It is just after 2 p.m. on a miserable autumn afternoon in London’s east end when I rock up to Autograph ABP. I cannot help but laugh to myself in bemusement as I pass an endless stream of fellow Londoners seeking refuge under the awnings of local cafes and restaurants to escape the relentless beating of the rain.
I laugh partially, of course, because, for me, it is London’s precariousness that makes her so faithful to those who know her well. Naturally, I am protected by the large canopy of my trusted brolly, which also allows me to marvel for a few minutes over the impressive architecture of Sir David Adjaye’s Rivington Place building.
Despite my earlier triumph in predicting the likely downpour, it would be dishonest of me to claim that I also anticipated the impact that Lina Iris Viktor’s exhibition would have on me. To be completely transparent, I am still digesting how emotional it made me feel, and that, for me, is a testament in itself.
I deliberately missed the private viewing of her exhibition, expertly curated, might I add, by Renée Musai, as I expected it would be an uncomfortably snug affair. So, you can imagine how elated the introvert in me was to find that aside from the receptionist hidden behind the screen of her laptop, and one statuesque gallery assistant, I had the entire ground floor to myself.
The first portrait that I immediately gravitated toward was from the artist’s series, “Dark Continent.”
“Dark Continent” is the archaic 19th-century phrase used by Victorian explorers, writers and missionaries alike to conjure up imagery of savagery, barbarism and a lack of civilization in sub-Saharan Africa. Where dark, bare-chested women roamed in disease-infested jungles, and untold fortunes could be had by cruel men of action like Henry Morton Stanley, who dared to brave the perilous journey into the interior.
Significantly, whilst Lina plays to these images in this series; posed naked, depicted almost entirely in matte black, and immersed in the jungle, she usurps the image of the helpless, uncivilized and naked African needing saving and redemption, and in fact cuts a poised, assured and goddess-like figure, enamored in ebony and gold.
As I moved from portrait to portrait, enchanted by the obvious aesthetic beauty of the work, my mind raced as I mulled over the old and new narratives the artist dispelled and presented in equal measure in her vision of utopia. I finally arrived at the piece that took my breath away—as in I genuinely gasped in awe— “Constellation IX.”
It is difficult to describe my experience with this piece. First, I was impressed simply by the sheer artistry of the gold gilding, an ancient practice popularized thousands of years ago by the Egyptians, who valued gold for its association with the Sun God, Ra. Then, I was blown away by how painstakingly meticulous each detail was, and how the symbols protruded off the canvas, creating a three-dimensional body of work that gave it an even greater magnitude and immersive allure that seemed to pull me in closer.
After a few minutes of studious inspection, I felt myself entering a sort of meditative mode, compelling me to park myself on the bench a few meters opposite the work. As I sat there in a temporary daze, still transfixed on the work, I reflected on an early story my dad once told me as a child regarding the formation of the 17th century Asante Empire of modern-day Ghana. I recalled him telling me about the mythical tale of the descension of the Golden Stool, the symbolic seat of the Asante Kingdom carved from solid gold, that was summoned from the heavens by Okomfo Anokye, the high priest. My dad alleged that the souls of the Asante people, including mine, were held in this golden stool, and should it be destroyed or captured, so would our sacred spiritual union and power.
As a child, I was in awe, yet skeptical, about the credibility of this story. But in that moment, facing “Constellation IX,” I was reminded of the spiritual significance of pure gold and its association with a higher power beyond its earthly value.
Interestingly, like the artist, I found myself pondering whether ancient and modern African civilizations like the Egyptians and the Asantes had always understood the otherworldly nature of gold, which is why it is so revered and coveted. And whether today, we have undermined its value by limiting it as simply a store of wealth and tool of commerce based on its scarcity.
Lina once said, “Art is a vehicle to transcend...It's meant to promote you to think about yourself as a viewer”. As I left the gallery, more lightheaded than I was when I first entered, I slowly began to realize just how hypnotic and meditative her work is. Also, perhaps, despite living in the age of information and big data, just how disconnected we are today as a society to universal truths and long-understood concepts appreciated by those from earlier civilizations and societies.
Needless to say, I will be returning to Autograph ABP to further unpack and dote on Lina’s work, and I would encourage everyone to do so, too.
Lina Iris Viktor: Some Are Born to Endless Night — Dark Matter is at Autograph, London 13 September 2019 to 25 January 2020.
The showing is curated by Renée Musai. Gallery Web site: autograph.org.uk