Belkis Ayón: “Colografías” (Review)

[Many thanks to Veerle Poupeye for bringing this item to our attention via Critical.Caribbean.Art.] The Reina Sofía National Museum presents Belkis Ayón’s first European retrospective: “Colografías,” which is on view until April 18, 2022. The museum—Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía—is located at 52 Santa Isabel Street, Madrid, Spain. See our previous post Belkis Ayón: Collographs. Here are excerpts from the review “Belkis Ayón, dedos oscuros en la llaga” [Belkis Ayón: Dark Fingers on the Sore (].

The vital and creative trajectory of Cuban artist Belkis Ayón was brief: she lived 32 years, between 1967 and 1999, the last eleven of which were dedicated to creating, before even finishing her training at the Higher Institute of Art of Havana. In the eighties, when installations and post-media creation predominated, this author was not afraid of being considered anachronistic by making collography the fundamental technique of her work, a type of engraving consisting of incorporating of various textured elements glued onto a background before inking. After being inked, the printing in relief is carried out by applying pressure, either manually or with a press.

In her first projects she incorporated color, but very soon she did without it, giving extraordinary importance to silhouettes and ensuring that the materials themselves formed the skin of her figures, which seemed to fall halfway between the ghostly and the sacred. Her engravings also oscillate between the monumental and the intimate, in the latter case, it is especially true in works of a more personal nature, as they speak to us about two forms of subalternity: that of Afro-descendants and that of women; whose matrix is ​​sometimes linked to that of the artwork. In most of her production she directs her gaze towards the Abakuá Secret Society, an exclusively male society largely dedicated to mutual support, which emerged at the beginning of the 19th century among those who had just arrived in Cuba from Nigeria. Its main followers were blacks and mulattoes, and Princess Sikán is at the core of its beliefs, although they also constantly appeal to the spirits of their ancestors when performing their rites, according to strict rules and orally transmitted legends.

The Reina Sofía Museum presents [as of November 17, 2021] “Collographies,” Ayón’s first retrospective exhibit in Europe, with a wide selection of her production, including fifty of these engravings and about thirty pieces linked to other disciplines, including majolica glazing. The curator of the project, Cristina Vives, invites us to contemplate these works by going beyond mystical or enigmatic readings. To be more precise, she invites us to recall the historical, social, and economic contexts that she experienced: from her incorporation to the aforementioned Higher Institute of Art in 1988 to her suicide in 1999, when European socialism collapsed and the fall of the USSR had profound consequences in Cuba, in the form of material hardships accompanied by the breakdown of a system of values ​​and, nearly, of faith. That turbulent climate is also part of her work, which has a civic dimension and implies taking a position, a position also adopted by other artists of her generation, such as Los Carpinteros or Tania Bruguera, well known here [in Spain] (Bruguera is actually the most recent winner of the Velázquez Award).

Therefore, it is not appropriate for mysticism “to cover the forest with one’s fingers on the sore,” as Vives explains. Her concerns had to do with censorship, control, the conditions of life itself … and her production houses a discourse against frustration, marginality, fear, intolerance, violence, or the lack of freedom—a background with great a capacity for validity that does not undermine, but does complete, her visions of the mystery and the beliefs of Abakuá Society, often fused with iconographies of Christian origin. For this reason, Ayón’s transition towards black and white cannot only be read as an aesthetic decision, but also as the expressive vehicle of existential and historical dramas.

But let’s return to Sikán and to the spirituality of the descendants of the new arrivals from Calabar. We may consider that the artist endowed the Abakuá beliefs with a moving iconography that were interpreted from her own perspective—Cuban, black, and female—in which that goddess (who, according to the stories, was sacrificed by the men of the community) becomes Ayón’s alter ego and an emblem of timeless conflicts related to guilt, fear, salvation …

This artist was still in her third year of engraving classes when she introduced that Secret Society into her work, at first in austere and geometric compositions that expressed her early readings on the subject. Three years later, she would develop for the first time large-size collographs by assembling up to nine sections. In Cuba, in the late eighties, these images were a novelty, due to their dimensions and the use of color planes, which referred to Cuban pop posters and the engravings of Rafael Zarza and Umberto Peña, but above all, because of their refocusing of the Abakuá myths, brought to the contemporary moment. In this sense, it is worth highlighting her interpretations of La Cena, with so many Catholic echoes, and Nlloro, a funerary rite that culminated in the burial of the members of the group—a rite whose order the artist altered in her images. As an example, look at Nlloro, which can now be seen for the first time outside of Cuba and dates from 1991, a decisive year for Ayón.

At that time, she also created her triptych La consagración [The Consecration], in which she represented the foundational levels of the Abakuá Secret Society: the initiation of its aspirants, the oath of its spiritual leaders, and the emergence of a new group, or Potencia [Power] as a basic organizational nucleus. Considering that the consecration ceremonies are for them a symbol of the legitimation of their power through time, this work depicts their rituals and the pyramidal nature of the Society’s organization.

Another important year to underline in Ayón’s brief career is 1993, when she began to go beyond that belief system to approach a spirituality without borders; this was also the moment when she joined the group of Cuban artists that emerged from the crisis. It was no coincidence that two years later, she brought to the church of Santa Bárbara in Breinig, Germany, the series Sostenme en el dolor [Sustain me in my pain]: fourteen of her Abakuá-themed images replaced the church’s central nave depictions of the Via Crucis.

Her scenes from the nineties, as we anticipated, were often articulated as multi-section assemblages whose presentation approached installation, physically getting closer to the viewer. Sometimes they offer irregular formats, they evoke Christian religious architectures, or, at times, their own mounting adapts to the spaces in which they are exhibited, with images gradually appearing with a tone close to the epic or the apocalyptic, and finally, rounded works in which references to the Secret Society were already diluted and sometimes replaced with others associated to personal experiences.

The exhibition ends with the series My Vernicle, which speaks of emotions linked to anguish, loneliness, or loss manifested by a single female face: the face of Sikán-Belkis.

The relevance of this show does not reside only in the sense of discovery in our country and in Europe: Ayón’s editions are limited given the fragility of the collographic media; she used cardboard, paper, and, sometimes, sandpaper … which when coming in contact with water and ink make it difficult to preserve the pieces. All the works exhibited at the Reina Sofía come from the author’s Estate, which ensures such preservation through a particularly arduous task, when you take into account the Caribbean climate.

[Shown above: first, Belkis Ayón’s “Sikán,” 1991; second, “Nlloro,” 1991. Estate of Belkis Ayón, Havana.]

Translated by Ivette Romero. For original article (in Spanish), see

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