CULTURE TYPE, MARCH 12, 2017
ONLY THREE WORKS by Njideka Akunyili Crosby have come to auction and they have all been record breakers. In the span of six months, sales for the Los Angeles-based artist have soared from less than $100,000 to more than $3 million. The latest high mark was achieved March 7 at Christie’s London when “The Beautyful Ones” sold for $3,075,774 (including fees).
Depicting the artist’s older sister, “The Beautyful Ones” is a standing portrait of a lone female figure. Akunyili Crosby made the mixed-media painting in 2012 during her residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The first and largest work in an ongoing series, it is rife with personal significance and national symbolism for the Nigeria-born artist. The lot sold for more than four times its high estimate. According to the New York Times, the price skyrocketed when six telephone bidders vied for the painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby made the mixed-media painting in 2012 during her residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The first and largest work in an ongoing series, it is rife with personal significance and national symbolism for the Nigeria-born artist.
Akunyili Crosby’s impressive run began Sept. 29, 2016, when an untitled 2011 work sold at the Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Curated sale for nearly $100,000, including fees. In November, “Drown,” an image of the artist reclining in an intimate embrace with her husband, surpassed the previous level, yielding 10 times the price (nearly $1.1 million). Finally, “The Beautyful Ones” sold for a whopping $3.1 million earlier this week.
THE PAST FEW YEARS have been career-transforming for Akunyili Crosby. She was awarded the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s James Dicke Contemporary Art Prize in 2014, the same day Victoria Miro Gallery in London announced its representation of the artist. In 2015, the Studio Museum in Harlem honored her with its Wein Prize. Also that year, her first solo exhibitions in her hometown of Los Angeles were on view concurrently at Art + Practice and the Hammer Museum.
The exhibition at Art + Practice, the nonprofit co-founded by artist Mark Bradford, was titled “The Beautyful Ones.” “I Refuse to be Invisible,” Akunyili Crosby’s first survey was presented at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., in 2016. Both exhibitions featured “The Beautyful Ones” Series #1, a 2014/15 work similar to the $3.1 million painting, but with a blue ground.
In the exhibition catalog, curator Cheryl Brutvan conducts an interview with the artist. During the conversation, Akunyili Crosby talks about the The Beautyful Ones series and explains how she came up with the name.
She said, “That series is slowly turning into a family portrait. The girl in the glasses is my parents’ first child, my sister, when she was younger.” She mentions paintings of her brother, the second born, and another sister, the third born.
“The Beautyful Ones” Series #3 (2014) features a boy and a girl, strangers to the artist. When Akunyili Crosby goes home to Nigeria, she takes countless photos and the images inspire her work. She saw the young pair at a family friend’s Christmas party and something about them resonated with her. “The one with the two kids is the first time I’ve done a piece with people I don’t know at all or have no connection to. Usually it’s family—a lot of Justin, my husband—and extended family depicted in my work,” she said.
“That series is slowly turning into a family portrait. The girl in the glasses is my parents’ first child, my sister, when she was younger. The one with the two kids is the first time I’ve done a piece with people I don’t know at all or have no connection to. Usually it’s family…” — Njideka Akunyili Crosby
The name of the series comes from a book about the promise of an independent West Africa. Akunyili Crosby explained the symbolism:“There is a book that was very popular, read in all the high schools—not just in Nigeria but probably Ghana as well, because it’s a Ghanaian book. The title is ‘The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born,’ and it was a big part of the oeuvre of Nigerian literature. It was written by a Ghanaian guy, Ayi Kwei Armah, in the ’70s.
“In the ’60s in West AFrica there was this wave of independence. Nigeria became independent in 1960, and I think it was a promising time—hopeful is the word—so lots of people had hope: meaning, ‘OK, now we’re on our own, we’re reaady to show people what we can do, things will be great and fantastic.” The decade went by and, sadly, none of that happened. There was rampant corruption; countries were going downhill instead of getting better.
“This book was written during this time, really lamenting the lost hope of that generation, how things didn’t work out. That’s ‘The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.’
“With the Beautyful Ones series, it was coincidence that it ended up being most of my family members. I was thinking, “If the Beautyful Ones were not yet born in the ’60s and ’70s—slightly after my parents’ generation—hopefully they are in my generation.” Fingers crossed. So that’s why these are the Beautyful Ones. It’s a play that hopefully Africans who know the book will pick up on.” CT