A Tribute to Contemporary West African Culture, Painted With 24-Carat Gold

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Seventh (2018)© Lina Iris Viktor, Courtesy the Artist and Mariane Ibrahim Gallery

In her new exhibition, British-Liberian artist Lina Iris Viktor interrogates the idea of nationhood with powerful poignancy

When British-Liberian artist Lina Iris Viktor enrolled in college in the United States, she was confronted with the subject of race and identity in a manner she had never considered prior to coming to America. “I realised what it meant to be Black in the US, and experienced the cultural realities that came with it,” Viktor tells AnOther.

Charged with the desire to examine her roots and explore her heritage, Viktor discovered an inextricable link in Pan-African history that has become the very heart of the new exhibition, Lina Iris Viktor: A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred, now on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Here, Viktor looks back to the founding of Liberia, Africa’s first and oldest modern republic. Established in 1822 by the American Colonization Society, Liberia was originally imagined as a conduit for the resettlement of free-born and formerly enslaved Black Americans in the early days of the abolitionist movement.

Artists and writers of the era seized the figure of the “Libyan Sibyl,” a prophetess from classical antiquity who foretold of tragedy, and recast her in the image of activist and freed slave Sojourner Truth – a symbol Viktor embraces throughout this series of glorious large-scale self-portraits exquisitely gilded with 24-carat gold. Here, Viktor shares her journey across time and space, reclaiming the lost narratives that demand to be told.

On questioning contemporary ideologies...
“Considering today’s political landscape not only in the US but globally, it feels like a prophetic time to interrogate current concepts of nationhood, colonialism and how our shared histories define and delineate contemporary identities. My work seeks to ask questions about the society we live in, rather than provide answers; I want to make people question why certain ideologies exist and what they really imply.”

On the timeless glory of gold...
“I am inspired by ancient societies of the global south, who often viewed gold as a conduit between worlds. But even our more contemporary narratives surrounding gold – particularly its greater cosmological story – reflect the idea of gold as a passage between states. 

“Gold is made from the death of a star, although it is believed to have travelled by meteor to land on earth; from here, people mine the earth, sift through the dirt and seek to acquire gold for their own purposes. It is the straddling of the transcendent and the earthly, similar to an oscillation between life and death, which lends such a bewitching potency to its use.”

On the transcendent power of symbols...
“African cultures – particularly ancient cultures – inspire and inform my works in terms of the materials I use, the symbology I depict, and narratives I weave. Perhaps the most direct use is through the introduction of the Libyan Sibyl, a heralded priestess with the ability to foresee ill-fated futures. The mercurial nature of the sibyl became an artistic motif for these interrelated, transcultural histories and thus became the protagonist. These often accidental, historical discoveries then inform my works, becoming subjects with a new cultural significance all their own.”

On the potency of the prophetess...
“Sojourner Truth was born a slave and eventually emancipated herself, her family and many others; in her lifetime, she became both an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. The Libyan Sibyl and Sojourner Truth became seemingly conflated in cultural abolitionist thought. According to Classical mythology, the Libyan Sibyl foretold the ‘coming of the day when that which is hidden shall be revealed’; this seemingly reflected Sojourner Truth’s belief in a time of revelation, redemption, and rebirth (whether that be through abolition or repatriation), or most importantly, freedom.”

On A Dream Deferred...
“The title of the exhibition refers to the idea of Liberia as an uneasy utopia, positioning it as a promise which, in many ways, became a paradise lost. The phrase ‘A Dream Deferred’, is the Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem; this poem is significant as it comments on the many unrealised hopes of the African-American experience.”

Lina Iris Viktor: A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred is on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art until January 6, 2019.