Art On Cuba - - Index - Al­berto Barral

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. ƒ

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

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