Layered Geniuses: Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Betye Saar

Like Betye Saar, Njideka Akunyili Crosby both use history and autobiography to address issues of identity and race.

L.A.-based artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby with The Beautyful Ones (2012), a depiction of her sister at 10 that fetched more than $3 million at Christie’s.
L.A.-based artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby with The Beautyful Ones (2012), a depiction of her sister at 10 that fetched more than $3 million at Christie’s.
BRIGITTE SIRE

At first glance, the art of Betye Saar, Los Angeles’s grande dame of assemblage, would seem to have little in common with that of Njideka Akunyili Crosby, the Nigerian-born rising star of painting and collage. Saar, 93, has had an arduous journey from obscurity to international celebrity; Akunyili Crosby, 36, a relatively brief and glittering one, marked by auction prices that have exceeded $3 million and a 2017 MacArthur “genius” grant for painting. Overlaying acrylics and marble dust with photo transfers and fabric, Akunyili Crosby fills paper surfaces that are seven feet across. Her intimate, impeccably rendered scenes of domestic life are so recognizable, they could stand in for any living room or kitchen from Enugu (her home state) to her adopted home in L.A. Although both artists use history and autobiography to address issues of identity and race, Saar’s imagery is manifestly political, while Akunyili Crosby’s tableaux of familial bliss remain topically understated. Saar has claimed the black female body as the inspirational focus of her aesthetic, while Akunyili Crosby, a black, female, transnational artist, sees the phases of identity, from childhood to adulthood, from bride to wife, from Nigerian to American, as fluid, essentially fictional constructs; she recalls people and events not as they were, but rather as one hoped they could be.

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