Lina Iris Viktor is Liberian-British multi-disciplinary artist whose work is as eye-catching as it is thought-provoking.
The artist’s latest collection of paintings and sculptures is currently being showcased at In the Black Fantastic – the UK’s first major exhibition dedicated to the work of Black artists who use fantastical elements to address racial injustice and explore alternative realities.
In this insightful conversation with TBB, Iris let us into her creative process, the reason she sees black as ‘value and not a colour’ and the significance of being present within her own work.
Please introduce yourself …
Lina Iris Viktor — conceptual artist, painter and performance artist. I also create sculptures and installations.
Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now?
How did you become involved In The Black Fantastic exhibition?
Ekow Eshun asked me to participate in the early stages of development in 2020 as the pandemic was raging.
Your paintings and sculptures are beautiful compositions that go beyond paint and clay and feature all kinds of materials like gold and volcanic rock. Are there any practical challenges when it comes to working with and obtaining these materials?
The practical concerns usually amount to shortages or delays — especially presently with the shipping and transport issues. However, I usually find that with good lead time they are pretty accessible. As for working with them, I like the challenge of figuring out how to combine old and new techniques to work with less conventional materials and incorporate them into my sculptures and paintings.
Gold is adored universally for its eye-catching qualities. However, your use of gold resonates on a spiritual level and evokes deeper emotion. How have the cultural and visual elements of this material allowed you to communicate your artistic vision?
I wouldn’t say it is contemporarily adored but definitely, it has a historical pastime of being heralded. I’m simply building upon a storied pastime and trying to reignite the reverence for the many facets of gold that I believe have been lost to contemporary culture. As they say, our culture knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. I’m always trying to show the value of things, and communicate ideas that may have been lost to us.
The striking use of black throughout your work goes against the conventional belief that art should be ‘bright and colourful’. I’ve heard you refer to black as a “value” more so than a colour. Please could you elaborate on this really interesting concept?
Black and white are not colours — they are the parents — the two extremes of all the colours in existence. Within them, they contain all or are devoid of all the colours in the spectrum. From a physics perspective … white contains all of the colours — however, I tend to believe that is more true of black. Black is the materia prima (first matter) — the stuff from which everything was birthed, the dark matter that is so abundant in our universe. To me, it makes far more sense to say that indeed, black contains all.
You have always been clear that your work is a portrait rather than a self-portrait, despite your form featuring prominently in much of your own work. Was the decision to insert your presence into your work born out of practical reasons, artistic reasons or both?
A bit of both — I am always present and know what I want. I am also patient with myself to achieve what I want at all hours of the day. So for me, it was practical — but having a background in performance and theatre definitely helped in that decision and allowed for the artistic impulse to unfold.
The beauty of your art is that it can be appreciated in its entirety when you step back, but also for its intricacies when you look closer. Do you plan out your painting before you begin working on them or is it a more intuitive process?
I plan everything out and then allow my intuition to play in the process of making. But even the planning is intuitive.
The conversations around your work touch on art, astrophysics, maths and culture. Why do you believe that your work has been able to find a home in all of these spaces?
Because that is how my mind works — and I’m by no means an “expert” in any of these fields. However, I see how things that seem disparate or disconnected are actually very interconnected and I simply join the dots from a layman’s perspective. I don’t really believe in discrete silos of knowledge — at their core, all academic/intellectual disciplines are essentially seeking answers for the larger existential questions and we compartmentalise them for order and ease. But the notion that there is a boundary for thought is deceiving.
The In The Black Fantastic exhibition has deservedly received rave reviews, but I believe that it may be years before we see its true significance in terms of sparking ideas and changing perceptions. How important do you believe that this moment is for Black creatives?
That is something that only time can tell. I don’t like to predict the future around such societal conversations…. as things can really go either way. We are in a hypersensitive time where all that has been long disregarded in western discourse is coming to the fore due to an urgency … but it’s not for a lack of it having existed. The focus is due to a sense of recompense or guilt on the part of governing bodies who up until now have been very exclusionary — deciding what should and shouldn’t be included historically and contemporarily. That is why I remain neutral. When dealing with gatekeepers (people) and their persuasions it can go either way dependent on an array of factors.
Also, I do not tend to support the classification of “black” artist or “female” artist — I am simply an artist. And my job as an artist and thinker is to progress and evolve regardless of the current political climate that seeks to define, and in so doing reduce. Yet, it should be said that if the climate of today works in your favour — Bonne chance!
GETTING TO KNOW YOU …
• A book you have to have in your collection? I buy books voraciously so that is ever-changing. Presently I am obsessed with books on architecture — I always return to African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence.
• A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? Impossible to answer
• A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? As a child, my mother was perplexed by how I would watch something I liked on constant repeat — literally. So this is more a habitual occurrence than an exception. However, I presently love the films of Paolo Sorrentino & Luca Guadagnino — they put me in a mood. I love Io sono amore. I also frequently return to Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love — that film made me want to make films.
• The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance or concert)? I went to plays from a very early age so I honestly can’t remember the first, but one that I recall almost immediately as being highly impactful was an in-the-round production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle at a Richmond theatre when I was a teenager. Other plays that I saw in London when I was younger that made a real impression were Robert LaPage’s La Casa Azul about the life of Frida Kahlo — I saw this right on the precipice of her contemporary rise to fame & legend. Also King Lear in Stratford-upon-Avon where Lear was played by a Nigerian actor if my memory serves me correctly, and finally Chekhov’s Ivanov. Plays taught me how to see the world, how to create a world, and how to see myself in it from a variety of vantage points.
• What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? I am currently in Sorrento, Italy where I live for half the year. The slow and tempered way of life — the sense of peace and disconnectedness from the frenetic world, and going to the beach bring me great joy.
The In The Black Fantastic exhibition runs from 29 June – 18 September 2022 at the BFI Southbank.