NEW HAVEN — In a room at the Yale University Art Gallery filled with masterpieces by Rothko, Pollock, Lichtenstein, and LeWitt, one of the most arresting images is this picture by 30-year-old Njideka Akunyili. Nine feet across and
7 feet high, it’s called “The Rest of Her Remains.”
Akunyili was born in the city of Enugu, in central Nigeria. She came to the United States in her 20s, studying art in Pennsylvania and, more recently, at Yale University School of Art in New Haven. Despite her youth, she has already acquired a reputation as one of the most interesting artists of her generation.
From a distance, “The Rest of Her Remains” shows a foreshortened figure lying clothed on a bed in a pose immediately reminiscent of Edouard Manet’s “The Dead Toreador,” a painting, at once ravishing and reserved, that was described in 1872 by the critic Armand Silvestre as “the most complete symphony in black major ever attempted.”
Up close, Akunyili’s picture gets more complex. The medium, to begin with, is not immediately obvious. It turns out that she has used a combination of acrylic paint, charcoal, and ink, as well as collaged and transferred photographs, all laid down on paper.
The photographs, which can be seen on the bedspread, on the wallpaper around the open wardrobe, and on the floor, appear to be from fashion and news magazines. There are also reproductions of art and snapshots of personal significance both from Akunyili’s childhood in Nigeria and her married adult life in the United States.
The technique is dazzling, and creates a tension between the abrupt, physical intimacy of the supine figure, and the different kind of intimacy suggested by the photographs.
What do they amount to, these images? A kind of personal album? The fragmented pieces of an abandoned identity? If so, just how irretrievable is it?
And anyway, whose tradition belongs to whom? Nigeria shares with the United States, of course, a British heritage, and, looking at a map, I notice that the city of Enugu, where Akunyili was born, has a suburb called New Haven. Nothing is straightforward.
The picture’s title, with its calculated ambivalence, reinforces the general uncertainty. Are we looking at physical remains — a dead body, as in the original Manet (where blood pools beneath the Toreador’s head)?
Or is it a reference to a different kind of death: the part of oneself that one leaves behind when one leaves the city, the country, the continent one grew up in?
“The Rest of Her Remains” is a painting of the African diaspora. But it’s also a picture of a particular woman, in a particular room, wearing particular shoes, at a particular moment of the day. And if the artist herself can’t quite retrieve or make sense of that moment, she has done everything she can to make us believe in it.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.