Njideka Akunyili

My experiences of diverse cultures have not only made me the individual I am, but have also provided rich subject matter upon which I formulate my studio practice. I grew up in a Nigeria acculturated to and independent from Britain and immigrated to the United States as an adult. In creating my artwork I explore my internal tension between my deep love for Nigeria and my strong appreciation for Western culture by amalgamating different media, modes of representation, and images. I extrapolate from my training in Western painting to invent a new visual language that represents my experience as a cosmopolitan Nigerian in much the same way that authors of African and Caribbean diasporic literature use an invented variant of English to tell their stories. This visual language allows me to make images that suggest narratives with universal allegorical interpretations.

I make graphic images that at first glance, take the form of traditional Western paintings; however, upon closer inspection, nuances in my mode of representation emerge which connote the multi-layered nature of my cultural experience as well as its complications. My Western art education heavily influences the way I compose my pictures, but I expand upon this tradition to speak to an alternate life story while still evoking Western painting. I interweave collaged and transferred images of contemporary Nigeria into painted drawings of domestic life with my white American husband; these overlaid textural images create a metaphor for the harmony and friction that I experience as an American citizen who is still a proud Nigerian. I reinforce this metaphor of cultural integration by formally juxtaposing disparate elements such as flat versus illusionistic spaces; simple versus elaborate areas; interiors versus exteriors; and Nigerian versus Western fashions, hairstyles, architectures, etc. In parts of my work, I allow different objects to flow together without delineation so that the viewer can consecutively gaze at diverse images of Nigeria and images of my American apartment without interruption. This visual traversal between worlds is fluid yet jolting, just like the lives of many young cosmopolitan Africans (and immigrants of all nationalities).

I use domestic images of myself and/or my husband to allegorically enact cultural contact. I create these images by layering disparate materials and images into one cohesive representational scene and by exploring characters that experience emigrant life outside Nigeria or else grapple with cosmopolitan life in large Nigerian cities. Thus, my process of mixing media metaphorically restates the central theme of cultural syncretism in my work. This theme is nearly universally familiar because, in our globalized world, more and more people are experiencing similar spaces where multiple cultures interact, be it in a post-colonial, immigrant, or other scenario.