If I were starting a gallery, Njideka Akunyili would be the first artist I would call. I was introduced to Akunyili's work last December, when I reviewed the first installment of The Studio Museum's The Bearden Project. All three of the museum's 2011 - 2012 Artists in Residence contributed a piece to the exhibition, but it was Akunyili's "Efulefu: The Lost" One that stole the show -- if I were warranted in saying such things, I might say it was the most resounding debut of 2011. From "Efulefu" alone, I was pretty sure that Njideka Akunyili was going to be an artist we would be seeing for years to come. And there was no other show I looked forward to more than Primary Sources, the Studio Museum's annual Artists in Residence exhibition. Good thing it's finally here.
There are two other Artists in Residence sharing the stage with Akunyili in Primary Sources, Meleko Mokgosi and Xaviera Simmons. From the evidence in the show, Meleko Mokgosi is chiefly a painter -- his "Pax Kaffraria" series highlights his skill at pulling off dramatic, photo-realism while capitalizing on negative space. There is also a conceptual series of his, "Wall of Casbah," which revises, and argues with, a group of museum placards (I don't say that sarcastically or dismissively; you should see them, he has a daunting intelligence). Xaviera Simmons works in a variety of media, from photography to video art, and she seems to get everything she wants from whatever medium she's using; if it's polished, it's knowingly polished, and if it's blurry, visually or in meaning, it's because she wants it to be. As a poet, I was most intrigued with Simmons' "For The Glow Went And The Whole Scene," a language-piece that alternates between lists ("BLACK CURRENT LEAF SAP FIG LEAVES") and lyrical pastures ("JUST EIGHT MILES AWAY BY THE FIRST FLIGHT"). Of the two artists, I was more drawn to Mokgosi's work -- I would like to see the "Pax Kaffraria" paintings in their entirety -- but I was really there, I admit, to see where Primary Sources would take Njideka Akunyili next. Like the show itself, I spent equal time on all three Artists in Residence, and there will be some who fall in love with both Mokgosi and Simmons through Primary Sources. For me, it was Akunyili, even more dazzling than before, stealing the show.
In Primary Sources, we find Njideka Akunyili working through a long collage series that chronicles her relationship and marriage to a white American man (Akunyili is a Nigerian-born artist). A quick look at her website gives you a good sense of the series -- colorful, intimate scenes, typically depicting the two together or in a group. They are also very large, as large as the Abstract Expressionist canvases over at the Guggenheim, but Akunyili works on paper, which gives her collages a certain delicacy and warmth, easy to approach and to enjoy.
What might be harder to see online or in reproductions are the hundreds of photographs that have been xeroxed and transferred onto each figure and their surrounding environment. This is where the collage process comes in most formally for Akunyili. Mostly of her Nigerian friends and family, but also of cultural and political figures, these images are the kind you would see in someone's photo album, documenting travel, reunions and even Akunyili's wedding. From afar, they have a beautiful way of almost reflecting off of the paper; up close, they imbue each scene with memory and nostalgia, not quite mournfully but observantly. As the show's introduction puts it, Akunyili's work is very much about "what it means to stay connected to one place while living in another," and in that tension between the present scenes and the photos from Akunyili's past, her collages sing.
Some in Primary Sources underscore the (almost) overwhelming cultural divide between the husband and wife - see "Nwantinti" in the first room -- while others insist on an unbreakable bond -- in "I Always Face You, Even When it Seems Otherwise." But no Akunyili collage surrenders in this exhibition, and, in keeping with "Efulefu: The Lost One," they are fundamentally romantic works of art. This is one of the defining characteristics of her body of work thus far and a distinction that sets her bravely apart from her contemporaries.
Calling them "pure" collages is a little misleading; Akunyili paints sometimes just as much as she collages. And in both her work and in Meleko Mokgosi's there is a genuine return to the painterly figure. This is important insofar as it punctuates a developing shift in contemporary art, away from conceptualism and irony, those great veils artists wear so much. The craftsmanship on view is hard to match, and for those gallery-goers who like to see art they could not produce themselves (count me among you), this exhibition is one to marvel at.
For all three 2011 - 2012 Artists in Residence -- Njideka Akunyili, Meleko Mokgosi and Xaviera Simmons -- Primary Sources is a big moment; it's a send-off show, concluding their residencies at the museum, and it tends to be a time when galleries begin to call. (Now, whether any of them want to sign to a gallery, my dream gallery or a real one, is another question). I wish them all well and by the looks of things, we'll be seeing all three for years to come, not just Njideka Akunyili. But when Akunyili does have her first solo show, probably this fall or early in 2013, you can bet I'll be there and I'll bet right now it'll make my day.