One woman stands alone in a society dominated by men.
This sentence could fit Belkis Ayón. It could also apply to the story she told through her art. A secret society shrouded in mystery, censorship, and the twisting nature of politics are all a part of what shapes the dark printmaking of Ayón.
Ayón hailed from Cuba, and her life was cut short when she died at the young age of 33. Before she passed, she left the public with a treasure trove of art that looked into a unique mythology.
The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art is now featuring some of her work with the help of curator Cristina Vives, who aside from being knowledgeable about the work was also a friend of Ayón.
"NKAME: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón" focuses on the artist's look into the Abakuá Secret Society, an Afro-Cuban fraternal society that was carried over by slaves. Ayón was able to infiltrate the society, first from an academic position, then as an artist.
In the first years of her research, Ayón tried to learn who was who in the society. She gained information and a footing into what the organization was about. Later on, she focused on the legend of Sikan, a mythological figure who played a prominent role in the society, a rare feat considering its all-male nature. Sikan served as a metaphor and alter ego for Ayón herself.
“A lady [Sikan] that was never repentant of her role,” Vives articulates. “This lady character is the entrance of Belkis in the history.”
In the pieces of art, Ayón models the eyes and body of Sikan after her own. The exhibit includes videos of Belkis, so audiences can see the similarities between the two.
Some of the characters in the art do not have mouths, only eyes, so they can see, but cannot talk. In the legend, Sikan’s original sin was speaking out of turn; her punishment was the removal of her mouth. On another level, Vives elaborates, the lack of mouths function as a way to showcase the censorship that Ayón suffered.
The social context they lived in influenced much of the work of young Cuban artists, Vives says. They were trained to think about the place they were in and their role in society.
“You have to recognize early that Cuban art is very tied to life,” Vives explains. “You hardly find an artist that talks about art from art. No, they use art like a language to talk about what’s happening in context.”
Ayón’s work on the Abakuá Secret Society and the legend of Sikan made it easier for Belkis to express herself during the political strife in Cuba in the '90s.
“What she thought about her own role, not because she was a lady, but because she was a human being,” Vives states. “What she is talking about in all the pieces, is not only because she is a woman … she was one Cuban citizen.”
In the 1990s, Cuba entered what’s known as the Special Period, an era of economic crisis following the ending of the Soviet Union and the breakdown of the social welfare state it supported, in which Castro made many changes to the economy and status quo.
Some of the work in the exhibit was first shown in Cuba in 2009 as part of a show that commemorated 10 years since Ayón’s passing. The show was in storage for seven years before the Fowler Museum at UCLA showed it again in 2016. Vives views the Fowler exhibit as more of an anthropological approach to Belkis’ work despite her recognition as a contemporary in Cuba.
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Vives explains that exhibit talked about the legend, referring to what the work is about, not the artist. The exhibit talked “about how the artist represented the legend, not about how about the artist represented, through the legend, the social context,” Vives says.
During her lifetime, Ayón never had a solo show in a museum, despite having many solo shows in galleries. According to Vives, this series of showings recognizes Ayón as a museum artist.
Ayón had previously been in Arizona as part of an exhibit showcasing young Cuban artists. To Vives, Ayón's return to the Southwest is an important second visit.
"NKAME: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón." On view until January 20 at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, 7374 East Second Street, Scottsdale; 480-874-4666; smoca.org. Admission is $10.