New Contemporary Arts Center exhibit 'Predecessors' layers issues of identity, family

CINCINNATI -- “Predecessors,” the latest exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center, showcases the work of Njideka Akunyili Crosby, an artist on the rise whose layered paintings explore identity, family and the personal ramifications of immigration and globalization.

The paintings also are just really lovely and arresting.

Images are embedded on top of images, demanding that you stop and look at the details. The paintings are embellished with charcoal, pencil and photo transfers. The results are rich and intimate, like you're looking through someone's family photos.

And, in fact, you are.

Mother and Child, 2016. Acrylic, transfers, coloured pencils, collage and commemorative fabric on paper. 243.8 x 314.9 cm 96 x 124 in. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London (Photography Robert Glowacki). © Njideka Akunyili Crosby

Akunyili Crosby, who was born and raised in Nigeria, came to the United States as a teenager and now lives and works in Los Angeles. Her family — her mother, her sisters, her grandmother — and their home in Nigeria show up repeatedly in her paintings, which also include her and her husband, the artist Justin Crosby.

“Her personal life is reflected in her work, but she wants to use that as a platform to talk about more universal currents,” curator Steven Matijcio said. “When you see a personal story, we can all share in that in some way.”

“Predecessors” will be on display until Oct. 1 at the CAC. The exhibit is on the second floor of the museum, and to get to it, you first walk through “Half Truths,” a collection of work by Jane Benson. Instruments are cut in half and put back together, but with other halves, to make something new. Flags from where families came from and all the countries where they live now are shredded and woven together. A video plays of brothers separated by geography yet still making music together.

Benson's work makes you consider the fractured and scattered nature of family and identity; then Akunyili Crosby's paintings make those ideas personal — for herself and for you.

The Twain Shall Meet, 2015. Acrylic and xerox transfers on paper. 243.8 x 312.4 cm, 96 x 123 in. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London (Photography Joshua White). © Njideka Akunyili Crosby

A table where her grandmother stored a collection of “tea things,” a bit of British culture that has become part of Nigerian culture, features bowls, plates, cups, a kerosene lamp, a religious picture. It appears repeatedly in Akunyili Crosby's work and is intensely personal and unique — a shrine of sorts to her grandmother, who has died — but also universal. Whose grandmother doesn't have a collection of things, practical and impractical and important to her, collected over a lifetime?

In the diptych called “Predecessors,” one painting shows a woman — Akunyili Crosby — sitting in a room full of Ikea furniture. She looks toward the second painting, where sturdier furniture fills the space, including her grandmother's table of tea things. Smaller pictures within each painting reflect the time; Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shows up in the modern side, while Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian novelist whose work gained fame in the 1950s, appears in the other. You're in America and Nigeria, the present and the past.

Akunyili Crosby repeats these ideas — generations, geography, family, culture, identity — and these images over and over.

“These (paintings) are really foundational to her work,” Matijcio said. “It was exciting to look at an artist who is rising and really see the architecture of her work.”

Matijcio began trying to bring a collection of Akunyili Crosby's work to the CAC more than a year ago. The process was complicated by her growing popularity among collectors. But, working with Skidmore College in New York, Matijcio co-organized this new exhibit.

A book will be created from “Predecessors,” available for sale at the CAC gift shop in October.

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