Belkis Ayón and the Cuba-West Africa Connection

Ethel-Ruth Tawe (Contemporary And América Latina) focuses on Belkis Ayón’s work. “With her ongoing showing at The Milk of Dreams (Venice Biennale), and a recently-ended retrospective at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, there is a revived interest in Belkis Ayón’s work. But who are the Abakuá secret society, a central subject in the artist’s work, and how did their Afrodiasporic history and tradition influence Ayón? What does it mean for the Abakuá to be given global visibility by someone who was banned from participating as a woman?”

Engraved, chalk-white eyes illuminate obsidian tableaus, as a host of ghostly figures convert spectators into the spectated — both gazing in silence. I look up at the gallery wall, reading the word “Abakuá”, and I’m immediately transported to Casa de África in Old Havana, Cuba, where I first heard of this secret society and its connection to my homeland Cameroon. Surveying the large format scenographic works, often unframed with symmetric cut-outs or mounted on inclining platforms, I witness a collective invitation to contemplate our own ascension into alternative planes. Cuban artist Belkin Ayón’s oeuvre is an exercise in mythmaking and syncretism; a space to decode chronologies and metaphors of African (re)imagination in the diaspora. In many ways, Cuban and Afrodiasporic culture at-large are living embodiments of syncretic practice: the amalgamation of different cultures, religions, and schools of thought to encode new systems. In her abrupt yet prolific career, Ayón offered an extensive counter-portrait of the life and afterlife of Sikan, a woman sacrificed in the legend of Abakuá: an all-male secret society who arrested the artist‘s imagination. Using allegorical markings and religious iconography, Ayón comments on social, human, and material conditions, while exhibiting mastery of her labor-intensive printmaking technique known as collography.

The epic of Abakuá stretches beyond the geographies of Cuba, originating in modern day southwestern Cameroon and the Cross River states of Nigeria. These roots/routes are critical in cautiously reading Ayón’s works, to avoid erasing the histories embedded in her visual language. Abakuá is one of many African spiritual practices transported in the minds and bodies of enslaved people to the Americas. Like Candomblé in Brazil, Vodou in Haiti, or Santeria, these practices were preserved and encoded in chants, dance, and immaterial culture. They were modalities of resistance to attempted dehumanization by slavery. Abakuá distinguishes itself as an exclusive and highly-organized fraternity, not religion, although some of its rigid criteria have dissolved in recent years. It is grounded in principles of mutual-aid, discipline, and governance, with only a few men accessing the institution’s inner mechanics.

The name Abakuá is a creolization of “Abakpa”, an area in southeast Nigeria where the society was active. It is the region of the slave port and ancient Kingdom of Calabar (Akwa Akpa) referred to as Carabalí in Cuba. In Nigeria and Cameroon, Abakuá is known as Ékpè (leopard) societies. Since arriving in Cuba in the early 1800s, the society is still active today with over 20,000 members in Havana, Matanzas, and Cardenas, who maintain their own language and laws. Moninas (initiates) belong to lineages with tratados (origin myths or treaties) linked to their African counterparts: Efik Ebuton (Èfìk people), Eforisún Efó (Efut people), & Orú Ápapa (Úrúrán or Oron people). Linguistic syncretism, or creolization, became imperative encryptions and preservations of African oral tradition within the Spanish colony. Dia de Tres Reyes (Three Kings Day), the earliest celebration permitting African descendants to publicly exhibit their culture, has been where Abakuá tradition is more widely memorialized. Abakuá has imprinted an indelible mark on the Cuban cultural landscape, including danzón, rumba music, and the 1920s Afrocubanismo artistic movement, for example. However, it is still frequently stigmatized and colloquially known as Ñañigos, an arguably pejorative term linked to criminality in Cuban popular culture. Like many debated accounts of oral histories, there remain several variations of these myths, codifications, and their chronologies.

Though Ayón herself was an atheist, she appropriated Abakuá lore in her work to offer a feminist dialetic, in consultation with members of the society with whom she nurtured close professional relationships. Ayón’s object of affection from the origin myth was princess Sikán, who was sentenced to death by her community after revealing esoteric knowledge to her lover from a neighboring nation. The secrets were transmitted by a fish’s voice “ekué”, a reincarnation of the old king Obón Tanzé, whom Sikán encountered by chance at a sacred river. In many ways Sikán’s story became a cautionary tale and further grounds for banishing women from Abakuá as they were perceived to stir conflict — a narrative akin to the original sin of Eve in the Bible. [. . . ]

There is nothing silent about Ayón’s works; a sense of drama unfolds in her compositions much like a panoramic Renaissance painting. Sikan stands in the midst of men, a commanding presence in bold and subtle gestures. In La Cena (The Supper), Ayón juxtaposes the Abakuá iriampó (initiation banquet) and the composition of the Euro-classical Last Supper, a ceremonial banquet that preceded Christ’s crucifixion. Christ is replaced by Sikán, with women disciples by his side. The figures protrude from the edges inviting the viewer to participate in this syncretic and disruptive counter-narrative. Ayón’s life-size tableaus exhibit Judeo-Christian architectural qualities of stained glass windows, gothic arches, and vaulted ceilings. They appear transcendental, like altars or a theatrical staging of a ritual. The structural qualities may speak to hierarchies and stratification of political power, reflective of the existential crisis of Cuban society in the 1990s. Ayón’s work visually dismantles hegemonic and patriarchal structures, while often (re)membering haunting histories. Abakuá was certainly a vehicle for the historicization of African tradition and resistance to cultural subjugation. It was operationalized as an anti-colonial vehicle against Spanish rule, after the formation calbidos (nation groups) across the colony. Although closely paralleled with the original Ékpè model, Abakuá is sometimes likened to cimarrón (maroon) rebel traditions of the Caribbean. For me, Ayón was able to acknowledge, embrace and critique the role of all institutions at play. She was in constant conversation with the past, present and future, from the positionality of a Black Cuban woman. [. . . ]

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[Belkis Ayón (1967-1999), Installation view at the 59th Venice Biennale, La Pesca /Fishing, collography on paper, 1989. Photo: Contemporary And América Latina, Eduardo Nasi. Courtesy of The Belkis Ayón Estate.]

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