Talk about the myths of art. Interview with Belkis Ayón
February 4, 1999
© Revolución y Cultura, No 2-3 / 99, p. 68-71
To tell the truth, it was not easy to interview Belkis Ayón, despite appearances, that is, his youth, the recognition that his artistic work has had, his personality, that one would bet very accessible, frank and open as his laugh. But do not confuse such attributes with the vehemence, I would say even the passion, of the creator Belkis Ayón, the one who with steely lucidity knows the paths of yesterday and today of her work. And I'm sure tomorrow too. But his humility and pride, traits that coexist in many authentic artists, prevent him from sanctioning such a prognosis. Although in his heart every great artist knows that it is, the challenge to time is raised and time, in turn, challenges it. Time, for better or for worse, can do everything, except with the great art that resists it, transcends it and walks by its side with an ironic smile.
We are in front of his mural La Cena that is in the Ludwig Foundation. It is a tenaciously mysterious piece. I would not hesitate to say that it has many readings. But tell me your story
La Cena was first seen in public in 1988 at the Servando Cabrera de Playa gallery. I conceived it to print in color but once it was printed and displayed I was not satisfied with the results. So I dedicated myself to preparing it for my graduate thesis and in 1991 I modified it and took it to black and white. The first figure, top left, has his face covered with his hands. The main idea is from Dinner ...
Are you referring to the traditional dinner?
Yes, but as a main idea. And I had in mind for a long time. Dinner is for women, except for two men, one who is on the right, the black figure who is completely indifferent, as if he is going to leave the composition, and another who has a black face.
What are the elements of mythology present there?
One of them is the background. It is made with the Anaforuanas or “signatures”: the cross, the circle and the cross within the circle, symbolism of the different branches that influenced or where the myth arose as such this type of societies, efik, efor and ori bibi. The + sign corresponds to efik, the O efor and oru-bibi. Another element that I use is the scale. The fish's scale, the sacred fish. And also the type of symbology that I have taken to mean the man with the leopard skin, which is a concentric circle, a little elongated with various points around it. And, in addition, figures that have a design that suggests a relationship with femininity.
And the bandage?
When someone who is in the process of being initiated is going to enter the sacred room, the Fambá, before entering it, they are blindfolded. It's like a kind of ceremonial dinner. There is a figure that is starting or about to start.
What is celebrated with this ritual?
In this case it is something that perhaps existed. But it is not something that happens. From the point of view of the religious ceremony there is a part that is food, but it has nothing to do with this idea of dinner. This is totally symbolic.
Another figure has a snake around his neck.
In Abakuá mythology, it is the animal sent by the tribe's sorcerer to find out what had happened in the river when the Tanze fish disappeared.
Then the Nasakó sends two snakes to see what has happened. And on the way back they appear to him and surprise Sikán, who gets scared and drops the güiro that he was carrying on his head. That is why the snake is always a company for her. It can be threatening, it can be preventive, or it can simply be companionship. And depending on the idea I also use it as a phallic element.
Now why the scales and the significance of the fish?
The fish was the way, the vehicle that contained the secret, that is, it was the being that contained the secret. The secret was a voice.
Here it is no longer fish on that plate.
No, not anymore, because this figure, that of the man with the black head, kind of broke into the women's dinner and ingested the fish. His plate is already empty, as is the gourd that accompanies each of the figures next to the plate. The fish is the sacred being.
In this women's dinner, two figures wear the skin of the fish, thus relating the fate of the fish with the fate that Sikán will have or had.
It is assumed that among the Abakuá women do not play any role, they are out of that world. Anyone could think that his is a daring because he is transgressing what is taboo.
It is out from the point of view of professing religion. But it is inside, deep inside, because it was a woman who discovered the secret. And from that discovery is that, somehow, all this kind of story arises.
What was the secret?
The secret was the voice. According to the myth, appropriating that fish that contained the voice meant that whoever reached it would be the richest and most prosperous tribe. It was power. In reality the fish was the reincarnation of an old king who predicted such events.
The guilt of the woman when she discovered the secret eliminated her from the rituals of the Abakuá universe.
Yes, and I also think that, like all these stories of myths and legends, there are different versions. One of them maintains that the woman is excluded for having given information to the enemy tribe.
But I think that it is not necessary for a viewer to have knowledge of the myths, the Abakuá ritual or the meanings of each of its components to admire or be impressed by his work.
The thing would be to know why it impresses ...
What does that engraving have? First of all, the mystery. These apparently passive characters convey an atmosphere of tension, of suspicion. Strange diners who are also symbols. There is a sense of uncertainty due to the weight of the allegorical. It would seem that they challenge us, by the very scene presented by these disconcerting protagonists, to go back to the mists of the early days. There they are, simultaneously, the myth and the complex human matter; they transcend time and if by chance I saw that work years ago and I see it again now, I still think that it comes to me as something telluric, unfathomable.
I think about these things at the moment when I am doing them. After I print them and it has been so long, like it is no longer mine and I stop thinking about it. Now I was thinking about tension, as something that is contained, where something happened or is going to happen. Something like that.
And the eyes on your characters?
