The weight of secrets | Oregon ArtsWatch

by ESTER BARKAI

It is not uncommon for artists to create their own visual language. But Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón (1967 – 1999) went further and developed her personal iconography while telling the story of a secret society she could never join. The works exhibited in Nkame: a retrospective of the Cuban engraver Belkis Ayón relate to the origin story of the Abakuá, an all-male Cuban secret society.

The first thing that strikes me is the way the characters are portrayed – without ears, noses, or mouths. The only facial features represented in Ayón’s work are the eyes. The figures are mostly rendered as white shapes drawn in outline or as black silhouettes; they inhabit a phantom world from which they fix the viewer.

It is, at first, a little unsettling.

According to the exhibit, Abakuá is a secret self-help society. It functions, at least in part, to protect its limbs and is said to have been brought to Cuba in the early 1800s by African slaves from the Cross River region in southeastern Nigeria. The founding myth of this all-male group begins in the hands of a woman, Princess Sikán. She accidentally traps a calling fish, but because women aren’t allowed to hear mystical voices, Sikán is sworn to keep it a secret. Not wanting to comply with this injunction, she tells her fiancé and is condemned to death.

Belkin Ayon, Sikan (1991). Collagraph in 4 parts. Image courtesy of JSMA.

Like Princess Sikán, during the initiation into Abakuá society, members are bound to secrecy. The origin myth describes the doom that befalls those who do not obey this oath. The fate of the princess inspires the silence that animates the footprints of Belkis Ayón.

Ayón was a Cuban professor and engraver specializing in collagraphy, a technique that combines collage and engraving. Collagraphy allowed him to incorporate a variety of textured materials into his works by pasting them onto cardboard and then passing the cardboard through a press. Its finished products, however, are larger than the typical size one would expect from a press: each is made up of multiple pieces and rolls up a wall-sized composition.

The family (1991) is a six-piece collagraph. Originally titled La Sagrada Família (The Holy Family), it is arranged as a family style portrait. Princess Sikán is seated in the center, depicted as a black figure. A white male figure stands by his side with a black snake wrapped around his neck. The alternate black and white color scheme highlights dramatic contrasts, and the minimally rendered figures act as much as graphic elements as a narrative.

Sikan (1991) is a four-part collagraphed portrait of the princess. She looks at us, as portraits often do, inviting us to enter. Part of her figure is covered with scales. She is part human and part fish.

There are three composite collagraph works in the exhibition, all titled La Cena, two from 1988 and one from 1991. In the 6-part version from 1991, each figure is filled with a different pattern or texture. The fish, the fall of Princess Sikán, is for dinner. The figures are arranged symmetrically around the table in clear reference to famous representations of the Last Supper in Christianity such as the Leonardo da Vinci fresco.

Belkis Ayon, La Cena (The Supper) (1991). Collagraph in 6 parts. Image courtesy of JSMA.

Nkame, the title of the exhibition, is a word from the language of Abakuá society; it translates into praise and greetings. The language is supposed to help keep society a secret, but we have access to it, thanks to Cuban curator, art critic and researcher Cristina Vives, Belkis Ayón Estate (Havana, Cuba) and JSMA in Eugene. The exhibition conveys a sense of voyeurism – partly because we have access to a culture different from our own, but also because of the style of the art and the fact that what is remembered is a secret society.

As I write this review, I remember another exhibit that gives viewers access to the private world of Vincent van Gogh. In “Van Gogh Exhibition: The Immersive Experience” the artist’s paintings are projected in such a way that people can walk in, walking in van Gogh’s starry sky or strolling through a cafe or a landscape the artist painted. Like van Gogh, Belkis Ayón committed suicide in her thirties.

Knowing this, perhaps, shouldn’t change the way I view his art. But it changes something for me in the same way that knowing van Gogh’s suffering changes my understanding of his art and, I guess, would haunt me to ‘walk’ into the artist’s paintings. Ayón’s investment in the story of Princess Sikán, a woman who was not allowed to hear or speak about a mystical voice afterwards, seems deeper given that she committed suicide.

Vives says that this retrospective offers a chance to “dialogue” with the artist. Despite the often dark and surrealist style, the curator thinks this is an “affirmative life message.”

Ayón first approached documents relating to the Abakuá while in high school at the Academy of Fine Arts in San Alejandro. She continued to use the secret society as a subject in her art until the time of her death. Would she have continued to link her art to the history and origin of the Abakuá if she had lived longer? The answer to this question is unknown, but one thing is certain. This show gives you the feeling of being led into a secret world. It may not be a world that the members of Abakuá fully agree with. But it is the one who belonged, wholeheartedly, to the artist.


The exhibit is on display at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art on the University of Oregon Eugene campus until September 5, 2021. It is currently open Friday through Sunday from 11 am to 5 pm. For the virtual exhibit and informative links to videos of related material, visit: https://jsma.uoregon.edu/exhibitions/nkame


Ester Barkai started working in publications as a production artist and fashion illustrator. She also worked as an instructor to teach drawing, cultural anthropology and art history. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, where she works freelance as an artistic writer.


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