Islington’s Amar Gallery and its summer exhibition (FORM:FLOW) was a bright affair; a merging of natural minerals and luminosity. However entering the same underground space on the opening night of the newest collection in residence is a shock to the system in comparison.
The evening was a blustery, wet, early-autumn one – and as the seasons hinted at change outside, Amar Singh’s space on Penton Street could have been a different gallery altogether when held up to the one that housed FORM:FLOW just a month before.
The dark is in no way dreary or moody. The fact that spotlights lit up works that had been drizzled with gold gave an almost regal effect. Materia Prima refers to something without form; a substance that spawned the rest of our universe. So presumably, the fact that this exhibition is an homage to darkness, but with some shimmer woven into it in the form of golds and yellows is far from accidental. The collection is positively primeval.
It's split for the most part into two major sectors – nude women and intricate detailed canvases that seem to represent either florals or hieroglyphics. One could be forgiven for presuming that the collection is a pastiche of the start of time, or Earth, or civilisation; with its nod to dark matter, glimmers of lifeforms, nature and maternalism. It's starkly tribal in places, yet flowery and delicate in others. The women featured are harsh – glaring at you from the canvas or paper they are splayed across (or in some instances, camouflaged, watching you from the blackness).
It's tribal, with its nods to Egypt; and at Amar Gallery, the design of the exhibition is positively tempting. You can't help but migrate toward the towering canvases at the end of the long, dark, tantalising forecourt. On the way you'll meet some of the aforementioned women – some unforgiving, others seemingly in the throws of self-pleasure.
And the detailed compositions of squiggles and shapes are so enthralling that you'd be foolish to fight the urge to crouch down and examine them as closely as you are permitted to get. The finale – after one last glare from a gigantic matriarchal canvas – is a rush of black and gold that's almost volcanic.
This isn't actually meant to be Earth as we know it to have been. This display is a demi-world which has its own origin story and doesn't slot anywhere in particular. It's all about alternates and lore and fantasy. Yet the nods to Egypt, Africa, the Aztecs, Australia and the UK (Black Union and Union Black) don't discount our own earthly heritage.
Viktor says of her works: ‘The black race has suffered subjugation and marginalisation, and “blackness” has become indicative of deficiency, or absence. The exhibition repositions the colour as a “materia prima” – the ultimate presence that is the source of all matter, all people and all life; it is the place from which gold and precious materials are mined, and in which stars and planets are born.’
There's nothing deficient about this exhibition. The colour black is royal and enticing and mystical. The golden tones snake through it with splendour. If this is a celebration of ‘black' (as a race or a colour) it works. It works without making it about race, should the viewer decide not to focus too harshly on this concept. If this is a demonstration of repression, it's too glorious an exhibition to evoke sadness. It's not certain whether this is a failing of the artist or a masquerading triumph.
Words by Andrew Bullock
BLACK EXODUS: Act I – Materia Prima by Lina Iris Viktor at Amar Gallery, London, until 20 October 2017