Actually the eyes in my work is what impresses people, what intrigues them because they are eyes that look at you very directly, so I think you cannot hide, wherever you move they are always there looking at you, they are there making you an accomplice of what you are seeing. And, above all, in these pieces that are large, you are almost at the same level, at the same size, it is someone with whom you are living there in some way.
The fact of being characters that do not have a defined face is helping to feed the myth and the symbol. There is no detail that places them in a historical context: they have no clothes or hairstyle. From those clothes or from that hairstyle it could be deduced that they are characters of this or more than that moment. When you conceive these characters — let's call them somehow — you are not thinking of an anecdote, at a certain moment, but you are simply thinking of an episode of the Abakuá universe that you want to represent ...
Yes, I think it is the latter to which you refer and also a little more, there is always something else. I really enjoy the fact of working, of filling the characters with something, that is, through the textures, the shapes, not being devoid of clothes. Clothes are the skin that I put on depending on what is happening, on what I want to say.
For example, the scales.
As I had told you before, it is the skin of a fish and for many people it can also be the skin of a snake. I mean, there is all that ambiguity.
Now, how did he enter, how could he appropriate the knowledge of the Abakuá world?
It was out of curiosity, to face something that one reads, talks about or sees for the first time. It is not what one is used to and feels that it attracts them and begins to investigate, to seek information.
And his father?
It is not Abakuá. And in my family no one is, except a cousin. It is important that I say so because stories have been made up that all the men in my family are Abakuá. Not at all. We are two sisters, nothing more.
For what reason does it reach you with such force that it becomes the subject, the subject of your artistic work?
That interest arose when I was studying engraving at San Alejandro. There were so many things that attracted me to Afro-Cuban cultures; my taste for going to rumba Saturdays and when the National Folk Ensemble had its seasons at the Mella Theater. Also the magazine The UNESCO Courier. At school I was very interested in the numbers that had to do with African culture. In my grandmother's house there was a poster with some items announcing the performances given by Folklorico and Sara Gómez's film, In a certain way.
It could also have been the fact that my uncle had among his books, that he could see and leaf through all the time, Los Ñáñigos, by Enrique Sosa, or some suggestions that my teachers from San Alejandro made to me to read The Abakuá Secret Society narrated by its old followers, by Lydia Cabrera, or The African Diaspora, and a bit of all that. Or a catalog that my father gave me from a retrospective they made in Paris of Lam's painting. These things I simplify.
I discovered that there were no artists working on this theme at that time, but others such as Santeria, voodoo, spiritism and palo monte. The reading of different stories of the myth also influenced. It seemed so plastic to me, as if it were passing in front of me, where faces appeared and disappeared.
Also, there is no figurative iconography, except, of course, the signatures. Then I saw that there was a possibility, there was a whole world that I could perfectly create, from the fact that you already know what stories are like.
How do you explain that those characters without faces have such intensity, such density?
There are things in the works that one cannot explain oneself. The tension ... I did not think of it, it was not something preconceived. He left. I say that something always accompanies me that is like a good sign, a good company: intuition. Perhaps my work is that: they are things that I have inside and that I throw out because they are burdens that cannot be lived with and cannot be dragged.
Could it be said that you detach yourself, in the same creative process, from many of these myths?
I detach myself; and not because I think that always, even if I want to say something else, I am using the same symbology and the same figuration and the same signs that I use when I want to refer specifically to a scene or a detail that is, strictly, from mythology, although later, perhaps, he will turn it over and want to say something else. But they are fixed elements in my work. Right now I'm using more personal things; however, I continue to use the character of Sikán, the fish, the goat, the scales, the snake, I continue to use crumpled papers and the symbols that I have always used in another situation, but with other content.
I use colography because it seems to me the most appropriate technique to say what I want. That is first. In addition, it is the technique with which I can work large formats, whatever I want, and I like the manufacturing of the piece, it fascinates me. So all that process I enjoy tremendously.
It is one of the reasons why he continues to do collography. If I painted would it be the same?
No, it wouldn't be the same. It is that I do not have in my mind to conceive this for painting. It is a limitation that I have in the eyes of many. But, above all things, I consider myself a tape recorder. And I'm not going to stop being one for the moment.
Do you think that the most important thing you had to express as an artist has already been said in your work or do you think that you have not yet exhausted all its possibilities?
Those are questions that I ask myself all the time. Once, in conversation with my friend Antonio Martorell, a Puerto Rican printmaker and painter, he told me: it is incredible how one becomes obsessed with certain subjects, and even if one does it differently, that is always there. In other words, obsession and turning around and falling into the same thing. And I wondered if he was repeating myself. Just imagine. Maybe, yes, maybe, no. The problem is that I feel that there are many people who are very simple when it comes to talking about an artist and a production. It is much easier to say: Ah, look, she works on the abakuá! It's fine, but there's not much more to it than that .
And since he speaks of obsession in the themes, just the same thing can happen to a viewer with his characters. They are and they are not, as you say. And they are characters who are saying things to me or are questioning me ...
Exactly. I think that's what they are questioning. Interrogating others. A little that others are accomplices of what is happening there.
As if they said: Here things are not clear. It is a disturbing situation.
