Daniel Gerwin (Hyperallergic) reviews the solo museum show for Belkis Ayón, “Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayon,” which is still on view at the Fowler Museum (308 Charles E. Young Drive, Los Angeles, California) through February 12, 2017. He writes that Belkis Ayón, a black Cuban artist who was a master of collography, “left a legacy of art with that rarest of powers: the ability to lodge itself inside your heart and mind, wresting away a piece of you even as it bestows its copious gifts in return.” Here are excerpts from “The Masterful, Unsettling Work of a Female Cuban Printmaker”:
You may not have heard of one of the greatest printmakers of the 20th century, but you can see her work now in a retrospective at UCLA’s Fowler Museum. Belkis Ayón was a master of collography, a technique of collaging onto a matrix rather than incising it, as one would for etching, engraving, or woodcut. Her virtuosity is on full display in Nkame’s 43 prints — particularly the opener, “La Cena” (1991). The large image blends elements of the Last Supper with the initiation banquet (Iriampó) of the Abakuá, a fraternal secret society that originated in Nigeria but dates back to the 19th century in Cuba, where it provided protection and mutual aid in the face of slavery. In “La Cena,” the figures are women, in violation of the society’s all-male membership, and Jesus is replaced with Princess Sikan, the central (and only) female character in Abakuá mythology.
It would be difficult to overstate the significance of putting women into the male roles of such an iconic patriarchal symbol, not only in the context of 1990s Cuba, but also in reference to Abakuá itself. In the society’s origin story, Sikan brings sacred knowledge to her people, the Efut, but is ultimately killed by her countrymen for divulging the cult’s secrets to her lover from a neighboring nation. Throughout her ouevre, Ayón drew on the story of the Abakuá for her own iconography, depicting their rituals and hierarchies as a way of getting at larger human dramas. The story of Sikan is cautionary, warning of the penalty awaiting a woman who disrupts male control of knowledge. Ayón’s pictures focus especially on questions of belonging, personal freedom, and power — concerns that likely loomed large for her as a black Cuban woman and an intellectually engaged artist under a repressive regime.
On the wall opposite “La Cena” hangs the cardboard matrix from which it was printed. Consisting of six sections (her larger prints are made from individual sheets tiled into a grid to form a single image), it offers a glimpse into Ayón’s process. The bottom margin is mostly sandpaper, out of which she coaxed velvety blacks I associate primarily with mezzotint. She built up the surface using hand-cut paper shapes that she repeated and layered like scales to produce dazzling patterns, a primary element in her pictures. Her matrices also include vegetable peelings and acrylic, which she applied to generate passages resembling brushstrokes. The collaged elements produce embossments on the prints themselves, the textured ridges and valleys a pleasure to behold. It’s a common misconception that Ayón’s materials and her habit of tiling smaller sheets into larger works were necessitated by the shortage of art supplies in Cuba, but, as curator Cristina Vives writes in the wall text, “the truth is she preferred this methodology because it allowed her to control the ink and pressure in the printing press precisely.” [. . .]