LOS ANGELES, CA.- The Fowler Museum
at UCLA is the first museum in the United States to host a solo exhibition dedicated to the work of the late Cuban visual artist Belkis Ayón, whom during her short but fertile career, produced an extraordinary body of work central to the history of contemporary printmaking in Cuba.
Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón opened Oct. 2 and runs through Feb. 12, 2017. The exhibition presents 43 prints that encompass a wide range of the artists graphic production from 1984 until her untimely death in 1999. Ayón mined the founding narrative of the Afro-Cuban fraternal society called Abakuá to create an independent and powerful visual iconography. She is highly regarded for her signature technique of collography, a printing process in which a variety of materials of various textures and absorbencies are collaged onto a cardboard matrix and then run through the press. Her deliberately austere palette of subtle tones of black, white and gray add drama and mystery to her narratives, many of which were produced at very large scale by joining multiple printed sheets.
For a black Cuban woman, both her ascendency in the contemporary printmaking world and her investigation of a powerful all-male brotherhood were notable and bold, said Marla Berns, Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler Museum. Nkame follows a lineage of Fowler exhibitions that have explored artistic representations and evocations of African-inspired religions in the diaspora, such as Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou and Transcultural Pilgrim: Three Decades of Work by José Bedia.
This is an important moment to spotlight the aesthetically stunning and poetically resonant prints of Belkis Ayón, Berns continued, especially with todays heightened attention on Cuba and Cuban culture, and the historic reopening of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
Nkame is organized by the Belkis Ayón Estate and Dr. Katia Ayón with the Fowler Museum and is guest curated by Cristina Vives, an independent curator and art critic based in Havana. The exhibition is arranged into five sections that examine major themes and periods of Ayóns artistic production.
The introductory section begins with one of Ayóns most iconic prints, La cena (The Supper) from 1991, a work that encapsulates three defining features of the artists oeuvre. First, her choice of subject matter the history, mythology, and iconography of Abakuá was a direction she took in 1985 while still a student at the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts. This all-male Afro-Cuban brotherhood arrived in the western port cities of Cuba in the early 19th century, carried by enslaved Africans from the Cross River region of southeastern Nigeria. A brief synopsis of the founding myth of Abakuá begins with Sikán, a princess who inadvertently trapped a fish in a container she used to draw water from the river. The unexpected loud bellowing of the fish was the mystical voice of Abakuá, and Sikán was the first to hear it. Because women were not permitted this sacred knowledge, the local diviner swore Sikán to secrecy. Sikán, however, revealed her secret to her fiancé, and because of her indiscretion she was condemned to die.
In Ayóns work however, Sikán remains alive, and her story and representation figure prominently. In La cena, which depicts an Abakuá initiation banquet with Sikán seated in the center, the artist reveals her syncretic approach. The work alludes to the Last Supper and the Christian apostles, but Ayón renders the event with women usurping the roles of men.
Second, La cena is also a superb example of the artists choice of collography as the technique for creating her narrative prints and intensifying their expressive potential. The exhibition includes Ayóns complete matrix for La cena, which she rendered in six units to produce six printed sheets that were assembled together. The inclusion of the actual cardboard matrix allows visitors to see how Ayón developed her pioneering and labor-intensive process of drawing with unusual materials: chalk, varnish, acrylic, sandpaper, abrasives and different types of paper, using knives to obtain dark lines and scissors to cut the hundreds of patterns that she later glued to the surface of her cardboard matrixes. When they were inked and sent through a press, the artist achieved a range of forms, textures and tones. The third way the piece embodies Ayóns approach is showing that after experimenting with color, she reduced her palette exclusively to white, black and gray.
Two sections of the exhibition focus on the artists early prints, including pieces that capture the role Sikán played in the Abakuá narrative. Sometimes seated in a frontal position on throne-like furniture, the stylized figure of Sikán appears magisterial with her wide-eyed defiant gaze and no mouth. Ayón wrote,I see myself as Sikán, in a certain way an observer, an intermediary and a revealer
Sikán is a transgressor, and as such I see her, and I see myself.
The exhibition also features later works. From 1991 to 1998, Ayón produced large-format prints ranging from six to eighteen printed sheets. These pieces allowed her scenes and characters to reach almost life-size.
The final work in the exhibition is the monumental Resurrection, referring to the moment an initiate is born into his new life as a member of the Abakuá secret society. Created in 1998, this complex print in nine sheets encapsulates the power of the artists oeuvre: it offers references to Christianity and to the emotional life of the artist, and it comments on womens rights and gender equality. Nkame, a word synonymous with greeting and praise in the language of Abakuá, is a posthumous tribute to the artist as well as a sweeping overview of her artistic career.
Ayón was born in Havana on Jan. 23, 1967. Her first solo exhibition in Havana, Propuesta a los veinte años, which means Proposal at the Age of Twenty, took place in 1988. In 1993 she participated in the 16th Venice Biennale and received the international prize at the International Graphics Biennale in Maastricht, Holland. Ayóns work has been included in numerous group exhibitions and is in museum and private collections worldwide. The artist committed suicide in 1999 at the age of 32.