b.O.s. 5.2 / Obodo (Country/City/Town/Ancestral Village) / Steven Nelson

Details, left to right: Olalekan Jeyifous’s Improvised Shanty-Megastructures, 2015; Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s Obodo (Country/City/Town/Ancestral Village), 2018; summer fucking mason’s Copper, 2017; Okwui Okpokwasili and Peter Born’s Sitting on a Man’s Head, 2018. 

Black One Shot is a series that stages brevity and precision in response to a single work of black art, contemporary and/or prescient. Using a 1000-word conceit, it references the pressures on scholars and curators to present complex discussions and formulations of blackness for public consumption, political action, and academic relevance. It disputes staid frameworks of interpretation that cannot or will not account for the speculative, ambivalent, and irreconcilable ways of black forms. It speaks to the ongoing case for black lives and art mattering. And it conjures up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object.

As an assembly of strategies, impulses, and circuits, these pieces conduct an historiographic and aesthetic review of how blackness and the arts demand and distend. We circulate them as a new measure of art criticism, one keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness, pleasure, and critical contemplation. Black visual and expressive culture and all to which it is connected is better for these queries.

With 30+ contributors, b.O.s. will run the course of summertime, when the living is (un)easy. We invite you to follow and share as new work is issued every two weeks. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J.

This fifth transmission (7.30.18) features Charles Davis on Olalekan Jeyifous’s Improvised Shanty-Megastructures, Steven Nelson on Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s Obodo (Country/City/Town/Ancestral Village), The Black Aesthetic on summer fucking mason’s Copper, and Tina Campt on Okwui Okpokwasili and Peter Born’s Sitting on a Man’s Head.

– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)

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Njideka Akunyili Crosby (b. 1983 in Enugu, Nigeria; lives in Los Angeles), Obodo (Country/City/Town/Ancestral Village), 2018, Adhesive vinyl, Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice. This project by Njideka Akunyili Crosby is generously supported by MOCA’s Board of Trustees. Photography by Elon Schoenholz.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby (b. 1983 in Enugu, Nigeria; lives in Los Angeles), Obodo (Country/City/Town/Ancestral Village), 2018, Adhesive vinyl, Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice. This project by Njideka Akunyili Crosby is generously supported by MOCA’s Board of Trustees. Photography by Elon Schoenholz.

Earlier this year, Njideka Akunyili Crosby created the outdoor mural Obodo (Country/City/Town/Ancestral Village) to cover the Grand Avenue façade of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Ostensibly a transformation of several of the artist’s past works from painting, collage, and printmaking into adhesive vinyl, the mural transforms architect Arata Isozaki’s red sandstone façade into a massive tableau on which Crosby explores personal history, the workings of memory, and quotidian experience.

When asked about her life as an immigrant in the US based in Los Angeles, Crosby insisted, “Nigeria is my home.”1 With that in mind, Odobo not only underscores the artist’s recollections of her homeland but also explores connectedness and disconnectedness to the place of both her birth and her current residence. Through autobiography, memory, and even nostalgia, Crosby’s mural exists as an intense meditation on the experience of migration.

Obodo is packed with imagery: self-portraits of the artist, common objects of her childhood, pixelated images that read like faded photo albums or scrapbooks, a commemorative textile that memorializes Crosby’s mother, Professor Dora Nkem Akunyili (1954-2014), as well as plants that upon closer inspection morph into moments of recollection. The work is impossible to take in all at once. Certainly, for those familiar with the Nigeria of Crosby’s childhood, Obodo offers an expansive route to remembering. Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, commenting on the artist’s 5 Umebezi Street, New Haven (2012), suggests that Crosby:

“uses mundane details as entry into the sacred act of preserving memory. The dining table at the back with its milo and flask and Nido, breakfast accoutrements on permanent display. The bathroom slippers. The guests drinking coke. The dutiful but sharp-tongued-behind-the-scenes househelp or cousin from the village with her isi owu. The child’s protruding navel. The contentment. A slice of middle-class Igbo life – before the proliferation of mobile phones.”2

Seeing the work as a scene that recalls their common Igbo childhood, the novelist underscores the intensely personal nature of Crosby’s work as Adichie’s description is also true for Obodo.

Yet with multiple juxtapositions of the artist as an adult with the “mundane things of her childhood” Odobo is more than a simple recollection of the artist’s past. The mural, an example of what Jonathan Flatley has called “affective mapping,” demonstrates how Crosby remembers.3 It also delineates the past as a constitutive part of the artist’s present reality, defined in part by the artist’s distance from her home and the desire to maintain her connection to it. In placing herself amongst the things of her past, Crosby visualizes Simone Weil’s dictum: “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”4

Njideka Akunyili Crosby (b. 1983 in Enugu, Nigeria; lives in Los Angeles), Obodo (Country/City/Town/Ancestral Village), 2018, Adhesive vinyl, Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice. This project by Njideka Akunyili Crosby is generously supported by MOCA’s Board of Trustees. Photography by Elon Schoenholz.

