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.

Art Olympics: National Pavilions at the Venice Biennale

Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmuş: An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale, 2013. Enactment of “La situazione antispettiva”, part of “The Blind Pavilion”, installation by Olafur Eliasson, Danish Pavilion, 50th International Art Exhibition:Dreams and Conflicts.The Dictatorship of the Viewer, 2003

Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmuş: An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale, 2013. Enactment of “La situazione antispettiva”, part of “The Blind Pavilion”, installation by Olafur Eliasson, Danish Pavilion, 50th International Art Exhibition:Dreams and Conflicts.The Dictatorship of the Viewer, 2003

National pavilions: the concept might be dated and problematic, but selecting one’s personal winners of the art olympics via nationa pavilions is still one of the most fun and competitive art-sports around.


Romania’s pavilion was an awesome, clever experience. Aptly called “An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale,” artists Manuel Pelmuş and Alexandra Pirici, curated by Raluca Voinea, had the idea of performing a selection of works from the entire history of the biennale. The empty white hall of the Romanian pavilion will be filled with some performers every day, all day for the duration of the biennale, offering an interpretation of all that has gone before, but one that is very removed from object hood or the traditional understanding of centers of the art world.

Video here:



Georgia’s pavilion, “Kamikaze Loggia,” was also awesome: by its very form mimicking the structure it is examining. Referencing characteristic self-made building styles in Tbilisi, it also refers to the position of Gerogia as a country participating in the biennial. Within the structure, built on top of an existing building at the biennial, was an exhibition of works examining this idea and of self-organized, ground up efforts.



I’m unsure about including this as a favorite pavilion, but it was certainly one of the most memorable and interesting experiences of the Biennial for me. Poland’s Pavilion “Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More” is a sound installation by Konrad Smolenski. Smolenski is active in contemporary art and the independent music scene, and here, like many of his works, deals with the audience’s expectation of sound. His piece features two huge bells and two large speakers facing each other from across the room. On the hour, the sound piece begins, but if you happen to walk in during a silent moment you might not realize anything more happens. However, if the sounds piece has started, you will be sure to notice it, as it works up to an almost intolerable crescendo (earplugs recommended). The reverberations of the facing speakers and bells interact and swell, becoming also a full-body physical experience, as I felt the sound waves, and as it ending, felt their absence in the periods where the sound suddenly cut out.


Forest Square III, 2013


Untitled (Nails and Wood), 2013

Honorable mentions go to the pavilion’s of Latvia, Finland, and Chile. Antti Laitinen represented Finland’s Pavilion (not the Nordic Pavilion, which also had a nearby Finnish presence) with Forest Square, a new work created for the biennial. Laitinen deconstructed and sorted various components of the 100 square meters of forest into their individual parts, be it bark, grass, or whathaveyou, and assembled the materials into a color composition (see first photograph). I also liked his series of 5 pieces of wood (detail pictured) covered over in nails. Both works total transform the original, natural element.


At the Latvian Pavilion, entitled “North by Northeast,” new site-specific works Kaspars Podnieks and Krišs Salmanis featured large, black and white portraits with a tree sweeping through the center of the room. It was evocative of identities and boundaries, and used the space well. Video of tree in motion here.


Chile’s Pavilion featured an installation by Alfredo Jaar reached by mounting a bridge arching over the large, dark space. His aesthetic but politically engaging installation begins with a large photo of Lucio Fontana visiting his tumbledown studio right after WWII. Then on the bridge,  a 5×5 meter square pool is filled with green water. In it, a perfectly reproduced scale model of the Giardini Biennial emerges and sinks every 5 minutes or so. It is a commentary on the biennial’s ability to recreate the inequalities of the world in its artificial structure, but also the possibilities of change.

Highlights of a lightening-speed tour of the Venice Biennale’s Central Pavilion


I gave up on a concise analysis of this year’s Venice Biennial, which being enormous as always, seemed more and more untenable, and so here are some brief highlights of my short visit there. This 55th exhibition, called “The Encyclopedic Palace,” was curated by Massimiliano Gioni (of the New Museum in NYC), and very successfully to this Venice biennial newbie. Overall the central pavilion at Giardini was really good, cohesive, and interesting; there was an intuitive, almost mystic or transcendent theme, in many of the works, keying off an initial display of pages of Jung’s Red Book. Gioni mixed in outsider and/or older artists to rich effect, so it was a little less predictable. In the long halls of the Arsenale (which opened with a model of Auturi’s 1950s Encyclopedic Palace) I thought the exhibition worked less well, with a contemporary Salon-style, throw-everything-on-the-walls-and-impress-via-multiplicity, that was just too much. Also, a glut of video works with competing audio made it difficult to focus.


Ongoing performance by Tino Seghal

Tino Sehgal, who won the Golden Lion for Best Artist, had a trio of performers chant and sing in a kind of mind-meld harmony, in one of the opening rooms of the central pavilion; I loved it. (As a corollary note, another performance, by Ragnar Kjartansson, was perhaps not the most meaningful but thoroughly enjoyable: the Icelandic artist  arranged for a boat, the S.S. Hangover, to glide around the Arsenale with a brass band.)


Model houses by Oliver Croy; behind, 9-11-01 by Jack Whitten.

P1100546 P1100548

Drawings by Jose Antonio Suarez Londono

Cathy Wilkes

Installation by Cathy Wilkes



My real question is if it’s not all too much: literally, just too much art? While this cornucopia is in keeping with the spirit of the Encyclopedic Palace, my philosophy is that there could be less. But I feel that way every time I visit an art fair.