November 19, 2017, Havana

Belkis Ayón’s Respectful Arbitrariness

February 19, 1992
Orlando Hernández

Her being a woman does not strike me as something strange. The fact is that once again it is a woman. No matter that she calls herself Belkis (and not Sikán or Sikanekue). It does not change anything at all; neither does the different setting, nor time span, nor the details. The story unfolds again, repeatedly. A woman appears at the beginning of the myth. Is it the same woman or a different one? Perhaps it does not matter. Every believer knows it. What we call the supernatural, the sacred, is animated through simple everyday happenings. It is reproduced. It becomes corporeal in order to show the circularity of everything that exists. It is a repetitive, cyclic condition.

In its own way, science has corroborated it. That old truth is sometimes symbolized ritually through a simple circular tracing on the floor, or in the material structure and functions of the divination board (Opón Ifá).
At other times through the steps of a dance performed counterclockwise to avert the adversity of an action. Or perhaps time’s adversity. Variants are multiple, but the teaching is always the same. Everything happens again, repeatedly. And it seems that here lies the indestructible essence of every belief; in this strange power of making everything visible, verifiable. Our daily trivialities are the disguise, the mask of transcendence, of the unknown. We live on the obverse side of a mysterious coin. How are we to know what is happening on the other side, in the invisible one, the hidden one? It is necessary to attempt the journey to the other shore, to pursue the reverse, to complete the vision.

Belkis Ayón restores the reality of a myth to a historical time span. A myth that is still alive, active, that resists becoming a piece in a museum, or an exotic attraction for the tourist. A myth that is still part of a group’s shared experience. And the strange thing about it is that Belkis did this without the support of religious paraphernalia, without the group, without ceremony, without any ritual, by inventing her own ceremonies and rituals, through the printing of papers, using art as a weak pretext. In this way, unsuspectingly—naively?—she put to work the incomprehensible and powerful mythical machinery of the Abakuá secret society. Then the unforeseen happened—but maybe also the inevitable: Uyo resonated again. And one by one the episodes of the mystery unfold. One by one the legendary characters played their roles again. This time they were not restrained by the harshness of a relentless liturgy. They moved freely again, just like the fish Tanzé in the Oddan when nobody was the owner of the secret and the secret belonged to everyone, men and women alike. Or better still, when there was not even a secret and it was not necessary to build the Ekwe. Neither was the sacrifice of Sikán necessary, for her guilt and her betrayal did not exist yet.
Only by placing herself at the moment of the zero hour can Belkis Ayón narrate her story, set up her splendid version, going back or anticipating events by dismantling the original myth. Because that is what it was all about: to add to every possible version (Efik, Efor, Oru) a new one. Didn’t Claude Levi-Strauss, the ethnographer of Brazil, say that all the versions form part of the myth?
With her prints, Belkis fused and confused with respectful arbitrariness all the chronological stages of a remote male brotherhood whose origins lie in the African secret societies Epke and Ngbe (from South Nigeria and Cameroon). It was introduced in Cuba by the Carabalies during the slave trade and it is still preserved in current times and only in Cuba by means of a mutual aid and protection association known as the Abakuá secret society or Ecorie Enyene Abakuá.
A large portion of Belkis Ayón’s graphic work refers—wouldn’t it be better to say that it was devoted?—to this world of the Abakuás. Without this reference it might be somewhat hard to penetrate the complexities of her artistic imagery. This symbolic tightness in this sort of Afro-Cuban freemasonry is manifested in each and every one of her monumental engravings. The figures, objects, animals, plants and many other graphic signs represented in the scenes are taken from Abakuá myths and rites and their complex graphic system known as Ereniyó or Anaforuana; they therefore have a very precise meaning.

However, once we know the artistic work is relatively self-sufficient, our limited omniscience should stop alarming us. Even though we might not know the meaning of this or that thematic or symbolic detail in Ayón’s work, we can always resort to considering them secondary, useless because art possesses a mystery of its own. In Belkis’s work the white, gray and black provide a mysterious atmosphere. Mysterious is the naturalness of the figures resting or in movement; mysterious is the solemnity, the elegance, the silence; mysterious are the fish-scale and the erotic sinuosity of the snake; mysterious are the palm tree, the rooster, and the goat; ambiguous and mysterious are the hand, the face, and the look. And all of this is due to a creative will whose presence is essentially inexplicable and which was capable of metamorphosing the habitual into the supernatural and vice versa because only art adds more mystery to mystery.

When we look at Belkis Ayón’s art, the narrative, or the anecdotal, achieves quickly its immediate informative role, and we are pleasurably carried to that great zone of the unknown where we are led only by our imagination or our intuition. Thus, what is truly enigmatic in her work is not the intricate, fascinating stories it deals with—illustrative, apparent—but the hidden, very secret spirituality that animates it. This deep-rooted and perhaps not avowed religiosity does not depend on rudimentary declarations of faith, or on fanatic veneration, but on nebulous fears and foreboding, something beyond that natural ecstatic and contemplative state with which most artists undertake the creative act. The highly intense drama oozing from these images, the disturbing atmosphere of the setting cannot be merely the result of some cunning sleight of hand. None of this is learnt at school or in art books. There must be something else.
Belkis Ayón’s artwork is imbued with a type of religious aura: mystical rather than historical or ethnological; impassioned. This saves her work from being understood just as one of those trivial «recoveries» of ill-felt nationalist or «ethnic» identity in which some of our artists periodically immerse themselves. And were this the case, it would be in a lesser or later instance. For the issue here is not «saving» a forgotten lost myth that could be reconstructed in an ethnography or folklore laboratory, but rather an awareness, a feeling, that had remained buried, hidden, and that was freed in a simple reverential gesture to that strange «netherworld» which is both denied and discredited by science and which often can only be manifested, expressed, conveyed or discerned through art. What Belkis attempted to rescue with her work is, perhaps, a respect for cultural and aesthetic practices that our society has marginalized and misinterpreted due to our long colonial heritage, not only too rationalist, but also too white, too Catholic or too atheist.

The profound spiritual identification established by Belkis with the mythological, magical world reflected in her artwork has allowed her to transgress the secular exclusion of women from the Abakuá rites and to accede freely and in a privileged way to their mysteries. Only through art is such a transgression conceivable. In this way her artwork becomes a device not just to reproduce myths but also to generate and renovate them as well. For this is precisely what Belkis has attempted through her art: to establish new myths capable of amending the past and modifying or attempting to modify the future. The old and seminal Abakuá myth gains in complexity and takes new paths, thereby adding to its strength and beauty in this new dimension of the imagination.

[1] In 1992 Belkis asked me to write this piece and up to now it has remained—I believe—unpublished, with the exception of a small excerpt which appeared (in English and Japanese) in the catalog of the exhibition «Angel Ramirez & Belkis Ayón: The New Waves of Cuban Art», in Gan Gallery, Tokyo, Japan, in 1997. I made small corrections to the initial version I gave her, but without altering the essence. The idea of being able to join Belkis again in another exhibition pleases me (Author’s note). Read at the exhibition «Belkis Ayón, origen de un mito, » Villa Manuela Gallery, Havana, October 2006 (Editor’s note).

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