Belkis Ayón: Printing Oneself Into Power at El Museo del Barrio

Belkis Ayon at the Havana Galerie, Zurich, Aug 23, 1999 (Fowler Museum at UCLA)

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.

Belkis Ayón, La Cena (The Supper), 1991

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.

Belkis Ayón, La Cena (The Supper), 1988

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.

Belkis Ayón, To Make Me Love You Forever, 1991

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.

Details of printing plate and print studies for La Cena

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.

Installation view, NKame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón, El Museo del Barrio

NKame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón is on view until November 5, 2017 at El Museo del Barrio.

János Major at tranzit


János Major is not a well-known artist outside of Hungary, but within Hungary there is a resurgence of interest  in his work. Not much of his work has survived, so I was excited to have a chance to see Taboo Subject, an exhibition at tranzit featuring prints of Major’s related to Jewish identity. Major deals with himself, his body and Jewish identity, in ruthless caricature. Firstly it is remarkable to do so at all given the repressive post-Holocaust, Socialist context in which he began dealing with these themes, and secondly in the freely pornographic and self-loathing manner in which he channels anti-Semitic stereotypes through his own image.


I first became aware of Major through two contemporary artists’s projects: Crew Expendable by Little Warsaw and Vasarely Go Home by Andreas Fogarasi. Both touch on his oeuvre, but little has been done in terms of art historical work. Interestingly there has been a lot of recent interest, with this show and another at the University of Fine Arts this past year. It’s representative of the lack of documentation and scholarship on the Hungarian neo-avant-garde (making up for Socialism again) that he hasn’t been dealt with much before. On the other hand, he is also a difficult figure to place; he was a graphic artists who made prints more similar to Hogarth or Goya than anything else and yet he was also a conceptual artist and key figure of the avant-garde.

The two prints above, dating from the 1970s, have one key difference: in the lower print, the text is blurred out. The text in the higher version refers too overtly to conflict in the Middle East and Jewish politics to ever have been shown. The mystery to me is where either version could have been shown in Hungary in the 1970s.


In conjunction with the exhibition, Marcell Eszterhazy created an installation using the double windows of the front room to create peepholes into transparent images of typically Jewish imagery. A layer of opaque white is in front of the images over glass looking out on the street behind. Certainly Major’s works make one aware of the covert nature of dealing with Jewish topics, and this installation in which Jewish signs and symbols are screened from direct gaze perhaps refers to this. The Budapest environment in the background is not so different than when Major first began working, and an intended question of the exhibition is whether 20 years after Hungary became a democracy real discourse is yet taking place about Jewish identity.



Awesomeness: Jens Schubert at Volta

Whew, the art fairs have ended. I was laid low with a stomach bug for most of it, but I did get to catch a bit of Armory, SCOPE, and Volta (which was more than enough, thankyouverymuch). To begin with my new favorite: printermaker Jens Schubert was represented by Galerie Kleindienst in one of the solo-artist booths at Volta. These colorful, densely layered prints filled me with glee. I really enjoyed looking at them; I thought the compositions were fantastic and allusive; I even liked the planets, above, which are very much not my thing. In a word: awesome. Bonus points for the textured plastic floor you can make out in the photograph below.

“With the vivid and impasto variegation of his paintings, the striking forms and particularly with the repetition of motifs Schubert`s formal language sometimes reminds the viewer of folk art. Masks, animal motifs, floral and architectonic elements, as well as abstract ornaments are interwoven to puzzling and mythical figures. Not a realistic depiction or story telling is decisive, but the expression focuses on a strong emotional charge of the pictures. The prints are extremely complex. Either Schubert compiles varied motifs on one plate or he puts several layers above one another on his large size prints, so that different individual motifs form a new figure.” –Volta website