Usually I am more about trying to bridge divides of thought where people think things are in very defined spaces,” says Lina Iris Viktor from her studio in New York. “I am all about making bridges.” The painter and conceptual artist is preparing new work for her first solo museum exhibition in October at the New Orleans Museum of Art entitled Lina Iris Viktor: A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred.
Known for large-scale black and gold works on paper and canvas, the sculptural surfaces of Viktor’s pieces shimmer opulently with densely patterned iconography. There is something searingly original and contemporary about her almost cosmic composition of hieroglyphic elements that recall myriad forms, from Aboriginal Dreamtime paintings to West African textiles.
Born to Liberian parents, she lived in London and Johannesburg, travelling extensively and studying widely. Rather than being inspired by a specific location, she explains, “It’s about experience and worldliness and understanding that there is no centre.”
Work in progress from the series A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred. 2017-18. 24-carat gold, acrylic print on paper. 132x101cm.
With an education in London; studies in theatre and performance; an early exploration into acting or singing; a film focus at Sarah Lawrence College, New York; and a background in photography and design from the School of Visual Arts, New York, Viktor’s journey has informed a unique multidisciplinary practice.
Viktor has adapted an ancient method of water gilding 24-carat gold leaf, which she applies to surfaces prepared using various resins and primers in order to create, in her words, “a sculptural landscape” and “topography to each work.”
Each piece is a painstaking, undertaking involving many meticulously planned stages, with a large-scale piece taking approximately three months to complete. For her unflinching figurative pieces, Viktor selects her costume, applies make-up and photographs herself; the final image then forms the foundation for the construction of the work.
Yaa Asantewaa. 2016. Pure 24-carat gold, acrylic, gouache, print on matte canvas. 132x101cm.
Each one of the artist’s decisions, from her limited colour palette to the symbols she inscribes, carry connotations: they are vehicles for the artist to bridge meaning and investigate the creation of knowledge.
For Viktor, blackness is an abundant source of energy and creation. “My investigations are around reconfiguring the stereotypes that we have taken as gospel, which are not true,” she states. “I do a lot of work that investigates the misrepresentation of blackness and when I say blackness, I am not talking just about race.”
In her work, light and life emerge from its richness in the form of symbols, bodies or vegetal forms. Her practice powerfully disavows harmful synonyms that accompany the word “black,” terms that, in the artist’s words, “you don’t even need to go far to see... you just go to the dictionary and look it up.”
Constellations V SE. 2017. Pure 24-carat gold, acrylic, resin on cotton rag paper
Viktor relates the use of black in her work to an astrophysical exploration of “dark matter.” She elaborates: “This is literally like the materia prima, from this blackness was birthed the universe, birthed us and the earth so how can we have given it such a negative connotation?” Such negative associations have obvious and far-reaching psychological implications; they also reveal the way power is embedded in language and its use.
Viktor employs visual patterns that allude to ‘pre-language’ symbolic forms of communication that reach beyond the entrenched meanings and restrictive boundaries of language towards an ancient, more visceral and universal mode of communication. The artist describes her relationship to this imagery with great energy: “Symbols mirror the patterns of the universe... that is what resonates on this very deep level, the symbols are meant to tap into that part of our DNA to tap into the subconscious.”
Importantly, the artist’s work involves excavating global cultures and histories in order to locate patterns of meaning and explore the potential for subliminal or transcendental modes of communication. “I am greatly inspired by ancient cultures,” she says. “I am not simply interested in the aesthetics but more as a reference to the ways they viewed art. We tend to consider art a tool for self-expression or a political statement—these cultures used art as a vehicle for illumination and transcendence.”
The use of gold in Viktor’s work re-envisions traditional meanings. The contemporary preoccupation with gold as a marker of financial success or luxury is replaced by an exploration of the elemental quality of gold as a symbol and a substance. She describes how gold has historically been seen as a spiritual “conduit” as it is a metal with properties like no other. She references the sacred nature of gold in present day India and in Akan culture in Ghana.
Lina Iris Viktor, Constellations II SE, 2017, Pure 24 Karat Gold, Acrylic, Resin on Cotton Rag Paper, Unique, 2017, courtesy the artist and Mariane Ibrahim Gallery
With characteristic lyricism, Viktor describes gold as, “the closest thing on earth that mirrors the sun” and asks, “What is the spiritual quotient of this metal? What does it elicit in the people who view it, because people do have an emotional reaction when they see real gold. It is something that is godly.”
Since first exhibiting in 2013, Viktor has not looked back. This year alone she has been in group shows at the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento; Manifesta 12, Palermo; and The Artsy Vanguard in New York. Mariane Ibrahim Gallery showcased a solo presentation at The Armory Show, New York. A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred sees Viktor take something of a new approach, referring to a specific historical moment as a point of departure.
The artist examines the founding of Liberia in 1822, established as a colony of freed African-American slaves by the American Colonization Society. Focusing on this event has enabled Viktor to examine intricate and uneasy stories of nationalism, colonialism and oppression. “Liberia is a very unique situation because it was repopulated or colonised by other black people,” she says. “So it also brings up this question of when the oppressed become the oppressor, and is it about race or is it about the human drive to have power?”
In these works Viktor re-imagines the figure of the Libyan Sybil, a prophetess from antiquity utilised in the abolitionist movement as a mythical oracle who foresaw the enslavement of African people. “I was interested in using the figure as a kind of presence that is showing things, showing that which is hidden, showing the things that were removed from the consciousness of most people, all the complications of it,” she says. “It is a very convoluted contradictory kind of story.”
Lina Iris Viktor, Constellations V SE, 2017, Pure 24 Karat Gold, Acrylic, Resin on Cotton Rag Paper, Unique, 2017, courtesy the artist and Mariane Ibrahim Gallery
Viktor traverses time and space to reveal “that which is hidden.” She uncovers histories, and presents in her own words, “a warning to awaken our minds, lest history repeat itself.” This is a powerful move and a timely resistance to reductive oversimplified narratives. “I think there’s a reckoning happening right now, there is a recognition of these gaping holes in history that have been undocumented or misrepresented,” she notes. “I think about the age we are in there is a reckoning happening where we can now tell our own stories.”
Viktor describes her journey as an artist, musing, “even the idea of ‘African art’ is hilarious to me... when people talk about African art its this kind of homogenous monolithic thing.” Self-determination and an uncompromising approach to creativity are values that imbue her practice. “I love the idea of autonomy,” she remarks. Viktor is carving out a space of autonomy to tell potent stories of human experience from her own inimitable standpoint.
A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred runs at the New Orleans Museum of Art from 5 October 2018-6 January 2019