By A.D. McKenzie
LOS ANGELES | PARIS – When Cuban artist Belkis Ayón died in 1999, she was only 32 years old, but she left behind a body of work that belied her age, comprising huge and striking prints that had already received international critical acclaim.
Now, for the first time, a museum in the United States is hosting a solo retrospective of her work, with a view to making the public more aware of this singular artist who reflected Afro-Cuban traditions, the history of contemporary printmaking and the challenges that her country faced in the 1990s.
Titled Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón, the exhibition opens Oct. 2 and runs until Feb. 12, 2017, at the Fowler Museum* at UCLA in California. It presents 44 prints that the organisers say “encompass a wide range of the artist’s graphic production from 1984 until her untimely passing [she committed suicide] in 1999”.
According to the Fowler, Ayón “mined the founding narrative of the Afro-Cuban fraternal society called Abakuá to create an independent and powerful visual iconography”. Abakuá is an all-male Afro-Cuban brotherhood that enslaved Africans brought to the western port cities of Cuba in the early 1800s.
“A brief synopsis of the founding myth of Abakuá begins with Sikán, a princess who inadvertently trapped a fish in a container she used to draw water from the river,” according to the Fowler.
“The unexpected loud bellowing of the fish was the mystical ‘voice’ of Abakuá, and Sikán was the first to hear it. Because women were not permitted this sacred knowledge, the local diviner swore Sikán to secrecy. Sikán, however, revealed her secret to her fiancé, and because of her indiscretion she was condemned to die.”
However, in Ayón’s work, Sikán remains alive, and her story and representation figure prominently in the prints. At one point, the artist wrote: “I see myself as Sikán, in a certain way an observer, an intermediary and a revealer … Sikán is a transgressor, and as such I see her, and I see myself.”
The title word Nkame means “greeting” and “praise” in the language of Abakuá, and reflects a posthumous tribute and career overview, says Dr. Katia Ayón, the artist’s sister who helps to manage the Belkis Ayón Estate, a co-organiser of the exhibition with the Fowler Museum.
Katia and her daughter Yadira travelled from Cuba to Los Angeles to be at the opening and will participate in talks about Belkis’ life and work, Katia said in an interview.
Born in Havana in 1967, Belkis Ayón attended the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts and then the Higher Institute of Art/Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA). She held her first solo exhibition in Havana in 1988, at the age of 21, before graduating from the institute in 1991.
Two years later, she became a professor of engraving at the San Alejandro Academy and also at ISA, and that same year, 1993, she participated in the 16th Venice Biennale and won the international prize at the International Graphics Biennale in Maastricht, the Netherlands.
The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, invited her to participate in the Kwangju Biennial in South Korea in 1997, and some of her works were subsequently acquired by MOCA and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During the last year of her life, she had four residencies in the United States and solo exhibitions at various galleries and institutions. She committed suicide in 1999 at the age of 32.
Over her career, Ayón became skilled in the technique of collography, a printing process in which a “variety of materials of various textures and absorbencies are collaged onto a cardboard matrix and then run through the press”.
The Fowler says that Ayón employed a “deliberately austere palette of subtle tones of black, white, and gray”, which add “drama and mystery to her narratives”. She produced many of the works on large scale by joining multiple printed sheets together.
Cristina Vives, the guest curator of the exhibition, told SWAN that her aim is not only to show the artist’s relationship with Abakuá, but also to highlight how Ayón used these traditional themes to articulate certain concerns.
“She used the traditions and history behind Abakuá to express something else,” Vives said in a telephone interview. “The 1990s were a tough time for people in Cuba, after the collapse of the Eastern bloc, and it was also a difficult time to express opinions as artists. So artists found ways to talk about what was happening in our daily lives.
“My main goal is to attract the public’s attention to her intentions rather than to her use of the traditions and history of Abakuá,” Vives added. “It’s also to bring back Belkis’ work to the audience because time has passed and the perspective is now different.”
Vives said that Ayón produced around 200 different images from the time she began printmaking as a high-school student. In 2009, a decade after her death, Havana hosted a retrospective comprising 83 prints. The show at the Fowler is a version of this exhibition, but reduced in size.
“The overall presentation is almost the same, with beautiful installations because Belkis worked on such a huge scale,” Vives said.
Marla Berns, the Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler Museum, said that Ayón’s contributions in her particular area of print-making are noteworthy. “For a black Cuban woman, both her ascendency in the contemporary printmaking world and her investigation of a powerful all-male brotherhood were notable and bold,” said Berns.
She noted that Nkame follows a lineage of Fowler exhibitions that have explored artistic representations and evocations of African-inspired religions in the Diaspora, such as Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou (1995) and Transcultural Pilgrim: Three Decades of Work by José Bedia (2011).
“This is an important moment to spotlight the aesthetically stunning and poetically resonant prints of Belkis Ayón, especially with today’s heightened attention on Cuba and Cuban culture, and the historic reopening of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba,” Berns added. [International Press Syndicate – 02 October 2016]
Photo: Belkis Ayon, La consagracion II (The Consecration II), 1991, collograph. Collection of the Belkis Ayon Estate.
* The Fowler Museum is an institution devoted to exploring the arts and cultures of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and the Americas. More information at: http://www.fowler.ucla.edu/
Note: This article first appeared on October 1, 2016 in SWAN – Southern World Arts News – an online cultural magazine devoted to the arts of the global South, and is being reproduced by arrangement with the writer. Follow SWAN on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mckenzie_ale (@mckenzie_ale)