|Died||11 September 1999 (aged 32)|
Belkis Ayón (23 January 1967 – 11 September 1999) was a Cuban printmaker who specialized in the technique of collography. Ayón is known for her highly detailed allegorical collographs based on Abakuá, a secret, all-male Afro-Cuban society. Her work is often in black and white, consisting of ghost-white figures with oblong heads and empty, almond-shaped eyes, set against dark, patterned backgrounds. She was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1967 and took her own life in 1999. In 2018, The New York Times published a belated obituary for her.
Ayón attended the prestigious Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, and joined its faculty after graduation.
A central theme of Ayón's art is Abakuá, a secret, exclusively-male association with a complex mythology that informs their rites and traditions. The fraternal society began in Cross River and Akwa Ibom and was brought to Haiti and Cuba through the slave trade in the 19th century. Ayón researched the history of Abakuá extensively, with special emphasis on the most prominent female figure in the religion, Princess Sikan. According to a central Abakuán myth, Sikan once accidentally captured 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 a leader of another tribe. Her punishment was a death sentence. 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.
To date, Ayón has been the only prominent artist to create an extensive body of work based on the Abakuán society. Because the society itself had created very few visual representations of its myths, Ayón had great freedom to visually interpret their myths for herself. Numerous Abakuán rituals are represented in her collographs, many of which draw on Christian as well as Afro-Cuban traditions. Abakuán beliefs existed in sharp contrast to the atheistic anti-religious position of the Cuban government at the time.
Ayón dedicated herself to collography, a printmaking technique for making works on paper. She painstakingly attached materials of widely differing textures (for example vegetable peelings, bits of paper, acrylic, and abrasives) to a cardboard substrate, and then ran the resulting elaborate collage through a hand-cranked printing press. She often painted or carved the resulting prints, creating intricate patterns and areas of embossing that added even more depth and texture. Her works masterfully combine figuration and areas of abstract patterning, which sometimes complement and at other times camouflage the forms of her figures. Towards the end of Ayón's career, she worked on a large scale, sometimes joining as many as 18 sheets together to construct a single image, or attaching oversized prints to an armature that would give them architectural volume, towering over viewers.
Ayón is best known for working mainly in black, white, and shades of gray. In these prints, stark and haunting white figures are dramatically contrasted with dark images and backgrounds. Notable examples include Longing (1988), Resurrection (1998) and Untitled ("Black figure carrying a white one") (1996). She did, however, use vibrant colors in some of her early works and in studies for prints. A notable example is La Cena, a large-scale print for which she created a study in bright pink, red, yellow and green. Other examples of full-color work include Nasako Began (1986), Syncretism I (1986), and Careful Women! Sikan Careful!! (1987).
Ayón sometimes mixed images from the Abakuán and Christian religions, as in Giving and Taking (1997). In this work she depicted a Christian priest or saint with a white halo and a red robe next to an Abakuán figure clothed in black, with a black diamond behind his head. She sometimes replaced male figures with female figures, as in La Cena, where she portrayed some of the disciples at the Last Supper with ambiguously gendered figures. She also replaced Jesus with the image of Sikan. By disrupting the male-dominated Abakuán mythology through the creation of a more egalitarian iconography, Ayón defied the society's norms, and perhaps also those propagated by the Cuban government.
Ayón's work has been shown widely internationally. She has been featured in group exhibitions in Canada, South Korea, the Netherlands and Spain (2010). In 1993, she exhibited at the 16th Venice Biennale and won the international prize at the International Graphics Biennale in Maastricht, the Netherlands. In 1998 Ayón was given four residencies in the United States working at Temple University's Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia College of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, and at the Brandywine Workshop. Her work can now be found in the permanent collections of a number of museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2016–17, the Fowler Museum staged Ayón's first solo museum exhibition with the help of her estate; the exhibition subsequently traveled to El Museo del Barrio in New York and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, and was widely well-received.