Through Powerful Iconography and Enigmatic Narratives, Belkis Ayón (1967-1999) Addressed a Cuba in Crisis and the Larger Human Condition
After critically acclaimed stops at UCLA’s Fowler Museum and New York’s El Museo del Barrio, “Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón (1967-1999)” is now on view at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.
In seductively powerful compositions, Ayón magnetizes with bold, yet ethereal, mask-like human and animal forms that share an enigmatic narrative, most often related to human questioning or suffering. Symbolic references, amalgamated from disparate sources, are grounded in rich tapestries of swirls, patterns, and geometric shapes.
“The New York Times” named “Nkame,” curated by Cristina Vives, Havana-based curator, art historian and critic, one of 2017’s best exhibitions, while “ARTnews” named it one of the year’s top international exhibits.
Nearly four dozen of the artist’s works are included in the show, several from the collections of Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In much of her work, the late Cuban artist mined the world of the Abakuá, an Afro-Cuban all-male secret society. Ayón immersed herself in the myths, legends and belief system of this religious group, where members, and their shared secret knowledge, bond them in a lifelong pact. In her exploration, Ayón created a powerful visual iconography derived from this world unfamiliar to her own, yet for which she held a deep respect.
“Although my work deals with a theme as specific as the beliefs, rituals and myths of the Abakuá Secret Society,” the artist wrote, “this does not mean that it is devoted solely to the population that practices this faith. Above all, I am interested in questions of human nature — that fleeting feeling, spirituality. Because of that, my art can be appreciated by a universal public.”
Though she wasn’t religious, Ayón developed her symbolic visual language not only from the Abakuá, but also from Greek mythology, Catholic tradition and ancient oral traditions. An astute art historian, and educated in international languages and world history, she framed her work through this knowledge and experience.
“Religion was the perfect vehicle for Belkis,” Vives said, during an interview at the exhibition. “She was very respectful of the religious, but made it clear she wanted to talk about universal experiences beyond the depiction of religion. She pushed past the boundaries of religion to extract the essence and then came full circle to make it bigger.”
“I want to dismantle the myth that her work speaks specifically to race, gender or the Afro-Cuban heritage,” Vives added. “Belkis took aspects of the Abakuá legend that spoke to the human epic and created a space for the myth within the space of art and the human drama.”
Ayón not only found metaphor in the Abakuá religion for the collective human experience but, more markedly, for her home, Cuba, and its cultural, social, economic and political environment.
A Sense of Social Responsibility
Ayón worked in the middle of a very poignant time in Cuba known as the “Special Period.” It started in the late 1980s, following the collapse of socialism in Europe, which plunged Cuba into an economic and spiritual crisis — and unprecedented national isolation.
Ayón was among many Cuban artists who addressed these critical social and political issues. As a Postmodernist, she felt a responsibility to speak to this crisis and to the time in which she and her fellow Cubans were living.
“The Abakuá religion and their story was also her vehicle to talk about subjects such as freedom, censorship, control, betrayal and community or lack thereof,” Vives said.
“Her mouthless subjects are censored. They are victims who are suffering. If you talk too much and try to express your opinion when living in certain socio-political environments, or decide to feel free and express yourself, you suffer the consequences.”
To express her vision and message, Ayón chose the collography printmaking process. In this complex, labor-intensive technique, Ayón used intricately collaged cardboard plates to create highly textured prints with exceptional depth and detail. She was an astute craftsman, and her technique was not only masterful, it was visionary. She pushed the art of collography beyond existing practices and limitations.
Ayón’s resourcefulness and perseverance to see her work realized was also pioneering. Cuba’s “Special Period” was a time of dire poverty in Cuba and the country was experiencing severe commodity shortages. Supplies for artists were hard to come by, including those typically used to produce collography. Ayón found solutions by adapting other materials, such as sandpaper or vegetable peelings.
Though she occasionally, and stunningly, delved into color, the majority of Ayón’s work comprises large-scale, multi-panel monochromatic pieces. She believed black, white and gray had the greatest potential to express the full dramatic spectrum of her vision.
“Ayón worked in a cinematic scale,” Vives said. “She believed this gave her greater potential to reach viewers and to make them feel they are going into the work, as the work is coming to them.”
For example, “Pa’que me quieras por siempre (To make you love me forever)” (1991) stands over 14 feet tall and is made up of 18 sections that seem to envelop the viewer.
Allegorical symbols of the Abakuá, elements derived from their theatrical and dramatic rituals and ceremonies, as well as iconography from other religions and mythologies permeate Ayón’s highly detailed compositions.
Existing in a world shrouded in secrecy, the majority of her subjects have no mouths. They look through the viewer with piercing, almond-shaped eyes but cannot speak. The viewer must lean in and interpret, through their eyes, posture, and movement, the messages these mute characters scream or whisper.
In 1999, Ayón took her own life, which came as a shock to her family, friends, colleagues and the art world. Known for her energetic, generous personality, Ayón had concealed her inner struggles to most who knew her.
But Vives noted that during the two years prior to her death, while creating new work for what would be the final show of her lifetime, Ayón was immersed in tremendous inner conflict and struggle.
“Belkis was searching, wanting to be seen and perceived in another light. In part, her message was communicated … (by) adopting a smaller scale and using round shapes,” said Vives, who was both a colleague and a friend of Ayón.
Whereas her earlier work had tended to reach out to the world, Ayón’s final work was more autobiographical and self-focused. In search of a transformation, the self-referential prints focused on themes of personal suffering, while allusions to the Abakuá became more distant.
Unlike previous shows, Vives noted that for her final show in 1998, Ayón was unable to find a title and took months to arrive at “Desasosiego/Restlessness.”
“Belkis was in the midst of a conflict between life as an artist who wants to reinvent herself and the responsibilities of her roles as an educator and art administrator. In some ways, she felt she no longer belonged to the artistic field. The bureaucracy and politics created big conflict. She knew she couldn’t be a politician and an artist at the same time.”
Titles of the final works, such as “Temores infundados (Groundless Fears),” “Acoso (Harassment),” and “¡¡Déjame salir!! (Let Me Out!!)” represent the agony and isolation she was enduring silently. “¡¡Déjame salir!! (Let Me Out!!)” is a riveting image showing a figure (Ayón herself) surrounded by flames and pressing her hands desperately against the picture plane.
“Nkame” means “greeting” or “praise” in the language of Abakuá. Through her art, Ayón greets and invites us into a powerful world where her visionary legacy intrigues and illumines, as she quickens our hearts, souls and minds.
“Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón (1967-1999)” continues through April 29 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. For more information, 816.753.5784 or