Courtesy of Njideka Akunyili Crosby.

On Tuesday, the Yale Center for British Art previewed a Njideka Akunyili Crosby ART ’11 exhibition — showcasing the center’s first pieces from a Yale alum.

YCBA Director Courtney J. Martin GRD ’09 described the exhibition, the third and final installment of a series curated by the Pulitzer Prize winner Hilton Als, as a “milestone” for the center. The exhibition opens to the public on September 22.

“This is the first time that we will have an exhibition by a School of Art alum here in the Yale Center for British Art,” Martin said at the opening. “The idea that someone who has come here would also then show with us is also a feat.” 

“I don’t know that we will have one of these in my lifetime again,” she added.

The center typically showcases works from artists of British descent or those who hail from various parts of the former British empire. Not many who fall in those categories graduate from the Yale School of Art, Martin said. 

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who was born in Nigeria before coming to the United States in 1999, graduated from the Yale School of Art in 2011. Her series, titled “The Beautyful Ones” is named after the 1968 novel by Ghanian author Ayi Kwei Armah and centers around her “recalibrating” her relationship to Nigeria. 

The series highlights the figures of Nigerian children, including some of Akunyili Crosby’s family, and examines identity against the backdrop of postcolonial history. 

The title notes the shift in the artist’s understanding of Nigeria from “the systemically corrupt Africa” to a renaissance of her country and its identity in her generation. 

The exhibition hosts seven pieces in total, including one earlier work, created by Akunyili Crosby in 2010. 

Deputy Director of the YCBA Martina Droth noted the significance of including Akunyili Crosby’s earlier work in this exhibition. The piece, “The Rest of Her Remains” (2010), was purchased while Akunyili Crosby was still studying in New Haven. That time, Droth said, is when Akunyili Crosby came into her own as an artist and “discovered how she wanted to work.”

Droth described Akunyili Crosby’s development as an artist who was initially very attached to a more traditional style and felt constrained. Instead of trying to fix the traditionalist mold, Droth said, Akunyili Crosby propelled herself forward. 

This impetus of creativity is evident in this exhibition, which Akunyili Crosby described as the “most direct portraiture series that she’s done.”

Each piece utilizes a method of photocopying pictures with an acetate solvent onto transfer paper. This process creates “tissues of memory,” Akunyili Crosby said. 

Akunyili Crosby collected numerous photos from her family and close friends — including two images of her sisters. In addition to the photocopied image, each piece includes a “tapestry of success and people that were both in the culture and in her life.” 

For example, “‘The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born’ Might Not Hold True For Much Longer”  (2013) includes a figure that was influential both in Nigerian culture and in the artist’s life — her mother Dora Akunyili. Akunyili served as Nigeria’s Director-General of National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control from 2001-2008. 

Akunyili Crosby’s mother is a part of a sea of figures woven together around the figure of a girl — a common theme throughout the exhibition. 

“They are not about nostalgia but they’re about memory and experience,” Akunyili Crosby said.

Another piece in the series, “‘The Beautyful Ones’ Series #6” (2018) is a second example of the artist evoking particular moments in time during childhood. The subject is seen wearing a school uniform, transposed in front of another mirage of memories and history. 

Throughout her life Akunyili Crosby observed trends in Nigerian fashion tastes over time, which she then translated into the colors and patterns woven throughout her pieces.

Droth said the rest of the floor near the exhibition has been curated to complement Akunyili Crosby’s work, mirroring ideas about  “collage, interiors and the figure.”

Rachel Stratton, a postdoctoral research associate at the YCBA said many of these pieces that echo Akunyili Crosby’s work in the “Interior Dialogues: Works from the Collection” exhibition represent times when “our perspective on the world and who we are and how we exist in it changes. As the first Yale School of Art alum showcased at the YCBA, Akunyili Crosby imparts the viewer with pieces that can be endlessly interpreted — details interwoven, echoing her memories, and that of those and the culture that shaped her. 

The YCBA will be hosting a Steve McQueen symposium from October 28-29.

OLIVIA CHARIS