Their maker is long gone, but Belkis Ayón’s the characters live in a syncretic shadow and silhouette, forever sliding between realms and roles, boundaries and beliefs.
During a short but brilliant life whose later years were deeply marked by the chaos that the collapse of the Soviet Union brought to her native Cuba, Ayón established herself as an artist whose technical skills did not were equal to the haunted and hallucinatory intensity of his imagination.
Today Ayón – hailed as one of the best engravers of the 20th century – is the subject of a retrospective at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid. The roughly 90 works gathered for the show that started last week chronicle the obsessions and changing phases of a career that ended when Ayón committed suicide, for reasons that still remain a mystery to his friends and family. her family, in Havana in 1999. She was 32 years old. .
While many of his contemporaries had fun with installations, Ayón adopted the graphic technique of collography as a way to explore his fascinations – most notably with Abakuá, an all-male secret society who was brought to Cuba by western slaves. – Africans in the early 19th century.
His collographies – produced by pasting a collage of materials onto media such as cardboard, coating it with ink and then passing it through a printing press – refer, time and again, to Abakuá rites and beliefs.
The figure of Sikán, princess and the only female character in Abakuá mythology, is recurrent in his work. Sikán’s fate is sealed after she discovers Tanze, a sacred fish sent by the supreme god who will bring peace to a besieged region. She is ordered to remain silent on the discovery but shares her secret with her fiancé, who comes from an enemy country. His perceived betrayal leads to his execution, but with it dies Tanze.
In Sikán – whom Ayón saw as “the main character, the mother of every Abakuá, the great sacrificed initiator” – the artist saw a reflection of herself and other marginalized but essential women. Sikán becomes his alter ego and the character appears repeatedly as Ayón changes from color to black, white and gray, and begins to merge Abakuá’s beliefs with Christian motifs such as the Last Supper, The Way. of the Cross and the Resurrection.
“These Abakuá legends have been passed down orally and what Belkis does is give this oral tradition a visual form,” explains Manuel Borja-Villel, director of Reina Sofía. “But what she does is also personal because although it is a secret male society, the central figure is Sikán, a female figure who ends up being sacrificed by the community. This idea of a masculine society where the key figure is a woman has a lot to do with Belkis Ayón’s position.
But as the curator of the exhibition, Cristina Vives, points out, Ayón’s work must also be placed in the context of life in Cuba after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As familiar certainties faded and food and gasoline shortages were felt, Cuba was plunged into crisis overnight.
“People usually talk about it as an economic crisis, but it goes far beyond a simple economic crisis,” says Vives. “It was a crisis of values in which the whole socio-economic structure and the ethical beliefs that accompanied it collapsed before the eyes of every Cuban.”
According to Vives, Ayón and his fellow Cuban artists have sought to “reflect, question and critique their reality” in their work while trying to make ends meet.
The artist’s participation in the 1993 Venice Biennale got off to a good start. She cycled the 30 km from her home to the airport with her brother-in-law, Ernesto Leyva, carrying his bags on his bike, and her father following with his art on his. The artist and his bags made the flight, but his pieces didn’t because his father fell too far behind, meaning the precious cargo missed the plane. Fortunately, his exhibitions finally arrived in Venice a few hours before the start of the biennale.
Leyva laughs at the airport dashboard and smiles at the memory of her sister-in-law. “Belkis has always been a bold girl and she was really funny,” he says. “But she was also stubborn and serious. She made a name for herself in the artistic community of Havana – and across the country – and she knew how to party. But when it was time for work, she always knelt down.
Ayón could also be counted on to help his fellow artists, supporting them emotionally but also materially by bringing back essential supplies from his trips abroad.
Her later works moved away from Abakuá and instead focused on mixing the lyrics of popular Latin American songs with self-referential images and reflections on the veil with which Saint Veronica wiped the face of Jesus Christ on the way. of Calvary. Their titles are about deep wounds, the agonies of love, assault, fear and abandonment – many of the pains endured by Ayón’s alter-ego, Sikán.
Twenty-two years later, the artist’s death remains an enigma for all who knew her. “We never knew why she did it,” Leyva says. “We couldn’t believe it when we heard – and it still hurts now. “
Vives, who was also a close friend of Ayón, hopes that this first European retrospective will allow us to see an “ethical artist but also a very civic woman” whose fierce creativity has transcended her life, her circumstances and her personal concerns.
“Belkis Ayón has built a universal discourse against marginalization, frustration, fear, censorship, intolerance, violence, powerlessness and lack of freedom,” explains the curator. “Her work always serves to send the message that her country – and mankind – must hear.”