by ESTER BARKAI
It is not unusual for artists to create their own visual language. But Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón (1967 – 1999) went one step further and developed her personal iconography while telling the story of a secret society she could never join. The artworks on view in Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón relate to the origin story of the Abakuá, a Cuban all-male secret society.
The first thing that strikes me is the manner in which figures are portrayed — without ears, noses or mouths. The only facial features depicted in Ayón’s work are eyes. Figures are mostly rendered as white shapes drawn in outline or as black silhouettes; they inhabit a ghost world from which they stare out at the viewer.
It is, at first, a bit unsettling.
According to the exhibit, Abakuá is a secret mutual aid society. It functions, at least in part, to protect its members and is believed to have been brought to Cuba in the early 1800’s by enslaved Africans originating from the Cross River region in southeastern Nigeria. The founding myth of this all-male group begins in the hands of a woman, Princess Sikán. She accidentally traps a fish who calls out to her but because women are not permitted to hear mystical voices, Sikán is sworn to secrecy. Unwilling to abide by this injunction, she tells her fiancé and is condemned to death.
Like Princess Sikán, upon initiation to the Abakuá society members are sworn to secrecy. The origin myth describes the unfortunate fate that befalls those who fail to obey this oath. The princess’s fate inspires the silence that informs Belkis Ayón’s prints.
Ayón was a Cuban teacher and printmaker who specialized in collagraphy, a technique that combines collage and printmaking. Collagraphy enabled her to incorporate a variety of textured materials into her artwork by adhering them onto cardboard and then running the board through a press. Her finished products, however, are larger than the typical size one expects to emerge from a press: each is composed of multiple pieces and winds up a wall-sized composition.
La Familia (1991) is a collagraph in six pieces. Originally titled La Sagrada Familia (The Holy Family), it is arranged as a family-style portrait. Princess Sikán sits at the center, represented as a black figure. A white male figure stands by her with a black snake wrapped around his neck. The spare black and white color palette highlights dramatic contrasts and the minimally rendered figures act as graphic elements as much as they tell a narrative.
Sikán (1991) is a four-piece collagraph portrait of the princess. She looks out at us, as portraits often do, inviting us in. Some of her silhouette is covered with scales. She is part human and part fish.
There are three composite collagraph works in the show all titled La Cena, two from 1988 and one from 1991. In the 1991, 6-part version, each figure is filled with a different pattern or texture. Fish, the downfall of Princess Sikán, is for dinner. The figures are arranged symmetrically around the table in clear reference to famous representations of the Christian Last Supper such as Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco.
Nkame, the exhibit’s title, is a word from the Abakuá society’s language; it translates as praise and salutation. The language is supposed to aid in keeping the society secret yet here we have access to it, thanks to the curator, Cuba-based art critic and researcher Cristina Vives, the Belkis Ayón Estate (Havana, Cuba), and the JSMA in Eugene. The exhibit conveys a sense of voyeurism — partly because we are given access to a culture different than our own, but also because of the style of the art and the fact that what is recalled is a secret society.
As I write this review, I’m reminded of another exhibition that is granting viewers access to the private world of Vincent van Gogh. In “Van Gogh Exhibition: The Immersive Experience” the artist’s paintings are projected so that people can enter them, walking through van Gogh’s starry skies or strolling by a café or landscape that the artist painted. Like van Gogh, Belkis Ayón committed suicide while in her thirties.
Knowing this, perhaps, should not change the way I view her art. But it does shift something for me in the same way as knowing about van Gogh’s suffering shifts my understanding of his art and, I assume, would haunt me in “entering” the artist’s paintings. Ayón’s investment in the story of Princess Sikán, a female who was not allowed to hear a mystical voice or speak of it afterward, seems more profound given that she took her own life.
Vives says this retrospective offers a chance “to dialogue” with the artist. Despite the often dark and surreal style, the curator believes it speaks to an “affirming message of life.”
Ayón first addressed material relating to the Abakuá while in high school at San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts. She continued to use the secret society as subject matter in her art up to the time of her death. Would she have continued to relate her art to the history and origin of the Abakuá had she lived a longer life? The answer to this question is unknowable, but one thing is certain. This show gives you the sense of being led into a secret world. It might not be a world with which Abakuá members wholeheartedly agree. But it is one that belonged, wholeheartedly, to the artist.
The show is on display at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene until September 5, 2021. It is currently open Friday through Sunday 11am – 5pm. For the virtual exhibit and informative links to videos of related materials visit: https://jsma.uoregon.edu/exhibitions/nkame
Ester Barkai got her start working at publications as a production artist and a fashion illustrator. She has also worked as an instructor teaching drawing, cultural anthropology, and art history. She lives in Eugene, Oregon where she freelances as an arts writer.