The title of my last exhibition, which was shown in Los Angeles, was Restlessness. Maybe that's the play. After so many years I realize the uneasiness.
And perhaps that restlessness, as much or more than a religious character, has ...
I'm going to tell you, it is more existential than religious.
How were your beginnings since you studied at San Alejandro?
I was sixteen years old in 83-84 when I was studying at San Alejandro and I had enormous problems with drawing, when the teachers suspended me a lot because I was a very bad draftsman with a model. And my figures looked like sticks.
How did you get over that?
More than drawing, thinking. And watching a lot and looking a lot. Many times I talk to my students who also work figuratively and have drawing problems. I tell them: look, I am not asking you for an academy, I am not asking you for hyper-realism, I ask you to convince me with what you are putting there. That that hand is credible, perhaps a little more, a little less, but that there is no disproportion, that it does not bother the eye.
One of the characteristics that distinguishes his work is the absence of color. Does the use of white or black have a meaning?
White is a value. Like black. Like the grays. The value is not the color, the value is the point of attention in the work. A figure because it is white, it is not white. A figure is white because it is a point of attention and because I work with white, black and values. That person may be black, but the value is white.
In other words, it has a compositional sense.
Exactly. Like this black man who makes a turn; the black goes there, in the serpent, in the face, in this eye and goes up to the other eyes that are inverted, returns to the black eye and goes to the black of the edge. The inclusion of black is a problem of composition, balance and rhythm in the piece.
What is your relationship with the Abakuá universe: affective, cognitive?
A difficult question. It is the way, the way, the solution that I found to say what I wanted. And I tell him: it is like letting go, and I have let myself go.
When you go to work on this issue, at some point do you not do it like in a trance state?
In a trance, but in quotes. The phenomenon is one of concentration, a problem of believing at the moment that I am doing it, even perhaps of acting.
There is a bit of theatricality in all that ...
Yes, it is very theatrical, like the ceremony of the Abakuá. For Fernando Ortiz it was like a theatrical performance. It is like bringing theater to religion.
And religion to the theater.
As for the trance, it is, above all, the concentration and the forced foot that they put me when working.
In addition to the passion for the subject, the very fact of having been working on it for many years, does it not somehow reflect a fear on your part? That is, to stay conservatively in it because it does not initiate or face other subjects.
Ah, look, maybe that's it.
Of course, unconscious fear.
I believe that there are unconscious things that become conscious.
In your case, does it become conscious?
I think so. I think that one can say things like that, and in another way. But I want to keep it that way. For now, because this is what I need to say.
One of its characteristics is originality.
I take from a million things. What I see that I like, I do. There is a whole screening process. I think this is like my son, this is something that I created. If I created it, I don't have to abandon it if I still have things to say.
Well, forgive me, but you can have a child and then have another without necessarily abandoning the first.
Ah well, for now I sit with only one!
—Suddenly, when you get up in the morning, you say to yourself, I'm going to work today, do you already know what you're going to do?
No. Until I have it here (he puts his index finger to his temple), I don't do anything. While that is happening I am looking at my books, the books that I buy, that I like, that are art. And as I go through them I say to myself, I like this composition, here I am going to put Fulano, Mengano and Ciclano. And this has to do with it, I want to talk about dissatisfaction, intolerance, I want to talk about betrayal or I want to talk about sacrifices. Many compositions I take, for example, from the family. The Family was a piece that had long been crushed on his head. I used to say, this has to come out somewhere. And it all came from the work of Gauguin Ana la Javanesa. That I love it; That is very important to me, that it marked me ... And the family comes out of that work, of that figure sitting so calmly.
You have said that among your plastic references, in addition to those of the Abakuá universe, there were also Byzantine icons.
The reference of the icons is purely formal. It is the shape of the arches, of the altarpieces, they always attracted me a lot and it was like inventing an iconography for these people. And also many times the compositions that I like so much.
And I tell him that my work is the one that surprises me because it is the one that has led me to be what I am, not because I proposed it.
Could it be that there is a certain ignorance of yourself, of who you are? If it is accepted that your characters, in addition to being disturbing, are defiant, one has every right to suppose that there is a struggle in you, between the Belkis that you want to challenge and the other that you knew is calm and that you want to go unnoticed.
I think I'm out there.
Is the fact that you are a woman and black reflecting your challenging characters in any way?
Not at all, or at least, I don't intend to. It's just that I've never had a racial problem, you understand?
Let me explain. I know that she has not had problems, on the contrary, anyone who sees her would say that she is a winner. But both you and I know ...
I think these are things that are manipulated a lot and maybe they manipulate us or manipulate me. But it is not a conscious thing.
In your work each signature is based on the idea that you are raising.
That's how it is.
Even in a work there may be different signatures but depending on the characters or their relationship with others.
You start from the Abakuá myths as a source of your creative production, but the result, the work of art as such, is already something else, it transcends the reasons that originated it to become universal. It can be given more than one interpretation, even a connoisseur is impressed, not because of the mastery he may have of the matter but because of the indisputable artistic result.
I really like the subtle things in the work, but also that the viewer is awake enough to discover them.