Belkis Ayón: The Myths and Stories in her Dramatic Printmaking
I'd be lying if I said I've been a lifelong fan of Belkis Ayón, but no, I only just discovered this Afro-Cuban printmaker this past summer at her retrospective at El Museo del Barrio . This first ever survey in the U.S. of Ayón's work makes its second stop in New York (East Harlem to be exact), after its debut in Los Angeles at the Fowler Museum last October. Titled NKAME: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón, the show offers a rich display of her mostly black and white, heavily detailed, collographs. The works are dramatic, powerful, and some massive in scale. Ayón tells the story of the Abakuá, an all-male brotherhood and sect in Cuba, whose African roots trace back to Nigeria and Cameroon, and remained on the island as an effect of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Ayón visualizes their story through a limited color palette of black, white, and grey. The figures have large mysterious eyes, and there is a shroud of religious iconography that surrounds them such as crucifixes, crosses, and serpents. One standout piece is 'La Cena', 1988, a retelling of The Last Supper, where Ayón inserts herself as Princess Sikán in the place of Jesus, and all of the other apostles become women as well. This piece is singular and hypnotizing, simply because it's one of the few works in color, in vibrant and bright fluorescent tones. There is an exact version of 'La Cena' in black, white, and gray from 1991. Although Ayon focuses on men, her feminist scope is felt throughout her work. Princess Sikán (Ayón's alter ego) is a heroine from Abakuá mythology who was murdered for revealing intel to a rival tribe, and a character who appears frequently in Ayón's artistry.
After seeing the exhibit at El Museo del Barrio, a month later I find myself in Havana, Ayón's native city, visiting the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. I came across the seminal exhibit, Without Masks: Contemporary Afro-Cuban Art, the first of its kind exhibit centralized on contemporary Afro-Cuban artists. Once again I encountered Ayón's multi-paneled collographs, which dominated the exhibit, and I learned more about the majestic narrative of the Abakuá religion. When I read the catalog info on the wall and saw the years listed 1967-1999, I was beyond dumbfounded. I had no idea Ayón had passed. She was in her early thirties and had already exhibited globally in Europe, Japan, and North America. She represented Cuba at the Venice Biennale in 1993 at just twenty-six-years-old. Two days before her death, she had been in talks with her American gallerist about an upcoming show in Philadelphia. She took her own life with a shot to the head using her father's gun.
NKAME, which means 'praise' or a form of greeting in Abakuá, is a fitting title for Ayón's show. We are ready to shower her with praise, and we both welcome and honor her glorious printmaking.
NKAME: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón will be on view through November 5th, 2017 at El Museo del Barrio in New York City.