British-Liberian conceptual artist Lina Iris Viktor’s exhibition – ‘Some Are Born to Endless Night – Dark Matter’ (Autograph, Rivington Place, London, 13 September 2019 – 25 January 2020) – featured more than 60 works on paper and canvas (including several new commissions) from a recent portfolio of photographic self-portraiture and performance-based installations that she has been developing since 2015 to examine the historical, cultural and material implications of blackness.
Curated by Renée Mussai, the exhibition was displayed over two floors in two inter-connected ground floor gallery areas and an upper room, respectively painted in gold, black and ultramarine blue to complement the striking luminescence and depth of colour showcased in the artworks.
As soon as you walked through the main entrance at Autograph you were greeted with the following statement, clearly establishing from the outset the artist’s conceptual underpinnings for this presentation:
“I only see the absolute beauty and the depth of black…– Lina Iris Viktor
Black to me is the proverbial ‘materia prima‘: the first matter,
blackness as source, the dark matter that birthed everything.”
Thereafter, the galleries displayed several series of works centralising and foregrounding stunning photographic images of the artist, wholly or partially covered in jet black body paint and pictured in intricately stylised settings of black foliage – overlaid with additional gilding in 24-karat gold to enable the featured symbolism to stand out more prominently against the layers and shades of black opacity and opalescence on the canvases and gallery walls.
In addition to the many figurative works, the main space on the ground floor – Gallery 1: Dark Continent (2015-19) -featured a large, modular sculptural installation – ‘The Black Ark‘ (2017-19) – comprising fourteen painted and latticed wood panels. Each part of the framework was designed to simulate the appearance of nets used by Liberian fishermen and arranged as an immersive, maze-like structure through which visitors walked to experience a more intimate visual encounter with the larger-scale works on canvas. The mottled lighting and additional pots of faux foliage interspersed throughout the installation combined with the vivid portraiture in beautifully subtle and sublime ways to challenge mythical, 19th century colonialist imaginings of Africa as the so-called ‘dark continent.’
Gallery 2 on the upper level was titled ‘Blue Void’ and featured a focused presentation of four, large, multi-layered figurative works on canvas, presented inside and around a brightly painted ultramarine blue cube room. All four self-portraits were part of a broader series of 11 works, titled ‘A Heaven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred’ (2018) inspired by the artist’s studio in New York. The imagery enabled Viktor to express her aesthetic responses to the loss of ancestral histories and heritage in Liberia – and continental Africa more broadly – as a result of centuries of colonialism and oppression.
The breath-taking purity and depth of the blue used on the walls and the cuboid structure conveyed a powerful energy throughout the space and gave the impression that the artworks were suspended in an ethereal sea. For the artist, a powerful impetus for creating this Blue Void was to produce an atmosphere that encouraged reflection and immersion, using the colour’s potency and particular frequency to affect the consciousness of each visitor and transport them into an ‘otherworldly’ realm.
As with several of the works shown on the ground floor, the portrait ‘Third’ showed the artist looking away from the camera with her back to the viewing audience. By choosing to avoid and avert her eyes from the lens and the spectator’s gaze, Lina Iris Viktor was making a powerful statement about retaining complete control over her corporeality, her image-making and her sense of self.
Writing about the creation of the Blue Void, Lina Iris Viktor conveyed the powerful auratic properties of the colour palette as follows:
“A big impetus to create the Blue Void was to replicate this duality of space that I experience every day in my studio: a parallel space for immersion and reflection: blue urges you to reflect…. In my studio you experience it palpably: the frequency is different: the sound is different – it literally transforms the entire energy of the space…”– Lina Iris Viktor
Whilst I enjoyed viewing this exhibition, and was inspired by the artist’s powerful image-making, my overall visitor experience at Autograph was marred by the questionable behaviour of a very discourteous and unwelcoming member of their reception staff, who showed disdain for me and two other visitors simply for arriving on time to see the exhibition before she was belatedly willing to open the doors at Rivington Place in line with the scheduled viewing hours. When reviewing and critiquing art exhibitions I always strive to convey my full impression of an institution – from the entrance threshold right through to the boardroom and other back-office decision-making spaces. It is regrettable, therefore, that the outstanding artwork of Lina Iris Viktor – ably supported by Renée Mussai’s careful research and stellar curatorship – happened to be so poorly served by a ‘gate-keeper’ who felt it was somehow appropriate to speak down to and berate visiting members of the public instead of welcoming them. For this reason, I actually have to caution anyone who’d like to visit this exhibition for the remainder of its run at Rivington Place – which concludes on January 25th, 2020 – to do so with great care to avoid being taken aback by a hostile reception.