Only an artist with a keen eye, a well-trained hand and steady nerves would take on the cross-cultural maelstrom that is the African diaspora today. That would be Njideka Akunyili, five of whose sumptuous paintings are featured in a must-see show at Franklin Art Works through July 27.
The Minneapolis gallery has again scored a major coup in bringing this savvy artist to the Twin Cities for her first solo exhibit. This is the kind of talent-spotting that local museums should be doing but rarely have the resources or moxie to deliver.
The Nigerian-born, Brooklyn-based artist is a fast-rising star on the international scene. Just 30, she earned an MFA degree at Yale University in 2011 and immediately stepped onto a bright stage. She moved into a prestigious residency that year at the Studio Museum in Harlem followed by five 2012 shows in New York and one at the Museum of New Art in Detroit.
Last year at Art Basel Switzerland, the art world’s primo show-and-sell mosh pit, five of her monumental collages sold in just 30 minutes. Given the art world’s proclivity for hype, skeptics may be wary of so much sizzle, but the Franklin show suggests that Akunyili has the smarts to go the distance.
Her paintings, up to 10 feet tall and more than 7 feet wide, are visually engrossing scenes that often include the artist’s family or friends — dancing in a club, talking or embracing on a bed, hanging out with the kids. Ornamental grilles screen some of the figures, preserving privacy and a sense of mystery. The grilles and other visual devices — crisp edges, blocks and wedges of color, shadowed faces — introduce graphic punch and an appealing, posterish verve that is eloquently indebted to the work of the great African-American painter Romare Bearden.
And Akunyili’s Nigerian past? That appears as a rose-tinted collage of colonial-era stamps (Queen Victoria, King George V) and newspaper imagery of Nigerian leaders, pop culture stars, fashionistas and headlines (“Enough Is Enough, Let the Suffering Stop”). The collage spills across a wall, covers the floor and imprints a man’s shirt in her most obviously autobiographical piece, “5 Umbezi Street, New Haven, Enugu,” whose title alludes to Akunyili’s birth in Enugu, Nigeria, and education in New Haven, Conn. Elsewhere it links an interracial couple, tattoos an arm, covers a bed.
While avoiding confessional intimacies, Akunyili manages simultaneously to tell her story and to sketch a larger picture of emigration, dislocation and what she has called the “contradictory loyalties” in her love for Nigeria and her appreciation of Western culture.
When: Noon-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat. Ends July 27.
Where: Franklin Art Works, 1021 Franklin Av. E., Mpls.
Info: 612-872-7494 or www.franklinartworks.org.