Fowler Museum, Los Angeles
Reviewed by Lorraine Heitzman
The recent show at The Fowler Museum, Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón, was the first major retrospective of Ayón’s powerful and emotional work in the United States and inarguably one of the most significant exhibitions that opened in Los Angeles last year. Nkame, meaning “greeting” or “praise” in the language of Abakuá, was a welcome homage to Ayón’s signature black and white prints and featured a comprehensive selection of her work never-before shown together outside of Cuba.
In large collographic prints, Ayón posed her almost life-sized figures in mysterious tableaux, like Giotto characters in the shallow spaces of a passion play. Silhouetted against inky backdrops, men and women enact or bear witness to religious initiations as their wide-open eyes punctuate the night. Their fixed stares project fear and resignation, hinting at the artist’s anxieties while mirroring our own. In some counterintuitive way, these minimal portraits are surprisingly expressive and the effect of seeing Nkame is both unnerving and revelatory.
Belkis Ayón was born in Cuba in 1967 and began her printmaking studies in high school before attending the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. She swiftly gained international recognition for her prints, and in 1993 was invited to participate in the Venice Biennale. Success followed rapidly with prizes, residences, shows and acquisitions. In 1999, however, for reasons unknown, she committed suicide at the age of 32.
Throughout her short life Ayón referenced and re-envisioned the imagery of Christianity and Abakuá, often melding them together in her work. The religious influences are clearly visible in Nkame, whether they reflect Byzantine icons, The Last Supper, or more esoteric sources. Although she herself claimed to be an atheist, Ayón was deeply attracted to the mythology and iconography of Abakuá, a fraternal organization established in Havana in the early 1800’s. Abakuá, which still exists today, is believed to have evolved from Leopard cults in Southeastern Nigeria and brought to Cuba by African slaves.
When Ayón began her research there was scant information available about the secret society, but the dearth of visual information ultimately proved useful to her and she capitalized on the void, creating imagery where very little had existed before. Ayón, who was neither religious nor committed to impartiality, had the freedom to fabricate her own interpretations. By exploiting the mythology of Abakuá and inserting herself into their rituals, Ayón was fulfilling her need for artistic expression and spirituality and in a broader sense, commentating on the human condition.
Princess Sikán is the primary character in the Abakuá origin myth and figures prominently in Ayón’s work. According to the African legend, when Sikán inadvertently receives the secret tenets of Abakuá from a sacred fish, she is instructed not to divulge what she has learned because such knowledge was dangerous and forbidden to women. After disobeying the warning and thereby jeopardizing the faith, the teachings are almost lost and Sikán is sacrificed. Abakuá was ultimately preserved and Sikán remains the only female figure in either myth or membership within the fraternal organization.
Ayón explains her identification with Sikán in an interview from 1997, saying, “ I see myself as Sikán, since I am the observer, the mediator and the taleteller: I invent the images based on my studies and my experiences, since I am not a believer, and as I see her, I see myself.”
Her first print introducing Sikán, Sálvanos Abasi (Abasi Save Us), 1989 depicts the princess cradling a goat and crucifix. She is naked except for her crown and the pendant she is wearing. The slope of her shoulders, long hair, and curve of her breast are the only details besides the most compelling one: that of her penetrating stare. The eyes recall those painted on Egyptian sarcophagi that enable the dead to see in their afterlife, but they are also jolting reminders of other concerns: what it means to be a woman, a victim or a goddess.
Other prints feature Sikán juxtaposed between Catholic and Abakuá myths. There is La Cena, a retelling of the Last Supper that re-imagines the biblical story with Sikán as Jesus and the apostles as women. The garments speak to the clothing used in Abakuá ceremonies and the snake around Sikán’s neck refers to the snake in the origin myth that helped retrieve the secrets.
In Ayón’s work, both the murky details of the textiles and the bold, figurative elements are coaxed from the collographic process that she so deftly employed. Due in part to financial constraints and to her own personal preferences, Ayón used collography for most of the 200 prints she created over her lifetime.
Collography is a printmaking method that uses cardboard shapes to imprint images, a relatively simple and crude method compared to refinements possible with other techniques. To achieve a range of subtle textures and elaborate patterns, Ayón added glue and other materials to the surfaces of the cardboard reliefs building up details that gave her otherworldly scenarios a tactile specificity and a dark, moody atmosphere.
Besides the limitations of collography, creating large prints presented another technical challenge. In order to create her large images, Ayón had to piece together many smaller prints because of the size of the press she used in Cuba. Notice how the languid limbs, blanketed in ghostly white robes and patterned garments, or else left unabashedly naked, stretch across multiple prints, giving the impression of a singular image. Assembled into a grid, the large size of the finished art creates almost life-sized figures that mirror the viewer. And by limiting her palette to gradations of black and white, Ayón emphasized the figurative shapes and unified the multiple prints for greater impact.
Ayón once admitted that one of her limitations was her inadequacy as a skilled draftsman. Her solution was to create two dimensional, simplified characters, relying on shapes and outlines rather than form. In the end, this perceived limitation and the very real ones related to the difficulties of working in Cuba ultimately assisted her vision. When she harnessed her talents and ingenuity to overcome these shortcomings she was able to conjure the melancholy and dark emotions that speak to us across divides of gender, race and beliefs and ultimately transcend her subject matter. The genius of her expressive and confidant work is readily apparent; her images felt rather than understood. Belkis Ayón’s overdue exhibit, Nkame, should secure her standing as an artist, not as a woman or as Cuban, but by any measure.
Lorraine Heitzman is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. She has written about the local arts community for ArtCricketLA and Armseye Magazine and is currently a regular contributor to Art and Cake. In addition to exhibiting her art, Lorraine has her own blog, countingknuckles.com, and her art can be seen on her website: www.lorraineheitzman.com.