Lina Iris Viktor: A Haven, A Hell, A Dream Deferred (A Review)by
Lina Iris Viktor, Eleventh, 2018
Something used by someone else carries a history with it. A piece of cloth, a platter, a cut-glass pitcher, a recipe.
A history and a spirit. You want to know when it was used. And how. And what it wants from you. 
Reminiscent of a Babylonian Lillith in her beauty and fierceness, the paintings of Lina Iris Viktor, on exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art from October 5, 2018, through January 6, 2019, feature her presence ornamented with the ubiquitous gold and lapis blue of a number of global ancient societies. This color combination, usually reserved for statuary or temple murals in the Ancient Near East and Egypt, also found itself repeated in Ancient Greece as well as in the mosaic work of Byzantine churches. But one cannot help but also be reminded of the indigo dyed fabrics of Dogon elders and Nigerian adire, as well as the shimmering gold-adorned royal bodies of the Akan. Viktor, who is of Liberian descent, has noted that African and ancient iconography inspire and inform her works in terms of the materials she uses, the symbology she depicts, and the narratives she weaves.
This blue and gold color scheme often favored by Viktor is in her most recent work punctuated with a crimson red and black. The Liberian or American flag, refashioned with bold stripes of black and gold, is featured in many of the works, creeping in from the corners of the paintings or suitably bleeding out through the edges, always hanging limply, oozing defeat. The black painted faces remind the viewer both of the white kaolin covering adolescent Sande initiates in the major ethnic groups throughout Liberia as well as early twentieth-century American minstrels, a tense and dynamic associative juxtaposition.
Leafy exotica, expertly rendered in thick resin, abound as do hallowed temple hallways in the settings that this sullen protagonist finds herself occupying. She is in one instance Benoist’s elegant sitter defining liberty for 19thcentury France and in another, Minoan Snake Goddess. Both baring one breast in an Amazonian fashion that subverts rather than exoticizes, and at all turns the dichotomies of modernism are shattered like a prism. But the work is not at all the reactionary deconstructive turn of postmodernism either. In her most recent interview for Cultured Magazine, Viktor makes a point to note that her perspective is future-focused, yet not necessarily Afrofuturist.But what does this mean in the reading of it for less well-versed museumgoers and art aficionados alike?
The exhibition’s secondary title, A Haven, A Hell, A Dream Deferred, helps to answer that question by asking us when exactly does a utopia become dystopic and why? So call that what you like – Afrofuturist or future-focused, Viktor maps iconography both idyllic and isolating, on the body of the feminine.
In her first major solo museum exhibition, Viktor’s work is artfully curated by Allison Young, NOMA’s most recent curatorial ingénue and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art. And in the vein of her other Black Baroque contemporaries, such as Kehinde Wiley, Ebony Patterson, and Yinka Shonibare, Viktor’s new opus is even more excessively adorned than such iconic works as her 2016, Yaa Asantewaa, named after the Ashanti Queen who led the War of the Golden Stool against British colonialism in 1900.
In Sixth the American flag is most aptly evoked as a backdrop superimposed with a tar-like zoomorphized palm, its leaves more akin to sea-like appendages or medusa-like dreadlocks rather than flora. Sixth is composed to offer subtle yet meaningful commentaries on the connections Viktor’s most recent work makes between Louisiana and Liberia. One of her intentions with this new work is to present a visual history that interrogates the conflicted historical relationship between Liberia and the American South. At the heart of this discussion is the 1821 development of a settlement on the West coast of Africa for free people of color from the Americas, organized in part by the American Colonization Society. Louisiana’s John McDonough was a member of the ACS and Viktor and the exhibition’s curator, Young, did extensive research on his relationship to the early establishment of Liberia.
