September 19, 2017, Havana

The contributions, presence and influence of Abakuá culture in Cuban art and literature

September 4, 2009
Tato Quiñones
Transcription of the lecture offered on the occasion of the exhibit Nkame, September, 2009

I knew of Belkis and then met her through my good friend Gregorio Hernández. This happened in the first years of the 1990’s, when you could cross the tunnel in bicycles, and Gregorio saw what I suppose was Belkis first solo show.

He was truly astonished and came to see me at home to tell me I had to see the exhibit at the Casa de la Cultura in Alamar. I went to see it and it made a deep impression on me. At the beginning it was baffling, because it was extraordinary that someone could have summarized the essence and fundamentals of this culture in a work of art.  I thought she had to be the daughter, the sister or the wife of a ñañigo. However, when I met her, I do not recall the exact date, I knew then that she was far from it.

The references she had on that world, on that culture were impressive, and they came to Belkis from the bibliography, all she knew, and it was quite a lot, was from reading and her devotion to this culture.

I remember she once participated in a ceremony of Llanto (Cry), she came to see me and she saw it from the patio. Belkis pursued her legendary characters in ceremonies of initiation, consecration, sacrifice and death. She participated in theLlantos, ceremonies of those who have true Abakuá feelings, these are no festivities, these are ceremonies done truly from the heart.

Later on I had the chance to talk to her, and it wasn’t very clear to me, but the impression was that what she had seen “live” was not adding much to her inner world, to the world she had imagined through her reading. We kept seeing each other, and it was always very nice to see her, to keep at least a short and fleeting conversation with her.

In my homage to this artist I do not intent to interpret and much less to explain her works, but now I recall a phrase by Picasso: “All those that attempt to explain the canvases are following the wrong road.” Furthermore, the works of Belkis move me deeply, and feelings are there to be felt, and are difficult to explain.

The first artistic works reflecting our culture appeared in the 1880’s, despite the fact that the Abakuá has been a secret, hidden society for most of its existence, having to survive in a clandestine manner. 
The first literary work with ñañigo influences was Manga Mocha, a love triangle giving way to death, violence and desperation. Later on are published  Las memorias de Ricardo, which narrates the story of a well-to-do white Cuban family. The author described the vicissitudes and obstacles confronted by the family, showing the relationships established by white and black ñañigos at that time. 

In 1908, Rafael R. Monteagudo, a colonial police inspector, published the book La policía y sus misterios en Cuba (the police and its mysteries in Cuba), including his experiences with this sector of the population. The author, a fervent repressor of  ñañiguismo, devoted a hefty chapter to witchcraft and ñañiguismo, and offered the vision of the police.

Somewhat later, Fernando Ortiz published what would become a cornerstone, Los negros brujos, the first study of the African presence in the Cuban arts. Ortiz was the author of numerous articles and publications in various magazines onñañiguismo. He also prepared a book that was never published which in my opinion is a very valuable text, because for the first time it mentions the religion of the orichas in Cuba, with certain knowledge of what is being said, with certain research and study of the topic. There are mentions of Chango, the chain of divination, with mistakes and absurdities that are perfectly understandable at that moment in time.

Both Montenegro’s novel and that of Carpentier, - in the case of Carpentier event the title of his work Ecue Yambao is making a direct reference to the world of ñañiguismo, which he got to know when he was in jail in Havana due to his activities against Gerardo Machado – reflect a marginal, violent world, the criminal world that enveloped the ñañigo world at that time.
In this sense, in the 1940’s, writer Gerardo del Valle, published in Carteles magazine a number of ñañigo stories, full of violence, revenge and irrationality.
Such stories were reflected in the work of many writers, and in 1967, in the first David literary contest, the short story prize went to Luis Manuel Sáez, with a book that contained six or seven short stories, among them “El iniciado” (The Initiate), a story whose title is the title of the book, and that has much to do with Abakuá culture, violence, always with someone who dies, that was the vision that existed on this culture.
So much so that in Cuando la sangre se parece al fuego, by Manuel Cofiño, in which the author recreated ñañigocharacters such as Anselmo, he evoked a very strong and violent past, that he leaves behind on abandoning his past asñañigo, and becoming inserted into the Cuban society of his time. This was also the time of scientific atheism in Cuba and tense relationships between the government and the ñañigo culture, when even the initiation ceremonies were banned.

Some years back, I wrote and published a story about Felipe Espinola, a very well known person in Matanzas, who organized carnival dances, played the claves, a longshoreman, also a leather worker who, according to those who knew him, was a member of the ñañigo culture.

Ñañiguismo and its influence over our society also had a strong presence in Cuban music. The rumbas, the sones were musical genres in which the Abakua culture was present. There was a song by Ignacio Piñero, sung by María Teresa Vera, a tremendous song, that reproduces the ñañigo clef with strings and claves.

The fact is that Ignacio Piñeiro belonged to an Abakuá society of Havana, and when he let the Abakuá Nkame be sung by the voice of a woman, which was unforgivable, he was suspended and separated from that society.  Ricardo Abreu, Papín, was also a great exponent of Abakuá culture in Cuban music.

As to painting, the topic of Abakuá culture has been reflected in innumerable works of very important artists. The first one was Víctor Patricio Landaluce, and I always thought he was Abakuá —I believe he was a member of the ñañigo institution— because of the fidelity with which he represented this culture in his works.

All along the 20th century many Cuban painters reflected the topic of ñañiguismo: René Portocarrero, Víctor Manuel, Mariano Rodriguez included in their work many elements of this culture. Nobody has captured better the gestures of the Abakuá íreme than Mariano Rodriguez, and many painters represented them in their works. Wifredo Lam also represented our culture brilliantly, achieving that fabulous synthesis of Cubanness and ñañiguismo in his work.
And thus, we go back to Belkis and her work, the first woman after María Teresa Vera who assumed this world in a creative and artistic manner.
Belkis was able to portray our culture, she is the painter of the Abakuá essence. What is essential and fundamental forñáñigos is the ekwe and this is something that has a strong presence in her work. Therefore, with the exhibition Nkame, Belkis is taking us on a magical tour through the world of ñañiguismo.

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