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Remembering Belkis Ayón, on the 10th anniversary of her physical disappearance


Isbel Alba

February 4, 2015

A Date that Cannot Be Forgotten

September 11 has become a date of loss and pain in our collective imagination after the terrorist attacks against the twin towers, in New York, 2001. However, although we share the grief of thousands of people for whom this day represents a tragedy, a before and an after, we have another motive to write these words.

Today, I am writing about another departure, perhaps more intimate because it is ours, perhaps more questionable because it was intentional, leaving behind a mystery and the terrible sensation that accompanies bitter, inexplicable gestures. I am speaking of the Cuban artist Belkis Ayón Manso (1967-1999), who one day, ten years ago, took her own life.

Belkis Ayón was an exceptional woman, with unparalleled energy and talent. Together with artists Sandra Ramos and Abel Barroso she implemented La Huella Múltiple (1996) (The Multiple Print), a project that would change forever the appreciation of Cuban print-making, an art expression that after its splendor in the 19th century due to the booming commerce of sugar and tobacco, had practically fallen into oblivion in the Cuban artistic milieu after the rise of Modernism in Cuba.


Regarding the work and legacy of Belkis Ayón

In some previous lectures and writings in which I have introduced the work of Ayón, I have not doubted in classifying her prints as palimpsests[3]. Using the collographic technique the artist would superpose layers of various textures to create reliefs that represented a very personal iconography, inspired in the expressions of the intangible legacy of the Abakuá[4], the different parts of the initiation ritual of the said religion or the characters of their foundational myth.

In my opinion, what she did was a remake of something that had already been assimilated through oral tradition thanks to the intellectual and historical-anthropological approach allowed by books such as El Monte and  Abakuá Secret Society by Lydia Cabrera, “The Ñáñigos tragedy”, by Fernando Ortiz or Los ñáñigos, by Enrique Sosa. Interpreting these works that reproduce an oral tradition, Ayón created her own imaginary graphic work. A world elegantly portrayed in the images of her prints.
Although representing the Afro-Cuban legacy in our painting is constant since colonial times, her work may be considered a rarity from multiple viewpoints, since Belkis Ayón rescued printmaking in the midst of the Special Period. Engraving allowed her, among other things, to produce more with less and to exhibit a chromatic minimalism bordering on exquisiteness.

During the last stage of her life, Belkis Ayón combined her work as an artist with that of being a professor at the Higher Institute of Art (ISA) and with her position as a vice president of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC). Whenever she had the chance she disseminated the work of her students and colleagues. Thus, she became an active promoter of Cuban culture on a national and international scale.

However, the factor that made her work deserve recognition, beyond the Cuban intellectual circles, is the Abakuá topic around which she articulated her poetic language and the refinement of her collographies and prints in general. According to Alex Rosenberg, a prestigious specialist of international graphic arts and renowned collector, the results achieved by this artist with the collographic technique had no match in the world of art up to date [5]. This gives her demise another dimension.

Thus, we may affirm that Belkis Ayón had the merit of having taken the Abakuá culture to its highest form of recognition in the world of visual arts and of introducing it into the museum spaces. It is a paradox that thanks to a woman, this centuries-old,  sectarian culture achieved universality in the most demanding circles of international art of the 20th century.

At present, the works of Belkis Ayón are part of fourteen cultural centers and museum collections, among which are the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, the Van Reekum Museum, Apeldoorn, Holland, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, the Museum of Fort Lauderdale, USA, el Museum of Latin American Art of California, USA, Ludwig Forum Fur Internationale Kunst, Aachen, Germany, the State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, among others. Her works are also in numerous private collections in various countries.

Nobody has been able to explain the reasons for such an abrupt death at a moment in which her career was in full growth and when she had the acceptance of critics and other art professionals. Her physical disappearance left a void in the Cuban artistic milieu. Many of her colleagues coincide in pointing out that seldom the human and artistic values have combined in such a special way in a single person. Perhaps such departure is the only reproach that can be pointed out. However, in her gesture, there is a certain coherence with the myth that fascinated her. This allows us to draw a parallel with the philosophy of the romantic poets or other artists who have committed suicide. The figure of Belkis Ayón, therefore, is fused with the myth of Sikán giving place to a circle of meanings with a certain aura of mystery, offering thus great research material for historians and anthropologists.


The Belkis Ayón Estate

After her death, her legacy became protected by the Belkis Ayón Estate, an institution directed by her sister, Dr. Katia Ayón, with the advice of prestigious specialists in Cuban art. This institution, in which the family legacy and the cultural legacy of the nation coexist, has a model of management that is not widely known in the current socioeconomic context of the island [6]. Thus, self-managed for ten years by Dr. Ayón it has been developing a superb job which includes the preservation of Belkis Ayón’s works and the dissemination of her legacy by organizing exhibitions, publications, and other cultural activities.

According to an invitation that I received recently, the Belkis Ayón Estate has programmed Nkame, the first retrospective exhibition of the artist to commemorate the 10th anniversary of her demise. The show was officially opened last Friday, September 11, at 6 p.m., in the Convent of San Francisco de Asís, in the historical center of Old Havana. The exhibition includes some 83 works such as collographies, lithographs, and chalcographs made from 1984 to 1999. Likewise, other graphic documents of shows in which Belkis took part, as well as texts and photographs of the artist printed on large canvases are on display.

Organized by Dr. Katia Ayón and with the curatorship of Cristina Vives, the Nkame exhibition shall remain open to the public up to November 28th. During those two months and as part of the cultural program accompanying the exhibition, the halls of the convent shall take in lectures on the work of Belkis Ayón, the launching of the magazine La Gaceta de Cuba, and the launching of the projects of six young printmakers, some of them former students of the artist. Nkame is a deserved homage to the work of Belkis Ayón, a great exponent of printmaking in the history of Cuban art.
[1] This fish was the embodiment of Abasi, supreme deity of the Abakuá. See SOSA RODRIGUEZ, Enrique, Los ñáñigos, Casa de las Américas 1982 Award, Ediciones Casa de las Américas, Havana, 1982.
[2] Sikan’s sacrifice, which will appear in her works as a leitmotif, will bring about the Abakuá tradition in the ancient ethnic groups of Nigeria (the Efik and Efor peoples). It is, doubtless, a foundational myth that afterward, as Ortiz pointed out, during slavery – through a transculturation process-, gave origin to the Abakuá fraternity in Cuba in the towns of Havana and Matanzas (1830). See : ORTIZ, Fernando, La “tragedia” de los ñáñigos, Poligraf, Havana, 1993.
[3] ALBA DUARTE, Isbel (2009) The myth of Sikán in Cuban culture: tangible and intangible heritage in the work of Belkis Ayón. Reflections on the strategies for preservation and the methods for recovering her legacy. The lecture was given in the framework of the 28th International Congress of the Association of Latin American Studies, Río de Janeiro, Brazil, on June 13, 2009.
[4] An example of the expressions of intangible heritage is the figures in the parades, such as the little devils or iremes as well as the signatures or anaforuanas covering the bodies of the practicing Abakuás, the animals that will be sacrificed, and the musical instruments that take part in the various sections of the initiation ritual of this brotherhood (Author’s note).
[5] In ROSENBERG, Alex and Carol, Belkis Ayón in memoriam, 2005

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