Belkis Ayón, “Ya Estamos Aquí”, installation view, Ludwig Forum Aachen, 2022. Photo: Mareike Tocha
Otherworldly characters — Belkis Ayón at Ludwig Forum Aachen
Breathing life into a fraternal ritual order that excluded her by definition, Belkis Ayón (1967-1999) delves deep to estrange it, make it new, and manifestly her own. Fionn Meade visits her sure-handed, transfixing retrospective at the Ludwig Forum in Aachen and discusses the large-scale ‘print installations’.
At some point a second time through Ya Estamos Aquí (‘We Are Already Here’), it’s hard not to overreach for somewhat familiar figures in taking in the startling vision of Belkin Ayón’s brief yet prolific career. Isis, Eurydice and Persephone come to mind, and fall away, even as more half-thoughts also fade, how much like a graphic novel and anime film some of Ayón’s work is, for example. An Afro-Cuban woman who came of age in the so-called ‘Special Period’—a real world crisis in Cuban society, protracted and deepened by the Soviet Union’s break up in 1991, defined by food scarcity, gasoline shortages, and cultural upheaval—Belkis Ayón fashions a singular mythic world, atavistic in its complex hermeticism and grippingly immediate in its inventiveness.
Ayón was raised in Havana, where she attended the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts and graduated from the renowned Instituto Superior de Arte in 1991 as well. It was during this fine art education that her radical aesthetic of large-scale ‘print installations’ was forged, as Ayón herself described her output, a self-styled medium that would soon bring her work to international venues. Having settled into collagraphy early, Ayón’s work corrals the provisional aspects of her chosen format to create painterly depth and multi-sheet compositions at immersive, nearly mural-sized scale. Collagraphy is a collage form of printmaking that allows for a wide range of materials, absorbencies, and textures to be affixed to rather than etched or incised into plates, and then run through presses. There is an on-hand boldness in Ayón’s grasp of readily available materials and ways to go big with her own burgeoning worldview. Likewise, having experimented early on with vibrant colors, Ayón chooses instead the tonal and metaphysical tension of black, white, and a nearly infinite spectrum of greys to maneuver within. Effacing and resolutely ambiguous, Ayón’s greys consolidate and gradate in order to confront the existential phantoms that break through and populate her compositions.
Having experimented early on with vibrant colors, Ayón chooses instead the tonal and metaphysical tension of black, white, and a nearly infinite spectrum of greys to maneuver within
Choosing the central myth of Abakuá, a little-known Afro-Cuban fraternal secret society, as her subject while a teenager was a total act of immersion on the part of Ayón. She embraces transformation, otherness, and a certain amount of subterfuge: breathing life into a ritual order that excluded her by definition, Ayón delves deep to estrange it, make it new, and manifestly her own. Brought to port cities of Cuba by enslaved Africans from southeast Nigeria early in the nineteenth century, there is speculation that Abakuá ritual culture originally included a central role for women, and only adopted its masculine exclusivity after the harrowing realities of the Middle Passage. In Ayón’s hands, the origin tale of Abakuá, as known in Cuba, is parceled quickly from its core and starkly re-imagined in the passion montage of her central protagonist, Sikán.
To briefly recap key aspects of the oral narrative is necessary: Sikán, a favored princess, accidentally traps the sacred fish within Abakuá myth, Tanze, while gathering water at the river, and is the first to hear its sacred voice. Sworn to secrecy by the local diviner, who knows straight away, Sikán shares her insight with her fiancé, Mokongo—an act that ultimately leads to her being sacrificed for having interrupted the spiritual order, for having touched the divine incidentally. For Ayón, however, Sikán is resistant, bearing self-witness, re-animated time and again, undead, in disbelief, in agony, but always searching a way out.
Resolutely oriented facing the viewer, the ritual scenes unfold at nearly life-size scale. They confront us with otherworldly characters absent nose and mouth, silhouette-like yet intricately marked with symbolic tracings, of a specific liminal place and time but muted and repurposed. What at first glance appears to be an onerous myth of inspiration, Ayón’s overturning of patriarchy and hierarchy within her versioning of Abakuá stands out, a rupture in the order of things, a schism blown wide open. Having begun to research Abakuá while still in high school, Ayón puts Sikán in motion early and fully as a personal kind of psychopomp, a tutelary figure that allows for insurgent innovation. Forming a deep identification and bond, Ayón steps into this pact whole being: ‘I see myself as Sikán, somewhat observant, intermediary, and revealing. I invent the imagery from my studies and experiences, since I am not a believer. Sikán is a transgressor and I see her as such, as I also see myself.’
