BELKIS AYÓN REVIEW
A retrospective of the work of Belkis Ayón, at El Museo del Barrio, NY,is a refreshing demonstration of contemporary art that makes an impact strong enough to challenge pre– conceived notions about culture and contemporary expression , all too often perceived as a development on abstraction.
This reading was transformed into an orthodox dogma of Modernism, from the traditional centers in Europe and the US, particularly after the war, when the avant-garde movements from the beginning of the century finally were re–evaluated at the museum level. The fascinating work of Belkis Ayón is a powerful and important chapter in Cuban Contemporary art, precisely because it demonstrates the existence and development of another horizon in the art of our time and an outstanding accomplishment considering her short life that came to an abrupt end with her suicide in 1999 at the age of 32.
Belkis was fascinated with the cultural heritage from Africa that had been nurtured and protected in secret by the African slaves in Cuba through the adaptation of religious beliefs, all of which forms part of the process of cultural amalgamation that happened in the Americas as a result of the African diaspora.
Contemporary artists from the 1980s onward have been sensitive to this heritage, and to the fluidity of hybrid cultures that develop outside the traditional centers of Western culture, or struggle in them from the position of second class citizens, who because of their cultural baggage have limited access to the dominant culture and it's resources. An artist that comes to mind with this cultural baggage in the New York art scene of the 1980s is the young Jean Michel Basquiat (1960–1988), son of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, who was born and raised in NY at a perfect time, as the New York avant–garde of the time appreciated graffiti art as a unique and vanguard expression. Basquiat made plenty of references to his ancient African roots through the allusions to Egypt in his works. These features of art from the periphery of traditional Western culture, in a diverse, post-colonial world, were particularly relevant for the period and have been a constant in contemporary art criticism, ever since these issues were brought to the forefront of art criticism at the Centre Georges Pompidou in the influential exhibit Magiciens de la Terre (1989).
Chistina Vives, curator of this exhibition, states in the catalog that there are three important landmarks in the development of Belkis as an artist. The very first occurred in 1986 when the artist decided to make the Abakuá secret society her subject matter. Then came her decision to work with collography exclusively, a technique of printing which incorporates textured elements fixed to a base before applying the ink. A video at the exhibit documents the artist working on this complex process that she achieves manually using an old fashioned press. The aesthetic result are works with complicated textures, that on a first glance appear to be canvases with several layers of raised paint, suggesting a relief.
The third development of her style occurred when she eliminated all colors from her work reducing it to white, black and the many shades of gray. There were also other additional challenges, as there were no visible records of drawing or painting from the Abakuá tradition, except for the lines and graphics that are painted on floors or walls with white or colored chalk for the Abakuá rituals, known as Ekeniyo, plus the fact that dealing with a secret society for men made Belkis' research an even more problematic process.
In her early work it's important to note the emergence of the isolated figure and the tension between this subject and the background. Belkis developed this tension much more efficiently when the colors became darker, adding an aura of mystery, and forcing the viewer to spend more time deciphering the work.
The figures exude apprehension and compressed anxiety, as happens with the images of Francis Bacon. One feels something has happened or is about to happen that is of dramatic consequence and most probably the violent resolution of the body that is represented.
A work that illustrates this fate is La Sentencia (The Sentence) (1993) where we see Sikán covered in a garment made of fish scales, her hands tied with chains, her eyes wide open with fear as two white serpents approach her and a threatening white hand emerges unexpectedly from behind. The depiction of the myths can also be read as a commentary on Cuban life during the Special Period, which lasted from 1989 till the late 1990s and adds up to about a third of Belkis, lifetime, but significantly, three quarters of her adult life. It is essential to put in perspective that this dark period of economic collapse and disillusionment was a constant throughout the production and development of her most significant work.
What emerges from viewing this retrospective is clearly the engagement of a great voice, using the language of art to establish many complex dialogues with the great and ancient tradition of the Abakuá in a contemporary context.
It also brings to mind the necessity for more scholarly work and exhibitions dedicated to artists that encompass hybrid cultures, where a lot of the components come from sources unknown to the classical canon of Western culture, and where appropriations from their ancient past are also a reaffirmation of independence and identity. We have to recognize that these are more authentic roots, for artistic creation and interpretation, than the patterns of imitation assimilated through colonialism and its repercussions in contemporary culture.
The author would like to thank Dr. Katia Ayón for her generous assistance and cooperation in elucidating signifiers and origins of the work of the artist.
Belkis was fascinated with the cultural heritage from Africa that had been nurtured and protected in secret by the African slaves in Cuba through the adaptation of religious beliefs…
Untitled (La soga y el fuego), 1996 Collograph 28 x 37 in Mokongo, 1991 Collograph 79½ x 54¼ in Collection of the Belkis Ayón Estate © Belkis Ayón Estate Courtesy of Landau Traveling Exhibitions