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Belkis Ayón

1967-1999, resided in Cuba

While studying at the San Alejandro art school in Havana, Belkis Ayón discovered the writings of Lydia Cabrera and Enrique Sosa about the secret society of the Abakuá. Originating in Calabar, Nigeria, the Abakuá is one of four religious-cultural groups of African origin that have been present in Cuba since colonial times. This secret society does not accept women, homosexuals, or visual representations of any kind. Since the beginning of the 20th century, it has been linked to antisocial and criminal activity (Fuente, 2001). Santería music, songs, musical instruments, and dances had been catalogued as the folkloric patrimony of the nation; the Abakuá, however, did not enjoy such official recognition.

Ayón’s approach to Abakuá culture was not simply an isolated gesture made in an artistic context. Cuba’s official atheistic-scientific discourse segregated all religious practices of Afro-Cuban origin as “vestiges from the past,” but contemporary Cuban artists rediscovered them as deep and vital wellsprings of the nation. Works by Bedia, Elso, and Rodríguez Brey deconstructed the Eurocentric perspective from which Cuban artists and scholars had observed Afro-Cuban cultures since the 1800s. Other artists incorporated the kitsch, pun-filled visuals and scattershot incoherence of the urban environment, the everyday humor, popular scatology, current events, and political rhetoric—all texts within arm’s reach, but invisible to Cuban art during the previous decades.

Ayón’s prints do not presume to establish the imagery of a religion, nor are they a believer’s tribute. With a strictly contemporary vision, she takes the myths of the Abakuá as her artistic foundation. In the absence of an iconographic system, she threads together fictions, filling the gaps left by the silence with which Abakuá culture has guarded its beliefs. Her creative license is essentially no different from European artists’ re-creation of myths since the Renaissance. In her case, the raw material is the legend of Sikán, a story of African origin transplanted to the Americas.

In the 1990s, Ayón consolidated her mastery of classical printing techniques and the visual universe that it spawned. Producing large-format, limited-edition prints from a conceptual-art perspective, she joined artists Ibrahim Miranda, Abel Barroso, and Sandra Ramos as a leader of La Huella Múltiple (The Multiple Imprint). For a medium usually reserved for the reproduction of decorative scenes, it was a radical project. Ayón reached creative maturity in her exploration of collography. This printing process became her “natural” medium, and she exploited it to its fullest potential. In her collographs, the plate is essentially a collage assembled through successive layers of ink. Ayón achieves her effects through a variety of textures and subtle tones of black, white, and gray. This austere, intentionally limited approach lends the work an air of self-contained mystery.

The artist’s evocation of Byzantine icons and Japanese prints contribute to the sense of an original universe. The utter flatness of the cut-out figures, the elimination of all unnecessary detail, the balance between black and white spaces, the beautifully organized composition, the deft use of different sizes and formats, and the suggestively charged backgrounds all coalesce to unveil “mythic spaces, charged with energies that inhabit a time beyond a now and a later…” (Wood, 1999, 3). Within the context of this evocative universe, Ayón included compositions taken from Catholic iconography and popular photography, such as La cena (The Last Supper, 1991) or La familia (The Family, 1995). But she never intended to make literal narratives of specific scenes or mythologies.

Ayón appropriated the Abakuá rituals with profound respect, taking no part in the parodies found elsewhere in Cuban art. Faced with a norm based on “the discriminatory treatment of everything feminine, which is an organic, structural component of the African cultures that reached these lands” (Castro, 1996, 4), Ayón inserted an authorial subversion or distortion: a “female voice,” absolutely forbidden in Abakuá tradition. From a practical perspective, references to the artist were included in her representations of the female figure: she was her own model. She also identified herself with Sikán, whose ostracism by the Abakuá—for having revealed the secret of the fish Tánze—was the basis of its exclusion of women. Inspired by the Sikán myth, Ayón’s large, almond-shaped eyes entered the forbidden territory assuming a variety of identities. Gradually, the artist’s work reflected the intense crisis of her personal life: “when Belkis emphasizes Sikán’s conflict, it seems that she wants to put the emphasis on her own conflict” (Mateo, 2000, 5). That conflict ended with her tragic death at age 32.

Ayón’s oeuvre does not place her among poetic realists such as Leonora Carrington, nor is it akin to picturesque versions of magical realism. Ayón was able to discover her own world—nurtured by the live traditions of an insular culture, with the wide-eyed attitude of someone doing it for the first time.

                                                                                       —Abelardo G. Mena Chicuri 

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