Some Are Born To Endless Night: Dark Matter
Updated: Apr 29
Lina Iris Viktor Exhibition at The Autograph Gallery.
January 2020. Review.
Some Are Born to Endless Night: Dark Matter is a stunning exhibition of artistic treasures, predominantly in black and gold, that takes its title from the poem Auguries of Innocence by William Blake, an early 19th century painter, poet, printer and visionary. British/Liberian artist Lina Iris Viktor pays homage to the beauty and mysticism of Blake’s vision, but presents so much more of her own unique, contemporary body of work exploring sensory experience, personal and collective identity and sense of place in both society and the natural world. For Lina and viewers alike, this is a chance to revel in the artist's “concept of unruly visual pleasure”.
The New Old World Within Reach
Gallery 1: Dark Continent 2015-2019
The pictures in the first chamber are set out around a marvellously crafted framework, composed of lattices and tropical plants, all spray-painted black. This creates an immersive environment in which viewers can stroll around and enjoy the magical art. I found it very easy to become fully immersed.
The Black Ark, carved wood and acrylic, at the Autograph
The display comprises 54 self-portraits as well as several larger works, all in black and gold, and a selection from a series of larger pieces drawing on a wider palette, merging painting, photography, sculpture and performance. The application of gold leaf is prolific. In some cases, forgive me for this humble impression, Lina, squeezed 24 karat gold blobs rather than leaf. But blobs only in terms of thickness and size; they are applied with great skill and diligence, mainly against a black matt background, creating a stunning, shining, textured, effect.
The subject’s body is frequently either nude or partially hidden by luxuriant, exotic plants. This suggests either vulnerability, or boldness. Perhaps both. In either case there is a sense of being unable to escape the endless night in Viktor's individual and inherited, collective experience; current and historic. For me, the eyes have it. They are arresting. They define her demeanour, which is sometimes at peace, but more often reveals angst, anguish and a desire to grasp some deeper, greater sensation and meaning. In some images, this extends to anger and reproach.
Refuge from the Aftermath
Recall, the Gold Sifted from Dirt
The larger works are again mainly self-portraits, with several abstract compositions featuring words and symbols, presenting
“a maze of coded, labyrinthine symbols alluding to subliminal modes of communication and visceral forms of expression”
(Renee Mussai, exhibition curator). The curator's notes provide a fascinating and enlightening way into Viktor's creative world.
At the risk of mentioning this once too often, the gold and black colour scheme is everywhere. Viktor is a genuine alchemist and she maximises her powers though this intense combination, fusing the minimalist with the opulent. But I defer to the artist on this. Her term, subtly different, is “Minimal decadence”.
There are deeper considerations, though, beyond the palette. As Renee Mussai explains, there is reference throughout the exhibition to Africa and specifically to Liberia, Viktor’s homeland. Much of the energy in her art is a response to the
“the myths of Africa as a sinister place of danger, chaos and disease”, also to “Colonial histories and the politics of ownership”.
This prompts considerable soul searching. I find myself hovering between wonder and appreciation, on an aesthetic level, and a corporate sense of responsibility for the historical injustice that has led to this beautiful artistic response. For many, there is much to be learnt and addressed yet.
Gallery 2: The Blue Void
I move upstairs to a second chamber to see The Blue Void, where I find evidence of the artist splashing out in her choice of colours. Splashing, I know, is completely the wrong word for her technique, which is controlled, refined and superlative. The process involves the merging of photographic images of the body within a painted background. The dominant colours are ultramarine blue, vermilion red and…yes...the all familiar gold. For Viktor, the ultramarine “is potent, ethereal, and other worldly”.
Syzygy, from the Blue Void series
Eleventh, from the A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred series
Going beyond the colour scheme, the curator’s exhibition notes refer once more to the deep socio-historical element of this collection, drawn from personal and national origins, struggles and division:
“Viktor contemplates the notion of lost histories and the complex founding story of Liberia, re-imagining a fraught narrative of migration, colonialism and oppression through the mercurial figures of the Libyan Sybil”.
Through the artistic process, Viktor is “exploring historical, cultural and material implications of ‘blackness’ ” (Mussai).
The Autograph has secured something wonderful with this exhibition. There is great beauty and mystery, but there is also a prominent statement on social realities. All of this must be grasped, not just sensed, to learn, to come closer to what the artist is presenting and the conditions in which the art has been produced. The story behind the creativity. Downstairs, again, I have the good fortune to overhear more about the artist and the gallery as a guide takes a small group around. The Autograph specifically supports black artists. Mainly photographic displays, promoting their excellence and providing opportunities, not otherwise widely available, to show their creativity.
The Exaltations Before Time. She...
Dark Matter is normally a term from physics and space, but in this exhibition the concept and the experience are so much more immediate and corporeal. A performance in black and gold, and an exploration of the human condition through perceptions of identity and affirmations of the self, challenging the restraints of social and cultural frameworks.
Viktor presents herself through this collection as a "a sole performer in a meticulously created, artistic universe" (Mussai). Through her artistic performance, the artist is also assuming the role of social activist. Though a lone protagonist, as the artist, her desire must be for a combined response. If not a fully shared experience or even understanding then at least a collective force for change.
© Eddie Hewitt 2020
All images: photographs by Eddie Hewitt of the original Lina Iris Viktor artworks on display at the gallery
The artist in her studio: image via her Twitter feed