Njideka Akunyili Crosby Sets New Auction Record with Non-Figurative Painting, Proceeds Benefit Studio Museum in Harlem

“Bush Babies” (2017) by Njideka Akunyili Crosby.


THE AUCTION PRICE FOR A PAINTING by Njideka Akunyili Crosby climbed a bit higher last week. “Bush Babies” by the Nigerian-born, Los Angeles-based artist sold for nearly $3.4 million including fees at Sotheby’s New York, a new artist record. Her previous high was just north of $3 million.

Made in 2017, “Bush Babies” was on view during Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp (Nov. 18, 2017-Feb. 25, 2018), the recent New Orleans triennial. The mixed-media painting was included in a solo exhibition of new and existing works presented at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Akunyili Crosby’s record-setting painting was part of an all-star line up that opened Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction on May 16. Sotheby’s Contemporary sale was split across two days, a tightly curated auction offering prime works, followed by a day sale with more than 350 lots.

The evening sale opened with six lots in a row by black artists, which is probably a historic first. After generations of under-recognition, it’s only been a decade or so since six black contemporary artists garnered sufficient mainstream curatorial recognition and market demand for the auction house to be willing to take on their work, much less front load its marquis sale with it.

The line up was composed of Mark Bradford, Julie Mehretu, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Glenn Ligon, and Akunyili Crosby, who donated their works to benefit the Studio Museum in Harlem, and Kerry James Marshall, whose work was consigned by the Chicago Convention Center authority. These outliers are at the top of their game, making culturally specific work with universal aesthetic and intellectual appeal that commands sometimes unexpected and often record-setting prices.

“Past Times,” Marshall’s monumental painting, skyrocketed to an astounding $21.1 million—an artist record and the highest price achieved at auction for a living African American artist. Music mogul Sean Combs was later revealed to be the purchaser. The groundbreaking, black-on-black achievement overshadowed the results of the other artists’ works, which would have otherwise been outstanding. Each attracted at least twice their high estimate. Coming up for bid right before Marshall’s painting, “Bush Babies” carried an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000 and yielded $3,375,000, more than four times the high expectation.

Exploring post-colonial identity, Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s large-scale works on paper are densely layered compositions, both in format and meaning.

EXPLORING POST-COLONIAL IDENTITY, Akunyili Crosby’s large-scale works on paper are densely layered compositions, both in format and meaning. Bridging her personal narrative with the broader political history of Nigeria, the collaged paintings are composed of Xerox transfers of family photos and pages from Nigerian newspapers and lifestyle magazines. Challenging conventions of representation, Akunyili Crosby’s portraits and domestic scenes present a counter-narrative to stereotypical perceptions about the lives of contemporary Africans.

Known for her figurative works, “Bush Babies” is a departure, but the image is familiar. Using her signature collage technique, the artist has paired two different kinds of foliage, referencing her bi-furcated cultural experience. Although the figures that ordinarily dominate her work as subjects are absent, multiple figurative images are embedded throughout the painting, hidden in the “bush.”

Akunyili Crosby only produces a few paintings each year and rarely is one of her works made available on the primary market. “Her last solo gallery show, at Victoria Miro in London in 2016, had 18 institutions on the waiting list trying to buy a work,” according to Nate Freeman of Artsy. “Her prices on the primary market can be $100,000 or less, but because of the demand, auction is one of the only options for collectors who want to skip the waitlist.”

Her auction history is short, less than two years old. Her first painting to come to market sold for approximately $93,000 in September 2016 at Sotheby’s New York, and thereafter her prices rose at a sharp clip. Akunyili Crosby’s most recent record was set in March 2017 when “The Beautyful Ones,” a 2012 portrait of her sister sold for $3,075,774 at Christie’s London. CT


TOP IMAGE: Lot 5: NJIDEKA AKUNYILI CROSBY, “Bush Babies,” 2017 (acrylic, transfers, colored pencil and collage on paper, 72 x 60 inches). | Estimate $600,000-$800,000. Sold for $3,375,000 including fees. RECORD


“I Refuse to be Invisible” was published to coincide with Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s exhibition at the Norton Museum of Art. The show was her first survey and the book is the first to document her practice and includes a lengthy interview with the artist. A portrait by Akunyili Crosby appears on the cover of “Fired Up! Ready to Go!: Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art. The Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz,” which explore the hundreds of works in the collections of the late Washington arts patron and dedicated supporter of young artists.


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