Exploring the faults in constructing an imagined community for the African Diaspora
Lina Iris Viktor, Black Exodus: Act I – Materia Prima, installation shot, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Amar Gallery, London.
The paintings in British-Liberian artist’s Lina Iris Viktor’s ‘Constellations’ series use an unusual medium: 24-karat gold leaf on black acrylic. Seeking to look beyond the monetary value of gold and its connotations of grandeur, Viktor, who has collaborated with in the past in an Instagram take over, explores the material’s historical significance from the excursions led by colonial powers in African countries, to the more spiritual element of gold across cultures. Simultaneously, she investigates the meaning of blackness, the negative psychological associations attached to it, and aims to challenge this conventional understanding of blackness. “Void is black to the human eye,” she explains. “You look at the night sky, and it looks black, like a void, but is actually full.” Her work tells the story of blackness as “the saturation, the full, of the entire colour spectrum.”
It is no wonder why Viktor’s collection of striking, large-scale gilded paintings with intricately designed patterns inspired by mid-20th century African architecture and textiles garnered the attention of the makers of Black Panther. Released in February after much anticipation, the film is on its way to becoming one of the highest-grossing superhero movies of all time. Ms. Viktor, however, twice declined offers from the film’s creators for permission to feature her work. Despite withholding her content, Viktor noticed that one of the backdrops in the music video for Kendrick Lamar’s track “All The Stars” off the soundtrack for Black Panther, looked a lot like the artwork of her ‘Constellations’ series.
A letter sent by Viktor’s lawyer to Anthony Tiffith, the founder of Lamar’s Top Dawg Entertainment label, argued that the pattern in the video “incorporates not just the immediately-identifiable and unique look of her work, but also many of the specific copyrightable elements in the ‘Constellations’ series of paintings, including stylized motifs of mythical animals, gilded geometric forms on a black background, and distinctively textured areas and patterns, arrayed in a grid-like arrangement of forms.” The letter further considers the infringement of Viktor’s rights as “willful and egregious,” adding that the artist is willing “to discuss a resolution of all her claims, consisting at a minimum of a public apology for the unauthorized use and a license fee.”
Viktor considers the matter to be one of principle, she told the New York Times, especially for a film “about black empowerment.” These recent allegations facing Lamar, who is no stranger to accusations of plagiarising the visuals of others, focuses attention toward a larger discussion around the murky distinction between appreciation and appropriation. It is a debate that remains one of the most contested issues in discourse around the arts today – from Damien Hirst’s Golden Heads (Female) accused of being culturally appropriated from ancient Yoruba artwork, to Gucci’s AW18 line that saw its models, of which 78 out of 90 were white, strutting in Sikh turbans and bindis down Milan runways.
Cultural appropriation is defined as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” There is power evident in picking and choosing things of deep cultural value to others and using it, in a removed manner, for your artistic gain. It is a reality that is especially disappointing when African artists are the victims because of the context of our colonial history that has robbed African cultural producers of artistic agency and dignity. The debate, however, is complicated further with recent Afrocentricism in the arts by African American cultural producers. Many would assert that the use of iconography from African cultures by African Americans can be construed as constructing an imagined community of the African diaspora.
Realistically, more often than not such ‘solidarity’ comes with the misappropriation, if not outright plagiarism, of African cultures. A celebration of this Afrocentricism thus comes at the expense of ignoring how American imperialism empowers African Americans to re-create patterns of taking that which they want. In this way Black Panther itself is understood as a moment of merchandised consumer power parading as Black ‘Pride’, similar to the contentious matter of Beyoncé’s much-praised employing of Yoruba cultural costumes and the words of Somali poet Warsan Shire in her visual album “Lemonade” but her simultaneous failure to tour Africa. In all cases, commodifying Africa and its art without credit, falls flat in achieving an understanding of African-ness as “the saturation, the full.”
Zahra Omar is an intern on ART AFRICA‘s editorial team.