Njideka Akunyili started college planning to be a doctor, but left as an artist and is now billed as one of New York’s most promising new talents.
The 29-year-old Nigerian-born artist has just completed a year-long residence with the prestigious Studio Harlem in New York. All five of her works sold in the first half hour of this year’s Art Basel, the world’s top fair for modern and contemporary art and African style magazine Arise described her as “fast becoming the art world’s newest star.”
Akunyili was born and brought up in the small town of New Haven in Enugu, Nigeria, and moved to the United States for college at the age of 16.
Her work, a combination of drawing, painting, printmaking and collage, combines Nigerian and American culture. Nigeria is almost a third character in my work.
“Nigeria is almost a third character in my work,” she said. “A lot of my work is about investigating my love for Nigeria and my life in America” A journey through art
“I met my husband at college and there was some anxiety that if I married outside my culture I would lose my identity, but there is a space in my work where these things come together.” Akunyili is hoping to help change attitudes to art in Nigeria, where she said appreciation is growing slowly.
“If I hadn’t left Nigeria, I wouldn’t be an artist, I would be a doctor,” she said. “When I told my parents I wanted to be an artist, they couldn’t get their heads around why an educated person who went to college in America would want to be an artist.
“If people think of artists, it’s somebody by the side of the road painting signs.”She said many new Nigerian artists were successful internationally, but few were well known within the country.
“However, there is a new crop of creative Nigerians who are changing this and others will follow,” she said. “I want to be part of that change.”
She said the country had seen a “cultural explosion” in the last 10 years in music, fashion, film and other creative industries. “When I was young, the less Nigerian you were the cooler you were, but now we have gone back to tradition,” said Akunyili. “There’s a nice energy about the country that’s finally coming into its own.”
Several of Akunyili’s works include images of a black woman and a white man — dancing in a nightclub, in bed together and in a traditional Igbo wedding ceremony.
Another shows a party at a neighbor’s house in the Nigerian town where Akunyili grew up.
Akunyili won her residency immediately after graduating with a Masters of Fine Art from Yale University. If people think of artists, it’s somebody by the side of the road painting signs.
She said: “I noticed a lot of artists I like had done a residency at Studio Harlem, and I thought this couldn’t be a coincidence. I felt something really good was happening there.
“If I had a list of all the things I wanted, this residency was at the top.
“I applied towards the end of my year at Yale, but I didn’t think I would get it because it was very competitive and a lot of people apply several times.
“I thought if it takes three times on average, I should start collecting my rejection letters. I was very surprised to get it first time.”
The residency ended with a four-month exhibition, “Primary Sources,” featuring Akunyili’s work alongside that of the two other Artists In Residence, Meleko Mokgosi and Xaviera Simmons.
“Getting the residency was a big game changer for me,” said Akunyili. “I have friends who graduated with me who have made little or no work because they are working other jobs to pay the rent. “The residency puts you on a platform for people to write about and talk about, and also puts you in touch with a lot of other artists.
“The show at the end is four months, and it’s allowed far more people to see my work than I ever thought would.
“Now it’s over I want to try and continue with the rigor of being in a studio every day.”
Akunyili’s work has not yet been shown in her own country, something she would like to change soon.
“I want people to see that art is something you can do with your life,” she said.