United through their interest in subverting prevailing ideas of Africa, Njideka Akunyili and Simone Leigh engage in creative dialogue in a joint exhibition at London’s Tiwani Contemporary gallery. Titled I Always Face You, Even When It Seems Otherwise, works in the show take the form of painting, ceramics and sculpture, and tackle divergent yet connected themes such as the intermingling of cultures and the significance of the material to the work. Akunyili is the winner of several awards including the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award (2013) and the Carol Schlosberg Memorial Prize for Excellence in Painting (2011), while Leigh is the recipient of the Creative Capital Grant (2012) and the LMCC Michael Richards Award (2012) among many others.
Njideka Akunyili seeks to convey a fresh perspective of Nigeria aligned with her own lived experienced of the country. The resulting works incorporate professional and familial interactions, as well as influences from literature, art history and popular culture. As a Nigerian living in America, she sees the surface of the painting as an ideal territory to explore the complex merging of her two national identities, describing the gap between them as a ‘no man’s land’. In addition to reflecting this problematic cultural crossover, her group and individual portraits highlight how one’s choice of clothing determines much of how they are viewed by others. In doing this, Akunyili has developed an immediately recognisable style and technique, employing methods of drawing, painting, printing and collage within a single composition.
The fabrics worn by the figures in her works, as well as the structural surfaces that they are set against, are built up of colour and black and white pop culture images. Intended to recall the frenzied patterns of African textiles, Akunyili layers the pictures through the use of transfers, a highly Western printing process in which the ink from photographs is printed directly onto another paper using solvents. The carefully selected photographs reflect something of each subject, adding another dimension to these multifaceted works.
As an American of African descent, Simone Leigh’s ceramics, sculpture, video and performance works attempt to collapse the boundaries between craft and fine art in a persistent exploration of black female identity. With a further interest in colonial and ethnographic histories, Leigh’s practice is often described as ‘Afrofuturist’, a broad term referring to the artistic tendency to engage with Africa’s troubled history in order to envision a more peaceful and positive future. The artist selects ceramic as a classic example of a low art form, but raises it to the realm of high art by creating various layers of meaning. This is often achieved through the use of traditional African pottery techniques and her choice of materials.
In a widely acclaimed work titled You Don’t Know Where Her Mouth Has Been (2012), Leigh gathers large scale ceramic sculptures of cowrie shells, which she then suspends from the ceiling of the gallery. To determine the shape of the shell the artist cast each of the objects from the peel of a watermelon. Here the watermelon is used as a symbol, recalling 21st century depictions of African Americans enjoying large slices of the fruit as a way of portraying them as a simple minded people made content through the simplest of pleasures. This discriminatory symbol is joined with the connotations of the cowrie shell as a primitive form of currency used for centuries in Africa.
Tiwani Contemporary Gallery was founded in 2011 in the heart of London’s Fitzrovia district. The gallery’s exhibition programme focuses on contemporary art from Africa, the African diaspora and the Global South. Njideka Akunyili and Simone Leigh: I Always Face You, Even When It Seems Otherwise is curated by the gallery’s Curatorial Advisor Bisi Silva.
By Ellen Von Wiegand