El Museo has done a noteworthy thing in bringing the multi-textured, codified works of Belkis Ayón to New York in NKAME, a retrospective of the printmaker’s work. I have seen nothing like Cuban-born Ayón’s use of collography, which visually recalls both the tactility of Max Ernst’s frottages and the sumptuousness of damask textiles, although neither is culturally relevant to Ayón’s mythical iconography, derived from the oral tradition of the Afro-Cuban Abakuá society. This is some of the artist’s brilliance—she delicately folds the recognizable with the unfamiliar, presenting a body of work which draws us in with its consistent symbology, though we struggle to parse it.
Belkis Ayón was born in Havana, Cuba in 1967. She studied printmaking at Cuba’s most prestigious art schools, eventually becoming a professor herself at the age of 26. Though this is her first retrospective in the United States (this exhibit traveled from the Fowler Museum at UCLA), Ayón’s work was exhibited to acclaim internationally during her short lifetime.
How the printmaking technique of collography is executed (or at least how exactly Ayón employs it) is difficult to untangle, but the mystery of production only adds to the experience, and I found myself looking away when I came upon a video showing the artist at her press in the exhibition’s sole attempt at elucidating process.
The prints presented in this show focus on Christ-like Sikán, the single female figure in Abakuá, destined to betray the secrecy of the society. For her transgression she is condemned to death by her father, the leader of the Abakuá brotherhood. Throughout Princess Sikán holds a chivo, or goat, which acts as a symbol of sacrifice, and her body is often depicted in white, the traditional color of death. Ayón clearly identifies with Sikán, giving the few facial features the princess has a distinct resemblance to her own.
Though their color palette of black, white, and gray is somber, these works do not so much have the effect of ghostliness than do they have the appearance of silhouettes against a dark wall or of shadow puppets performed in the light of the fire—it is in this way that Ayón translates what is an oral tradition into the visual realm. Each work is a vignette which presents the myth to an audience unfamiliar with it in the way that, story by story, a child is folded into a religion. Some figures make eye contact with us, their audience, while others put their fingers to their mouths as if to ask for our silence, our attention. With these inclusive gestures they are suddenly actors on the stage—they are not the myth or story themselves (as an image of the Crucifixion might be), but members of the brotherhood communicating their foundation myths to the next initiates—to us. The strangeness of their almost featureless faces at first seem to indicate they are of the alternate world of myth, but I interpreted their uniform faces as masks, that which separates the actor from his character.
For Ayón it may be that her own mask is the artworks themselves, with which she plays the leading role. She is an actor in this play, one whose reality is eerily similar to the character she played. In 1999 she shot herself with her father’s pistol, and it is difficult not to look at the silent Sikán, her hand bearing the black X of the condemned, and see the artist spelling out her own death, whether or not she knew it at the time. Sikán, Christ, Ayón—all three meet their end at the hands of their fathers. While this is certainly not the first time an artist has likened him or herself to Christ (Albrecht Dürer’s self portrait from 1500 comes immediately to mind), the totality of Ayón’s embodiment is frightening.
Abakuá is often intertwined with Christianity in Ayón’s work, partly as a representation of the cultural and religious makeup on the island of Cuba, partly as an attempt to legitimize the myth by folding it into a recognizable art historical canon, and partly because (as with many religions) they share symbols and archetypes. NKAME begins with a critique of Christianity—several representations of the Last Supper (titled La Cena) replace those gathered around the table with female bodies—but ultimately Ayón understands the synergy between the two and plays the unique powers of each against the other, strengthening both in the process. In this way, Ayón’s oeuvre touches on themes that loom large in the story of man. Themes that enter mythology across human history are at once distant and intimately familiar, something which makes Ayón’s work particularly magnetic. “Me interesa sobre todo el cuestionamiento de lo humano, este sentimiento fugaz, lo espiritual” (“What interests me above all else is the questioning of the human, this fleeting feeling of the spiritual”), Ayón said of her work.
The final multi-paneled print in the exhibition is titled Resurección (1998), which suggests a hopeful ending to what we know was a short, but seemingly happy life. (The many photographs of the artist scattered throughout the exhibition portray her beaming, and accounts from those close to her do not contradict this image.) This work, created a year before Ayón’s death, writes a new history for Sikán that is not included within Abakuá belief, one in which she experiences redemption after death. Resurección is the only work in which appears a face with a mouth, looming ghost-like towards the top of the image. It is the moment when Ayón sheds her mask and refuses to play the silent role to which sees herself condemned. Though the resistance may have ultimately proved futile, we must allow the artist the same final redemption that she granted Sikán after her own death.
Que en paz descanse, Belkis.
 While this is conceptually similar to Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, again Ayón reveals a familiarity with the goings on of her contemporaries, all the while approaching them in a radically different way.
"NKAME: A retrospective of Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón, 1967-1999"
El Museo del Barrio
1230 5th Avenue
Until November 5, 2017