A black figure occupies the largest portion of the picture I see: a genderless, quasi-human, almost formless presence that grows in the darkness, from the bottom of the image to the top, as if its body were a black mantle expanding off the frame and into the gallery’s space. I see my reflection in that deep darkness, right below the depiction of white holes that delineate the figure’s eyes. They lack irises. On the top of the dark figure, a fish-scale head gives way to protruding feathers that could be thought of as hair, but that look like something else, perhaps something beyond human. Near my own reflection that appears mirrored on the bottom of that darkness, I notice what seems to be that same dark figure, but tiny, identified as a male nude, and squatting amid a realm of large feathers and fish scales from where the dark larger figure emerges. That darkness takes ahold of me—not as fear or mystery, but as if that dark mantle was calling me: an invitation.
That feeling, of being summoned, of being “called upon to witness” remained with me during my visit to NKAME: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón at El Museo del Barrio in New York. Curated by Cristina Vives and co-organized by the artist’s estate, the show first opened at the UCLA’s Fowler Museum this February and features around forty works by Belkis Ayón. Ayón died tragically in 1999, at the age of 32, by committing suicide, an act that deeply surprised many of her friends and members of her family.
Born in Cuba in 1967, in Havana, Ayón had already become recognized before her death for her unique collography (a printmaking technique in which objects are glued to cardboard to create the matrix from which prints are pulled, and to which Ayón brought distinctive methods) showing depictions that had as inspiration the Afro-Cuban fraternal society, Abakuá. The exhibition at El Museo shows a range of Ayón’s work, from her early prints produced in the 1980s while she was still a student at San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts in Cuba, to later works made just before her death, including famous pieces such as The Supper (1991), and a mural-like installation from 1993, To make you love me forever.
Across the galleries of El Museo, we are introduced not only to Abakuá’s characters, but to Ayón’s particular interpretation of this universe. Abakúa, as an all-male Afro-Cuban secret society and religion, was founded in Cuba in the 19th century by members of different traditions from Nigeria to Cameroon, and whose members had been enslaved and taken to Cuba by Spanish colonizers from 1700 to 1800. “For some time now, I have been studying one of the components of our culture on the African side, the carabalies, and of them the Abakuá Secret Society, in which only men can participate, a society of mutual help and succor, self-funded by its members. In Cuba, this Society is sort of reborn in the 1830s, under objectives and conditions very different from those its African ancestors had,” wrote Ayón in the 1990s. Throughout the 1980s, Ayón became interested in Abakuá and not only researched its traditions, but befriended some of its members to learn about ceremonies that were kept secret and inaccessible to outsiders, and particularly to women.
Figures such as Nasakó, a diviner, the leopard men, and Princess Sikán populate Ayón’s mostly black and white prints, appearing either as single vertical portraits or as mural depictions that refer to important aspects of the Abakuá rituals, such as sacrifices and redemptive scenes. Although the Abakuá society only allows male participants, it is in fact a woman, Sikán, who is the central figure of its foundational myth. According to the Abakuá belief, Sikán goes to the river Oldar to take water in a jar and unexpectedly captures a fish. This fish was the reincarnation of King Tanzé, but also a reincarnation of the Supreme God. Whoever captures this fish and his secret, his voice, would become the most thriving tribe. But as the artist herself recounts from her research, “Sikán, the woman who discovers the secret and is sacrificed so that the secret could be handed down to men, so it wouldn’t disappear. Sikán dies in vain, and the secret is lost once again; this will consist of a voice, UYO UYO ANFONO sacred voice or sound produced by a fish she had discovered when coming back home from the river.”
Throughout Ayón’s career, Sikán becomes a major protagonist of the artist’s works, attaining an auto-biographical presence. In the work Sikán (1991) the Princess appears as in a portrait, seated on a black and ornamented throne. Her large eyes look directly at us, her mouthless figure (perhaps due to the seizing of the sacred voice) is printed in black and gray tones and her skin is partially covered by fish scales, as if she had been marked by the encounter with the secret—the fish Tanzé—which she embraces, holding its white, tiny silhouette over her black belly. The white fish also appears above Sikán’s body, as part of the throne’s decoration, perhaps so as to remind us of her sacrifice and sacred status. A white snake descends towards the top of the black throne towards Sikán’s left shoulder, as if pursuing Tanzé. In Ayón’s work, the snake, which in the myth was sent by sorcerers to find the disappeared Tanzé, often accompanies Sikán.
Although Sikán dies in a sacrifice, in this work by Ayón she does not emerge as a victim: Sikán’s pose is relaxed, she leans on the back of the throne, suggesting she has control over her fate. She has a sacred aura around her, empowered by a gaze that looks back directly at us: her joined hands, embracing a womb-like jar with Tanzé are reassuring of her position as protagonist, indicating a collapsing with Ayón, who, in turn, examines this Afro-Cuban tradition perhaps to think of her own role as a black woman in a Cuban society. About that auto-biographical merging with Sikán, Ayón said, “Sikán’s image is paramount in all these works because, like myself, she led and leads –through me–, a disquieting life, looking insistently for a way out.”
One of the most impressive works shown at El Museo is the mural installation To make you love me forever, originally created for the 16th Venice Biennale. The mural, one of the largest prints Ayón produced, had to be carried by her father by bicycle for more than 30 kilometers on their way to the airport in Cuba: the piece only arrived a few hours before the opening of the Latin American Pavilion in Venice. Made as two segments, the lower print represents the earthly realm in which male figures worship Sikán, whose body appears in the upper print ––in the celestial realm. She is painted in white, as a symbol of death. In this portrayal, Sikán has several arms covered by feathers, suggesting a movement of ascension towards that realm. Made to reproduce a human-scale, the mural invites the spectator in, suggesting that feeling of participation, of active summoning, or belonging that many of Ayón’s figures also evoke.
In Cuban art history, other artists, from Wifredo Lam to José Bédia, have become known for referring to Afro-Cuban religions in their works. However, what is fascinating about Ayón’s practice is that, as a black woman artist, her decision to occupy this particular universe not only highlights the ongoing importance of the resistant and syncretic Afro-Cuban traditions she works with, but also subverts and emphasizes the role of women in the formation of this specific tradition, providing new images, new universes, for Sikán and Ayón herself to inhabit. The almost genderless features of many of these silhouette-like figures also announce a space for gender fluidity––those mythological characters become open for spectators’ self-identification. By emphasizing the role of women in the upkeeping and updating of an Afro-Latin American religion, Ayón’s works still today conjure viewers to become witnesses of her transgressive reclaiming of Abakuá and of her rescuing of Sikán: of her radical love, which can never be eclipsed by death.
“NKAME: A Retrospective of Belkis Ayón” will be on view at El Museo del Barrio in New York through November 5, 2017.