Resolutely oriented facing the viewer, the ritual scenes unfold at nearly life-size scale. They confront us with otherworldly characters absent nose and mouth, silhouette-like yet intricately marked with symbolic tracings
The printing matrix of La Cena (‘The Supper’, 1991), is exemplary, shown with a privileged theatricality early in the exhibition, with finished prints nearby. Hung before a floor-to-ceiling curtain, the overt yet precise curatorial gesture brings close Ayón’s formal procedures. The dexterity of pattern and surfacing central to her virtuosic talent is foregrounded, revealing the puzzle-like build-up and labor-intensive precision to the cardboard panels themselves. In La Cena, a détournment of our familiarity with the Da Vinci composition ‘The Last Supper,’ reroutes us away from the shock, incredulity, and anger of the apostles at the utterance that one among them will betray. Her nine witnesses are by turns guardian-like and aghast at what has taken place: two in grief, hands to face, another blindfolded, others leaning in to inspect, and still others seemingly on duty, sentry-like to the inevitable. A swirling mix of organic patterns spindle and vine in Ayón’s highly textured motifs, even as sharper floral patterns and geometric shapes repeat, like scales. Nearly every inch of surface roils with a nervy vitality around the ghostly figure at the center: Sikán, a serpent wrapped around her neck, eyes straight ahead, the sacred fish already consumed before her. Pivoting from the foreboding Christian parable of anticipation, Sikán looks up, confronting the viewer’s gaze, awake to her new status in a spectral after-life. There is no warning or easy catharsis to come, as Ayón’s sleight-of-hand delivers us instead to the perpetual nocturne of her making. A spectral feminism that Ayón takes wholesale, embodies, and opens up is increasingly evident in her versioning of Sikán’s contested terrain.
A spectral feminism that Ayón takes wholesale, embodies, and opens up is increasingly evident in her versioning of Sikán’s contested terrain
Another pivotal early work, La Familia (The Family,’ 1991), shows Sikán seated, in the process of becoming other, the sacred fish Tanze now ensconced in her lap or womb. Not yet ghostly white, Sikán is accompanied by a sacrificial goat lingering at her feet, a rooster perched behind, and her fiancé Mokongo standing alongside, controlling one of the snakes that slither and encroach throughout Ayón’s iconography. Sikán’s provisional throne hovers as if levitating, the metamorphosis well underway. Indeed, Ayón encapsulates her alter-ego’s numinous maturation throughout each of the major bodies of work on view.
A notable exception, Nlloro (1991), depicts an Abakuá funerary ritual, a deceased brother lying face upward, with the lamentation and ‘weeping’ intimated in the title on display via intricate and supplicant gestures indicating ease of passage for the departed. Ayón achieves a characteristic and key concatenation here, however, as the long duration of mourning and its gestures are compressed into one allegorical image. The symbols of Abakuá merge with Cuban Catholic motifs to form a syncretic assembly of simultaneity that follows from La Cena. Time is elongated, inspected, and to be contested in Ayón’s ritual scenes.
Pa’ que me quieras por siempre (‘To make you love me more,’ 1991) accentuates this liminal dynamism, emphasizing the violent magnetism at the center of Sikán’s journey. Shown as part of the Venice Biennial in 1993, the spiritual and celestial time of Sikán’s ascendance adorns the wall, while the earth-bound time of worship is hinged, angling below. Ghostly splayed and pierced with feathers, Sikán rises once again, a male ritual participant exhorting below. It’s a tough piece, as it feels carnivalesque in its torturous excess of Sikán’s ritual death, angled theatrically at a right angle from the wall to floor: Sikán’s two pairs of arms are flung out, pierced, and countered by a third set of arms, protective, and shielding. Sikán rises but also resists her sacrifice. Perfidia, (‘Perfidy,’1998), is also angled to achieve a formally exacting confrontation whereby the work literally folds in on itself, observing. While there is an inherent limitation in over-interpreting the intricate symbolic tracings at play, Sikán appears front and back in Perfidy, her body doubled and more mature, as if taking part knowingly, extending the knowledge of Tanze to the initiates below with seeming reticence.
Nowhere does Ayón’s depiction of Sikán depart more from sacrificial closure than in Resurreción (‘Resurrection,’1998). The work is both a return to La Cena, from nearly a decade prior, in its self-witnessing quality, but also an incredible threshold image of emerging from the supernatural fully back into life. Behind a resting male initiate, whose head is symbolically painted, a curtain parts to four female figures, emergent, stepping out, an enigmatic open mouth blowing behind them. Here, Sikán claims space, arms outstretched at the center, newly proliferate, in the presence of chosen others, like a versioning sisterhood. The almost harlequin pattern of one of her companions is like a new skin come into play beside Sikán’s exhaling gesture. The wind at their back, this company appears ready to depart. That Ayón took her own life while in the midst of moving beyond the visual drama of Sikán is as tragic as it was baffling to her colleagues and family.
In Resurrection, Sikán claims space, arms outstretched at the center, newly proliferate, in the presence of chosen others, like a versioning sisterhood
One of Kafka’s ‘Zürau aphorisms,’ written while recovering from a serious illness, came to mind in the last gallery of the show, which features Ayon’s final series of work: ‘Two tasks of the beginning of life: to keep reducing your circle, and to make sure you’re not hiding somewhere outside it.’ Made for a gallery exhibition in Los Angeles titled Restlessness, the Abakuá motifs are untethered in Ayón’s last work, churning in circular compositions, with close up figures looking to explicitly exit. Dejame Salir! (‘Let Me Out!’, 1998), for example, pictures an impossible underwater conflagration, a close-up figure scratching at a portal, imploring, as Tanze floats past behind. Mi Vernicle o sí yo no te olvido (‘My Vernicle or if I don’t forget you,’ 1998) pulls at the very center of things—Sikán’s eyes— as if to release her penetrating gaze into a new landscape. No hiding here. That Ayón was planning a return to color in upcoming work and a series framed by the toll of the AIDS epidemic she witnessed, speaks to an artist readying for next phases and new challenges. The direct confrontation with theme and style also inclines this late work toward a more personal transitional reading, portraits of a ‘great restlessness’ Ayón described at the time, stirrings toward a next vision breaking through.