Belkis Ayon, the renowned Afro-Cuban artist, was born in Cuba on this day, January 23rd, 1967. She was known to have mastered the art of collagraphy, a print-making technique popularized by the likes of Pablo Picasso in the 1930's, and gained prominence for her use of the artform to highlight Afro-Cuban religion and culture.
Simone de Beauvoir and the Left
Ayon, who was a highly sought-after in Europe and the Americas, was known for her mask-like figures and iconic use of white and black sharp monotones in her works. Her work comprises of layered, monochromatic collage-like assemblage, where she used an engraving technique, arranging and pasting several materials on cardboard support, introspects the themes of power, personal freedom, and belongingness.
Her work also came at a time known as the "Special Period" in Cuba, a time marked by the economic crisis in the Caribbean country around 1989 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union when the island suffered severe commodity shortages.
"The proper materials that artists would need were not available at that time," Wilfredo Benitez of Cuba's Ludwig Foundation — an organization that promotes Cuban art, told NPR. "Belkis had to find a solution to that problem. So she invented them. Her prints are printed on a kind of collage out of different materials."
Ayon was fascinated with the mythical Abakuan tradition, an all-male, Afro-Cuban secret society formed in 1830, which originated in the Abakpa region in southeast Nigeria and was brought to Cuba through the slave trade, primarily practiced in the Guanabacoa district of eastern Havana, and in Matanzas, known for its Afro-Cuban culture.
Freemasonry and other such secret societies have faded in Cuba, but Abakuan tradition remains.
Ayon drew inspiration from the mythical culture as she studied the tradition, during which she also got an exclusive opportunity to attend an all-male ceremony in Havana.
"I aspire above all to give my vision, my points of view as observer, presenting in a synthesized form the aesthetic, plastic, and poetic aspects I discovered in Abakuá, persistently relating them to the nature of man, with vivid personalities, with feelings which sometimes grip us, feelings we don't know how to define, with these fugitive emotions…with the spiritual," Ayon is known to have said.
She used the figure of Sikan princess from the tradition, the only known female in an otherwise male-dominated society. The tradition which is derived from a mix of Christian and African tradition, hold Sikan responsible for seminating knowledge to a lover in a neighboring country.
In her 1991 rendition of the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci painting,"The Last Supper," Ayon's "La cena (The Supper)," is filled with female characters in defiance of the Abakuan tradition. The artist replaces the Christ with the Sikan princess at the helm in her painting.
"Belkis' research was extensive," Katia Ayon, Belkis' sister and also the director of the artist's estate, told NPR. "And she used the characters and myths of Abakua to express other things entirely. She created a whole visual universe because Abakua doesn't have its own defined imagery."
Art historian, Cristina Figueroa told NPR, "These figures can look at you but cannot speak," she said. "So you have to interpret what they're trying to say through the expressions in their eyes."
Her exemplary career which comprised of teaching at the San Alejandro Academy at the age of 26, exhibiting at the prestigious 16th Venice Biennale the same year, later on becoming the head of the printmaking department of el Instituto Superior de Arte, along with serving as acting president of the Union of Artists and Writers, lasted 32 years, ending on Sept. 11, 1999, when she killed herself with her father's gun.
"I still remember the moment when we received that news, that shocking news that Belkis had shot herself," Benitez told NPR.
"She never gave any hint of depression. She was always laughing, that's the way I remember her. I couldn't believe it. I thought — maybe it's a little bit morbid — that some Abakua had killed her."