I am thrilled to be experiencing the collagraphs of Cuban artist Belkin Ayon once again. I saw her work when I was in Havana and was so impressed with the symbolism and deeply evocative technique of collagraphs. It is a gift when you stumble upon an exhibit of one of your favorite artists without planning for it. Sure enough her exhibit in the Reina Sofia is the first time over 54 of her large collagraphs have been viewed in Europe. In case you do not know, ‘Collagraph’ (sometimes ‘collograph’) is derived from the Greek ‘colla’, meaning glue, and ‘graph,’ meaning to draw. A collograph is essentially a collage of materials of various textures glued on to a printing plate, often a thin wood or cardboard.
If ever I could have helped a person from taking their own life—it would have been Belkis. She took her own life at age 32 just at the zenith of her creative career in 1999.
Her collographs capture the mysterious cult of the Abakua, a male-only secret society whose roots harken back to Nigeria. Transported by the slave trade to Cuba, their society managed to survive through all the political, economic and social turbulence of that country.
This is what the catalogue of the exhibit says: “The show shines a light on the artist’s work by starting with her first visual investigations around the Afro-Cuban secret society Abakuá, imagery that would accompany her from the time she submitted her thesis at the San Alejandro National Academy of Fine Arts in 1988, to her black-and-white prints in the 1990s, a more apt medium for expressing the existential turmoil that imbues her oeuvre, to her large-scale pieces with a pronounced set design quality, through which a complex visual and universal world is conveyed, syncretising mythology and Abakuá ritual with the main iconographic elements of the Catholic religion.
Across her career, the ritual and beliefs of the hermetic, men-only brotherhood Abakuá served as inspiration to create a distinctive language expressing ethical, aesthetic and universally ideological issues. The representation of the goddess Sikán, sacrificed by the men of her community and considered an alter ego by the artist, transcends an ethno-identity or gender-based approach to embark on a complex world of relations, emotions and conflicts, for instance regret, salvation, fear and the need to transcend collective memory.”
The enigmatic figures, totem-like, reminiscent of Spiderman (an obvious echo to African Anansi tales) pit you in the center of some dark strange sacrifice. The spiritual practices of the Abakua unlike Christianity recognize that evil and good reside in the same person and is more nuanced than those of Catholicism.What so enchants me about her work is the interplay between the dark and the light (she chose to create in a black and white and tonal gray palette). This corresponds in my mind to the interplay between conscience and subconscience. The clear counter lines along with the textures of rounded forms across the papers she used to collage the collographs gives the iconic impression of time moving yet standing still all at once.
When I look into her enigmatic figures with no mouths (they could not tell the secret of their society), I feel like I am descending into a hidden cult of sorts, as if I cam an illicit participant in an outlawed ceremony. It takes me to the dark side, my shadow side, the part of me that I rarely want to acknowledge. Danger, taboo, and fate intertwine. It is scary because it confronts me with the fear of death and the possibility of my own evil.
Beyond this it tempts me to take a sacrilegious stance from my own Christian upbringing; perhaps right and wrong are not absolutes; perhaps they exist in varying shades of gray int he same person. What do you do with the shadows of your self?
What Belkis does in her work, and this takes effort to verbalize, is she starts with the mythology of the Abakua which took her a long time to penetrate but goes beyond it. She especially takes on the figure of Sikan, the fish scaled mother figure. As she says, “Sikan is the mother of all Abahua the great sacrificed initiator.” What Belkis does is appropriates the myth of this secret male society to allow for a new reading using Sikan the female figure to take full center in the narrative. Belkis found affinity in Sikan and this character figures predominantly in her work after 1987 becoming in essence Belkis’ alter ego.
In essence she makes Sikan the female Christ figure that takes on the injustices of her society, is crucified and emerges as a transcendent heroine beyond death to live in the collective memory of her culture. “This does not prevent a marked syncretism from prevailing in the art of Ayon, who also engages in dialogue with other non-African religions.” Belkis takes the Abakua mythology, already strange and intriguing to a Western audience, melds it with Catholicism and supersedes it with her own identity creating a sort of apotheosis of the artist. She reaches beyond the neat Afro-Cuban tropes to one overarching one that embraces those but enters into something deeper, older, and wider.
When I walk through the exhibit, I feel the palpable drum beat of archetypical tribal memory that reaches back, way back, into the earliest primal human collectiveness. It is powerful stuff that stays with you years after you finish viewing it, precisely because it makes an indelible stamp on your sub-consciousness. That is what great art is all about.