2020 Great Immigrants Recipient

Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Visual Artist
Born in:

Njideka Akunyili Crosby was born in Enugu, Nigeria, into a middle-class family. Her mother, a professor of pharmacology, and her father, a surgeon, lived modestly and prioritized the education of their six children. Akunyili Crosby moved to the capital city of Lagos when she was 10 years old to attend a top girls’ boarding school, and found living in the bustling, multicultural metropolis a transformational experience.

Akunyili Crosby came to the United States at age 16. She followed her mother, who wanted to provide her children with the opportunity to be educated abroad and applied to the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which uses a lottery system to select applicants from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States. Her mother would later return to serve in the Nigerian government.

Even though her family wanted her to study medicine, a painting class at a Philadelphia community college convinced Akunyili Crosby to pursue a career in art. She studied biology and art at Swarthmore College, where she met her future husband, Justin Crosby, also an artist. Akunyili Crosby went on to earn a post-baccalaureate certificate at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and an MFA from Yale University School of Art.

Akunyili Crosby’s art reflects her transnational identity. Her collage and photo-transfer paintings combine different patterns and materials, using vibrant colors to explore everything from the postcolonial legacy in Africa to the immigrant experience in the United States. Akunyili Crosby often features her parents, siblings, and husband in her work, providing a deeply personal lens into the complexities of globalization.

Akunyili Crosby has achieved both critical acclaim and financial success. Her work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Hammer Museum, among others. In 2017, Akunyili Crosby’s painting The Beautyful Ones, portraying her older sister as a girl, broke records when it sold at Christie’s for $3.1 million. The next year, she was the second artist selected to create a mural to wrap the exterior of MOCA Grand in Los Angeles. According to the museum, the outdoor initiative “invites views both by pedestrians and through the windows of moving cars on Grand Avenue.” Akunyili Crosby is the winner of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s James Dicke Contemporary Artist Prize, the New Museum’s Next Generation Prize, The Studio Museum in Harlem’s Wein Prize, and the Prix Canson. Named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 2017, two years later Akunyili Crosby made the “Time 100 Next” list of rising stars who are shaping the future of the world.

“I think the point I make in my work is that my home is Nigeria and the United States at the same time,” Akunyili Crosby has said. “That really is what it means, for me, to be an immigrant, is this navigation of two worlds at the same time.”