foliage; to the right, a pair obscured by foliage
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, ‘Coming Back to See Through, Again’, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and David Zwirner

In Still You Bloom in this Land of No Gardens (2021), these already existing entanglements grow into a deepened resplendence, enlivened by the sweetness of family bonds. Here, Crosby paints herself with her young child on her lap. They sit together at home, where they are encircled and partially obscured by a shock of green trees. In the background, a photograph of Crosby’s mother is tacked onto the refrigerator door, discretely conjuring a third presence into the family portrait. A stream of imagery rushes together in Crosby’s photo transfers, setting into motion a kind of extended family tree collaged into togetherness in Crosby’s branches and leaves. There is so much packed into the frame, yet viewers come away not with a sense of compression but rather of sprawl, of the incredible vastness that comes with a felt connection to multiple generations and environments.

An image of a room with chartreuse walls, a wedding dress, plants, tea kettles, art on walls
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Ejuna na-aga, ọ kpụlụ nkọlikọ ya; New Haven (Enugu) in New Haven (CT), 2022. Courtesy: © Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner

An insistence on remaining rooted in this plurality is brilliantly woven into the mise-en-scène of Ejuna na-aga, ọ kpụlụ nkọlikọ ya; New Haven (Enugu) in New Haven (CT) (2022). Rich in nostalgia, the work is a portrait of the traces of the self which adorned the artist’s former living space, a picture of what it feels like to be in one place while holding attachments to another. Yellow walls frame a poster image of – presumably – Nigeria, hanging next to a wedding dress. On a dresser drawer, we glimpse a studio portrait of a young child dressed in her pink Sunday best, whose image is lifted into a large-scale portrait on the adjacent wall of the gallery, “The Beautyful Ones” Series #11 (2023). We are drawn, then, into a peripeteia that not only moves between the psychic and physical worlds that the artist inhabits, but also through the world of her practice. The work – and the exhibition itself – stages many revisitations and returns, inviting us to come back and see again.  

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, ‘Coming Back to See Through, Again’ is on view at David Zwirner, New York, until 28 October. 

Main image: 
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, ‘Coming Back to See Through, Again’, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and David Zwirner

Zoë Hopkins is a writer and critic based in New York, USA. She received her BA in art history and African American studies at Harvard University, Cambridge, USA, and is currently working on her MA in modern and contemporary art at Columbia University, New York. Her writing has been published in Artforum, The Brooklyn Rail, Cultured and Hyperallergic.