The history of Liberia is a long and complicated one, but one that indeed offers Viktor fodder for a dynamic visual conversation about nationalism, colonialism, and global meanderings. In her paintings, uli-ike spirals and adinkra-like stars demonstrate the cycling and recycling of African ideogramic imagery on the crossroads of our global landscape, where at any moment our fortunes are fickle and as the Yoruba say, “no condition is permanent.” Viktor relates that for her the Liberian story is in part, “less about a conversation about race [than] about what happens when the oppressed becomes the oppressor.”In an ironic turn, any thesaurus offers both colonizer and refugee as synonyms for immigrant. In Viktor’s work, as well, both exist within the same body, at home and yet displaced in the highly ornamented and delicately nuanced details.
In exhibition works that actually feature the iconography of the Liberian map, such as Tenth and Eleventh, Viktor, is at her very best. Eleventh is without question her magnum opus, where she emerges from her cool, stoic aloofness as a visual griot of her own history. She is the same woman but more mature, demonstrating the poise and grace and undeniable self-assurance of the Mende women of Liberia, the only West African female society to dance their masks. The word Mende is in fact featured twice as text on the opulent map of Liberia that is featured as the backdrop for this work.
In Eleventh Viktor’s face and posture is reminiscent of the adolescent Mende girls who are covered in the white kaolin clay that marks them as liminal beings during initiation, but instead of white faces, hers is a deep rich black. The Mende also prize this blackness as the darkness of the river where the initiate emerges transformed from girl to woman at the end of the Sande initiation process. Blackness is also reflected in the ebony color of the Sande sowei helmet masks that are used during the initiation process to reflect Mende beauty ideals.
For the Mende one who is not initiated is considered a fool. Without an initiation, a young woman remains kpowa,“one that has not had their eyes opened.” Through initiation one is educated to see with metaphysical eyes, to act with discernment, and to think with an informed intellect. And yet to be initiated one must also be circumcised and therefore lose an essential aspect of one’s female power. Here lies yet another radical juxtaposition of power and loss.
These difficult conversations evoked by Viktor’s paintings are not unlike the dances of the sowei and gonde masquerades that characterize the Sande initiation societies. These masquerades act as agents of social control demonstrating ideal conduct, and with only slight deviations in mask type and movement, unorthodox and problematic behavior for Mende society. What counts as perfect and what counts as unsightly is never lost in the details of these performances.
It is the same complicated message that I read upon gazing on the idolized body of Viktor’s protagonist with her ancient composed aloofness reflective of a myriad of associations sometimes empowered, sometimes painful. She embodies what notable Africanist art historian, Robert Farris Thompson refers to as an aesthetic of coolness, where (according to the Yoruba) no one can be beautiful until their iwa or character is assessed, and only then is their beauty found in the complexity of the median and the mysterious.
So cool is she that in the painting, First she even turns her back to us in a gesture that is at once coy and alluring and yet ultimately dismissive. And yet here again I am conflicted as I am also reminded of the exposed backs of enslaved women lined with scars. Such are the complicated juxtapositions of this body of work.
As a curator and art historian, one of the most startling things about art makers is their often vehement denials of the thing that is most obviously living within their work. For Viktor, it is the denial of emotional inspiration, of trying to find her roots, of feelings of displacement.Yet the work unveils and reveals the black female body in both its African and diasporic grandeur. It demonstrates both the strength and the vulnerability of a body that is both homeland and exile, ferociously and tenderly peeled back to expose both backbone and sternum and the essence of a global feminine divine.
Viktor may deny the dream that is most evident in these portraits, but the dream is still, most palpably, there.
Michelle Cliff, The Land of Look Behind, (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1985), 22.
Miss Rosen “A Tribute to Contemporary West African Culture, Painted With 24-Carat Gold”, in An0ther Magazine, October 12, 2018, http://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/11249/a-tribute-to-ancient-african-culture-painted-with-24-carat-gold
Victoria Stapely Brown, “Lina Iris Viktor unearths a hidden history at the New Orleans Museum of Art,” in The Art Newspaper, 12th October 2018, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/preview/lina-iris-viktor-unearths-a-hidden-history-at-the-new-orleans-museum-of-art