Belkis Ayón: Sikán Illuminations

Belkis Ayón: Sikán Illuminations
Sikán Illuminations examines Cuban artist Belkin Ayón’s (1967 – 1999) brief but intense artistic career. Using a printmaking process called collography, she developed exceptional technical skills that produced richly detailed and enigmatic artworks, recreating the cultural and spiritual life of the Abakuá.

Throughout her lifetime, Ayón created allegorical scenes based on Abakuá: a secret, Afro-Cuban brotherhood. Abakuá is part of a belief-system that enslaved people brought from southern Nigeria and Cameroon into Cuba during the transatlantic slave trade. It became one of Cuba’s main religious-cultural groups.

Drawing upon specific indigenous belief systems to explore the position of women in society and in nature, Ayón particularly focuses on the only female character, Princess Sikán, connecting her with the struggles of women in the patriarchal society of Cuba: “Sikán’s image is paramount in all these works because, like myself, she led and leads a disquieting life, looking insistently for a way out.”

She excelled at collography, which is a printmaking process. Various materials such as sandpaper, vegetable peelings or cardboard are glued together to create a printing plate; once inked, the plate is used to imprint the design onto paper, resulting in a diverse range of shapes and textures. Telling ancient stories in new ways, these artworks create a radical new mythology capable of amending the past and altering the future.

Belkis Ayón was one of the most prominent figures of 20th Century Cuban art and Sikán Illuminations is the first major survey exhibition of her work within a UK institution. The exhibition consists of 50 works belonging to the Belkis Ayón Estate based in Havana.


Calabar Collography

Having studied at Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) from 1986 to 1991, Ayón came of age as an artist during Cuba’s great economic, social, and ideological crisis, triggered by the collapse of socialism in Europe. Ayón produced large-scale works that were renowned for their scenography and complex composition. These pieces laid out a universal discourse that spoke against marginalisation, censorship, intolerance, violence, impotence, and a lack of liberty. However Ayón’s career was tragically cut short when she took her own life at the age of thirty-two.

Originating in Calabar, the exclusively male Abakuá brotherhood remains active on the island today, having preserved an almost impregnable code of ethics and mystery. From the position of an atheist observer, Ayón studied the oral legends of Abakuá and provided it with a startling iconography.

The legend upon which all Abakuá’s initiation rites are based revolves around Sikán, princess of Efó, and her discovery of Tanze, a “sacred fish” or “supernatural being” sent by Abasí, the supreme God. Adoration of Tanze will bring peace to Calabar, a region plagued by bloody tribal battles. Sikán takes the fish to Nasakó, a seer and the community’s principal religious figure.

Nasakó forces Sikán to take a vow of silence, lest her discovery aggravate the wars, but she confesses her secret to Mokongo, her fiancée. Mokongo is from Efik, an enemy territory to the nation of Efó, and Sikán is duly sentenced to death for her betrayal. But with her dies Tanze and his characteristic roar. The sacred voice is never heard again, until a goat is chosen to replace Tanze. How Tanze’s voice is summoned through drums remains Abakuá’s heavily guarded secret.


El Señor Del Secreto

Ayón’s primary works concerned with the Abakuá date from 1985. Most of these are colourful pieces achieved through academic art forms and techniques: lithography, woodcut, linoleum, and collography. With great economy of means, Ayón populated these geometric compositions with the characters and symbols she believed represented the essence of the myth: Nasakó, Mokongo, Tanze, and Princess Sikán, the only woman involved and, paradoxically, the focal figure in the folklore of a society that banished, condemned, and sacrificed her.

These works broke new ground in Cuba, both for their size and for their use of spot colours, which gave them a pop art aesthetic redolent of Cuban poster art and the graphic work of Umberto Peña and Rafael Zarza. Above all, it was the singularity of her theme and the perspective from which she broached the subject that made her stand out, heralding her as an artist prepared to probe myths and adapt them to her own time and circumstances.

In el señor del secreto (The master of the secret, 1988), several female and male figures fight for possession of a fish that ends up in the hands of a man. Such a narrative departs from the Abakuá legend, as the linkage of power struggles and gender supremacy is more socioeconomic and political than it is religious. Sikán appeared in Ayón’s work for the first time in 1987 and remained the main focus of her attention until 1991. “Sikán is the principle character, the mother of every Abakuá, the great sacrificed initiator,” she would say.

By delving deeper into Sikán’s character, Ayón felt inspired to appropriate the myth, affording it due respect but opening it up to a new reading whereby the female figure exerts control. The Sikáns in these prints and portraits, and the titles Ayón gives them, allude to unjust sentences, false repentance, the need for salvation, and the yearning for a permanency that transcends death in the collective memory. Ayón not only affords the princess prominence but portrays her in the image of herself, an indication of just how much the artist identified with her character; the works convey a sense of Ayón embodying a similarly complex existence to Sikán, a shared destiny. But Ayón absorbed an array of influences besides, and her work references other, non-African religions and cultures with which she felt kinship.


La Cena Cuba

Perhaps more than any other work, la cena (The supper, 1988) encapsulates three key moments in Ayón’s trajectory as an artist. The first is her choosing Abakuá as her subject matter, a decision made in her student days, and then finding a language of mediation to connect it to her own ethical, aesthetic, and ideological context. The second is her decision to make collography her technical tool, vastly expanding her possibilities of expression. The third moment is her forsaking colour in favour of black and white, and infinite gradients of grey, an especially apt means of portraying the existential dramas of her characters, in whom we see Ayón’s own reflection.

The monumental nature of la cena had no precedent in Cuban printmaking and marked a turning point in Ayón’s career. That she used sections no larger than 100 x 70cm, which she then tiled to form larger pieces, has been attributed to the scarcity of art materials in Cuba in the 1990s. However it was probably more a matter of Ayón choosing to work in dimensions that allowed for precise control of the ink and printing press. The fragile nature of collographic moulds and Ayón’s perfectionist nature were the real reasons for her elaborate assemblies.

Ayón reached her creative maturity between 1991 and 1998, when she produced large-scale collographs whose content articulated universal values but also reflected, in elliptical fashion, the existential crisis Cuban society was experiencing at the time. Her interest in moving beyond the two-dimensionality of traditional printmaking led her to employ an ever-increasing number of sections in her patchwork assemblies, resulting in scenes and characters that were life-size.

The extra scale suggested a new interaction between the spectator and the exhibition space, for these “print installations” were set up in such a way that the action appeared to leap out at the viewer. The effect was enhanced by the works’ irregular shapes, with borders suggesting certain architectural styles (Byzantine domes; medieval Christian crypts), and the hanging itself, with works mounted on sloping or angled surfaces adapting to the surrounding architecture, and creating the allusion of a new one. All this gave the work a depth and dynamism that was unprecedented in Cuban printmaking.

Towards the end of the 1990s, and also her life, Ayón expanded her repertoire, moving away from Abakuá to produce self-referential images linked to personal experience. Tattered love affairs, typical of Latin American pop songs, provided the narrative threads to works such as my vernicle (a reference to the cloth held out by Veronica, a Biblical figure who followed as Jesus carried the cross), which Ayón matched to lines taken from vallenatos (Colombian pop songs) referencing various emotions. As with Sikán’s fate in the Abakuán legend, the titles of these pieces clearly parallel the conflicts and suffering Ayón faced in her own life: betrayal, agony, solitude, loss of affection, fear, despair, harassment, and the anxious search for a way out.