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Belkis Ayón, was a Cuban printmaker known for her allegorical collographs, inspired by afro-cuban religion. A signature technique of a printing process in black and white, in which a variety of materials are collaged onto a cardboard matrix. composed of ghostly featureless androgynous figures with almond-shaped eyes, set against dark, patterned backgrounds.

She took on the subject of the Abakua, a secret, all-male Afro-Cuban society. In the early 19th century, this fraternity arrived in Cuba, and became a nucleus of protection and resistance for its members, enslaved Africans from southeastern Nigeria. Part of the artist’s creations revolve around Princess Sikan, a character from the Abakuá legend, which tells the story of the violation of a secret done by a woman.

For a black Cuban woman, both her ascendency in the contemporary printmaking world and her investigation of a powerful all-male brotherhood were notable and bold. 

“Vamis” (Let’s go) (1933),
Collograph, 68,5x100cm
No title (1999)
La familia (The Family), 1991
Sin Título (Sikán, Nasakó y Espíritu Santo) (1993)
Sin título (Sikán con chivo) (Untitled (Sikán with Goat)), 1993

Ayón researched the history of Abakuá extensively, with special emphasis on the most prominent and only female figure in the religion, Princess Sikan. According to a central Abakuán myth, Sikan once accidentally captured Tanze, an enchanted fish which imparted great power to those who heard its voice. When she took the fish to her father, he warned her to remain silent and never speak of it again. She did divulge the information however, to her fiance, leader of an enemy tribe. Her punishment was a death sentence and with her, Tanze also died.

This story comes in the form of imposed silence in her work, a major theme. The concept of imposed silence is evident in the lack of mouths in all of her figures. Belkis Ayón demonstration of Sikan’s betrayal in her collographs may be considered a transgression because, ironically, Ayon, a female artist, gives voice to the main antagonist Sikan, a woman, in Abakua mythology, which traditionally prohibits women. In this way, Belkis rebelled against the sexist and patriarchal culture argued to be ingrained in Cuban society by highlighting the religion’s feminine presence.

 La consagración II  (1991),
© Photo : José A. Figueroa, © Belkis Ayón Estate, © ADAGP, Paris
Arrepentida (Repentant), 1993

Although my work deals with a theme as specific as the beliefs, rituals, and myths of the Abakuá Secret Society, this does not mean that it is devoted solely to the population that practices and professes this faith. Above all, I am interested in questioning human nature—that fleeting feeling, spirituality, by which my art can be appreciated by a universal public, though it is very difficult at first sight to escape from the impression, the forms, and the image

[Text written by Belkis Ayón c. 1993, in the State’s archive.]

Resurrección (1988),
© Photo : José A. Figueroa, © Belkis Ayón Estate, © ADAGP, Paris
 La cena, 1988,
© Photo : José A. Figueroa, © Belkis Ayón Estate, © ADAGP, Paris

Retrospectives of her work have been shown at major institutions including the Fowler MuseumEl Museo del Barrio, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Museo Reina Sofía. Her work is in the collections of the Museum Ludwig, the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Museum of Modern Art, the Norton Family Foundation, and the Wifredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art.

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