On the Sunday morning following the opening reception for Opener 30: Njideka Akunyili Crosby— Predecessors at the Tang Teaching Museum, the artist and Dayton Director Ian Berry looked at the museum’s collection of photographs by Malick Sidibé. Akunyili Crosby was born in Enugu, Nigeria, and moved to the United States in 1999. Her work examines multiculturalism and ideas about family.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
I love thinking about these people and seeing the traditional outfits and this guy wearing Western clothes, signaling his connection to life outside the country. In old photographs from different parts of Africa there is a constant mix of the old and the new.
It always seemed like the women were the ones who had to carry tradition. The men started dressing very Western but the women rarely ever did. In almost every picture the men are wearing Western outfits and the women are not. When I think of my parents, whenever we went out, my dad was in a suit and my mom was in her traditional outfit. How come the burden of bearing culture always rested on the women? It could be because men were educated first. The more educated you were, the more anglicized you became.
There are several here that have the same backdrop.
I was looking at that to see if they were in the same studio. Sometimes you can see the same pattern repeating in a number of his pictures.
Do these images feel akin to your work?
Yes, some of them. I like feeling connected to these people from another era. I don’t know if they are still alive, but for a brief moment you’ve been given entry into their lives. This kind of outfit she has on with this particular type of embroidery was really popular when I was growing up. My mom and all her friends had it.
Those earrings crop up in a couple of different photographs from the collection. Look at this baby!
I don’t know that I’ve seen a Sidibé of a baby before. I’ve seen a baby with the mother but never just the baby. We’re probably age mates. I was born in ’83, and this is dated ’84.
This could be your baby picture.
I don’t have any pictures of me as a baby. I know Mali is different and far away from Nigeria, but it just wasn’t a big deal to take pictures of babies. I’m fascinated by that picture. Were they wealthy? Was that someone related to him? Why this picture? Photography was expensive. It was something you only did once in a while for special occasions. Maybe they wanted to send the picture to someone abroad who hadn’t seen the baby?
When did you first see photographs by Sidibé?
I started looking at him intensely when I was in graduate school. There were a number of artists I started looking at more—Kerry James Marshall was in that group with Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta, and Yinka Shonibare. It was the first time I started seeing work that resonated with me.
I had studied art for years. I had been to many big art museums around the world. I had seen art. I could explain it to someone, but I never really had that intense feeling of, “I know what’s going on,” or “I see myself,” or “This is a life I understand.” I always felt outside, kind of looking into the space that I’ve been taught to understand. That’s what our education is, especially if you’re getting your education in the United States, but it wasn’t my space.
Once I started looking at Sidibé and Keïta, it was a feeling of spontaneous recognition: “I know this.” I grew up with photographs similar to this in my grandmother’s house. Pictures of my grandparents, their kids, their cousins, their relatives. I know these pictures. I’ve seen my own version of them multiple times. Seeing Sidibé really made me think more about making work out of that space that I know and I recognized. Making work about a life I’ve lived, about people I grew up with, what images from my life look like.
What do you think about this group picture? This looks like a party scene, not a studio setup.
This is the kind of image that inspired me to do the social images. My work breaks down into groups: the couples, the interiors without people, some with plants, and the social pictures where people are partying or having a get-together at home or dancing.
I love the social ones best. You’re presenting yourself and it’s very constructed and deliberate. People are coming with their radios and their motorcycles and their fancy gadgets. It’s about how you want to exhibit yourself and something about the social scenes seemed fresh to me. These people are hanging out and Sidibé’s there capturing it. You feel the energy of the space more viscerally than in the staged ones. I borrowed that from him.