NKame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón is on view for another month, until November 5, 2017, at El Museo del Barrio. These wonderfully textured, large-scale prints centered on the mythology of a secretive male brotherhood in Havana are well worth seeing, remembering when you do how a young Afro-Cuban woman took up this obscure subject matter in the 1980s while pioneering techniques in a medium then considered passé. Belkis Ayón lived and worked in Havana, where she was born in 1967. Her retrospective, which comes to El Museo from the Fowler Museum in L.A., introduces a substantial body of work to audiences in the United States. However, during her own life, Ayón already enjoyed considerable success internationally. As an artist, she received special dispensation from the Cuban government to travel. She participated in the 16th Venice Biennial in 1993 and attended residencies in Europe, Japan, and North America. In 1999, at the age of 32, Ayón took her own life. Nkame, a word which means greeting or praise in the Abakuá language, is an homage to the artist as much as overview of her short career.
Ayón was neither religious, nor a man, yet she took the Afro-Cuban religion of Abakuá as her subject matter. Abakuá, which has a strong community in Havana, only allows male participants and it secretive. Yet the bulk of Ayón’s work presents characters and scenes of Abakuá doctrine. The focus is often on the only female figure in the pantheon, Sikan, with whom the artist herself identified. In the image above of La Cena, the central figure is the white silhouette of Sikan. Recalling images of the Christian Last Supper, male initiates surround the seated lone female as they prepare a ritual. It is also an image of a powerful woman who is unlike those surrounding her; here Sikan is set off by the bright contrast in tone. Implicitly the image challenges a patriarchal culture, because the artist takes it upon herself to tell the stories of a religion she is excluded from and portrays herself in the center of the scene. Rather than positioning herself on the outside looking in, she is on the inside looking directly out at the viewer.
La Cena, often considered Ayón’s masterpiece, was preceded by the work pictured above of the same title. This colorful antecedent was exhibited in 1988 at her first solo exhibition in Havana, Propuesta a los veinte años (Proposal at the Age of Twenty). After this point Ayón settled into a palette of grey, black, and white, but she continued to work with the subject matter of Abakuá. With it she created a powerful visual iconography that both fascinates me and remains resistant to straightforward interpretation. Taken at face value, these are literal depictions from stories, characters presented with symbolic attributes in full frontal depictions to maximize legibility, which Ayón presents seemingly without agenda. Yet her commitment to the subject and its obscure nature confound, and indeed perhaps that mystery is part of the appeal.
Her work is also notable for its technical skill and innovation with form. To Make Me Love You Forever, her work for the 16th Venice Biennial, is created of 18 separate printed sheets joined together on a shaped support to create a structure that resembles an alter. Although the surface is delicate, the work becomes monumental. Ayón developed a collographic process that allowed her great and subtle textures, giving her blacks in particular a lush Baroque quality. Collography is a printing process that involves applying various materials to a cardboard matrix, and the collage, in turn, functions as a printing plate. Below you can see the collaged printing matrix on the left compared to a print, both on view at El Museo in the same room as the color La Cena of 1988 and the final version of 1991. The varying absorbency and texture of the materials used in the printing plate determines the final texture.
The final room in show highlights some of the artist’s last prints. Smaller single sheets feature a central, circular compositions in dark tones. Although similar aesthetically, these works abandon the recognizable stories or characters of Abakuá in favor of faces or masks amidst abstract, densely worked backgrounds. In hindsight, it is hard not to read these compositions as uncomfortable, where hands seem to pull at the skin of the face—as those of a person whose world had come to feel smaller and more constrictive.
NKame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón is on view until November 5, 2017 at El Museo del Barrio.