Njideka Akunyili’s five mixed media works in I Still Face You at Franklin Art Works are elusive and elegant; the sort of work that asks time and attention from the viewer. By filling up her spaces with xerox transfers and painted portraits of herself, her family, and friends, Akunyili has created an intimate and artful scrapbook. Many of the large works are casually presented to the viewer fixed with binder clips. Each image is layered with media: collaged photographs from her personal collection, images from magazines, transparent or thick paint, repetitive patterns of clothing and architecture, and charcoal.
I Refuse to be Invisible (2010) contains a xeroxed source photograph of the same painting, a little piece of the puzzle. The larger picture, seen from a few paces back, depicts a couple dancing in a crowd. The woman’s skin is naturalistically rendered in oil paint, but her dancing partner’s is made of collaged images — the effect is ghostly. Small, xeroxed images fill the space of his person with hints of color and pattern, only to deny the viewer any details of his features and expression. The show may be called I Still Face You, but her figures are in fact subtly rendered or even facing away. We catch fragments of their lives, many fragments, but analyzed close-up, the images are overwhelming in number and increasingly abstract. Akunyili’s work reads like a palimpsest – a layering of various texts and signifiers of race, anatomy, and love– of her life with two colorful cultures.
Originally from Nigeria and now based in the United States, Akunyili reflects her bi-national identity and interest in heritage, memory, as well as the differences in ritual and culture between them, through these images-out-of-images. The work is dense and delicate. An online archive of her works does not do justice to the nuance evident seeing them in person. Like painterly strokes, her mixed media layerings are hard to decipher from a short distance. The viewer must take several steps away from the texture and generous swaths of paint in order to distinguish the figures engaging in intimate moments. The resulting images appear patterned with dots, plaid, squares, and circles.
Describing the African-American collagist, Romare Bearden’s work, Akunyili offers, “they verge on visual cacophony but ultimately come together in harmony.” Akunyili’s work could be described in the same way; it takes time for the eye to decipher all of the elements, signifiers, and patterns of each work. Perhaps it is not completely necessary to do so, but the effort is rewarded with richness, and an incredibly personal tale of immigration, love, and everyday interaction.
Related exhibition information:
Chloe Nelson is the program assistant for mnartists.org.
Viewfinder posts are your opportunity to “show & tell” about the everyday arts happenings, interesting sights and sounds made or as seen by Minnesota artists, because art is where you find it. Submit your own informal, first-person responses to the art around you to editor(at)mnartists.org, and we may well publish your piece here on the blog. (Guidelines: 300 words or less, not about your own event/work, and please include an image, media, video, or audio file, and one sentence about yourself.)