At the same time, Obodo stresses experiences of migration. Placed in scenes where she sits on furniture covered by pixelated photographs, appears within the shape of a leaf, and dons a headwrap common in her homeland, Crosby’s repeated figure suggests a visual historiography of the artist in which she defines geographic displacement through temporal means. Writing about migration and diaspora, Ranajit Guha frames the migratory experience as temporal, suggesting that migrants in a new place are understood “only in the immediacy of the present.”5 The work’s movement between temporal registers also finds voice in its title. Obodo is an Igbo word that means “city.” As the artist described in an interview, obodo has multiple meanings. It can be used in reference to an ancestral village, a town, or even a foreign place. Crosby used the term with respect to having moved from the village of her birth to Lagos as a child. She mentioned that “Obodo Lagos” meant a big city, a place of foreigners, and stressed that the terms could also be used in reference to places populated by whites.6 With these things in mind, Obodo transforms MOCA’s façade site where Crosby upends notions of a one-dimensional view of immigrants who exist only in the now. Moreover, with its imagery and in this location, Obodo is a stay against loss. Along such lines, Crosby constructs a personal history stretching from Igboland to Obodo Los Angeles.

What’s more, this personal history, monumental in scale, underscores the artist’s claim with respect to her work Portals (2016) that the “viewer is kind of engulfed and pulled into this world that goes beyond his field of vision.”7 Obodo, dwarfing and disorienting the viewer who cannot take in the whole work with a single glance, immerses the viewer in a world where, if only momentarily, she is disconnected from her own subjectivity. Crosby’s world, to borrow from Flatley, is one where the viewer is a non-subject.8 However, within this world, the viewer makes connections, “between the affective experience one has within the world created by the work on the one hand and the affective attachments one has within the world of everyday life on the other.”9

Obodo’s images and its title point to fragmentation and multivalence. In the mix of everyday objects, with flat screens and old screen, dishes and suggestions of OMO laundry detergent (ubiquitous in Nigeria), images of her mother, and pixelated photos as scrapbooks made into upholstery, Crosby suggests a migratory experience that aligns with the “plurality of vision,” one the artist expresses in both art and experience, that Edward Said ascribed to those in exile.10 For the author, the ability to view a place in multiple registers “gives rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that—to borrow from music—is contrapuntal” (author’s emphasis).11 Obodo, in its splicing, mixing, and temporal movement, exists as a contrapuntal play, a polyglot of mediums—recast in vinyl—that visualizes the multiple dimensions produced by migration. But within these multiple ways of understanding the world, Obodo holds out the promise of both the retention of home and a connection to residence. Obodo exists in fragments, but as an analogue to Weil, it visualizes an ideal: to be multiply rooted is to enable us to become fully realized human beings.12

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This is one of four essays from the fifth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s. 5.1 / Improvised Shanty-Megastructures / Charles Davis
b.O.s. 5.3 / Copper / The Black Aesthetic
b.O.s. 5.4 / Sitting on a Man’s Head / Tina Campt

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About the editors: 

Michael Boyce Gillespie is Associate Professor of Film at The City College of New York, CUNY. He has published on film theory, black visual and expressive culture, and contemporary art. Recent work includes co-editing (w/ Racquel Gates) the “Dimensions in Black: Perspectives on Black Film and Media” dossier for Film Quarterly 71.2 (Winter 2017). He is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). He is currently working on his next book tentatively titled Death Grips: Film Blackness and Cinema in the Wake. He would rather live in Oakland than Wakanda.

Lisa Uddin is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies and Paul Garrett Fellow at Whitman College. She has published widely on race, space, and human/nonhuman entanglements in modern and contemporary visual culture, and is the author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Her current book project, Sunspots: Black Cosmologies of California Design, considers black expressive practices in formations of California architecture and urbanism since the 1960s. She is mid-tone beige.


  1. Njideka Akunyili Crosby, interviewed by Madeline Brand, Accessed July 8, 2018.
  2. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Accessed July 8, 2018.
  3. See Jonathan Flatley, Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), especially Chapter Two: “Affective Mapping,” 76-84.
  4. Simone Weil, The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties for Mankind, trans., Arthur Wills (London, Routledge, 2003), 43.
  5. Ranajit Guha, “The Migrant’s Time,” Postcolonial Studies: Culture, Politics, Economy, vol. 1, no. 2 (1998): 156.
  6. Njideka Akunyili Crosby, interviewed by Madeline Brand, Accessed July 8, 2018.
  7. Diane Solway, “Nigerian Artist Njidecka Akunyili Crosby is Painting the Afropolitan Story in America,” W, August 15, 2017. Accessed July 21, 2018.
  8. Flatley, 83.
  9. Flatley, 84.
  10. Edward W. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 186.
  11. Said, 186.
  12. See Weil, 43.