Soon after I took my post at Daros Latinamerica Collection, my dear friend and colleague Eugenio Valdes pointed out the works of the then just recently deceased Cuban artist Belkis Ayón to me. Her art historical significance and the superior quality of her works were immediately recognizable, which is why I contacted her sister and executor of estate, Katia Ayón, straightaway…
Belkis Ayón and Princess Sikan
Only thanks to Katia Ayón’s active support did I manage to secure a few of Belkis Ayón’s major works for the collection. A fungal attack on her prints, the so-called «colographs», presented an obstacle we had to deal with first, involving a lengthy treatment and sustained restoration procedures.
From the very first encounter with Belkis Ayón’s works, I was overwhelmed with the deep harmony emanating from her pictures, with their solemn tranquillity, and their apparent simplicity. Predominantly in black and white and many shades of gray, they seem to come from another world; they have an archaic appeal, like incarnate deities of mythical narrations from long before our times.
The iconography of her images is based on the Abakuá fraternity, a secret, all-male, Afro-Cuban society established in the 19thcentury for the purpose of mutual aid. The origins of Abakuá, which continues to exist today (only) in Cuba, lie within the leopard associations of the Ngbé and Ekpé, which related to the leopard as a symbol of masculinity, and which were founded centuries ago by the ethnic groups of the Efik, the Efor, and the Ekoi in today’s Cameroon and Nigeria.
The artist was fascinated by the story of the mythical Princess Sikan, who once captured an enchanted fish that imparted magical powers to those who heard its voice. Her father instructed her to remain silent and to never speak of the fish again, however, she divulged the secret to her lover Mokongo, the prince of a neighbor tribe. Sikan was punished with a death sentence. The silence imposed upon the princess is symbolized in the lack of mouths in all of Belkis Ayón’s figures.
In order to quote a more authoritative source, I refer to what Orlando Hernández from Cuba wrote for our last exhibition catalog «Cuba – Ficción y Fantasía», Casa Daros, Rio de Janeiro, in 2015:
Orlando Hernández on Belkis Ayón
«Artistically, Belkis became Sikán. She shared her miraculous discovery and the expropriation of power, and suffered her fate as a victim; but in her work she also tried to comment on, challenge, and modify Sikán’s tragic destiny. Her self-sacrifice on September 11, 1999, can be seen as an unexpected chapter of the old myth. …
Sikán embodies Belkis herself, seated majestically on her throne, almost indolently handling the Great Secret; a secret that, as indicated by her expression, which hovers between astonishment and sadness, caused disappointment or annoyance rather than happiness. Was it not the possession of the secret that caused Sikán’s death?
Despite the reserved, rather serene and delicate appearance of all her works, despite her pleasant and affectionate personality, Belkis Ayón was a vigorous, defiant, provocative artist, capable of radically opposing conventions and bravely confronting any challenge. She took up a difficult, even thorny, subject that had barely been touched on within Cuban art, and then usually superficially and decoratively by male artists, who did not delve deeply into or problematize the issues. …
We would like to think that we understand Belkis’s works, though we are probably far from doing so. I think that whatever her motives (aesthetic, ethnographic, religious, feminist, philosophical or existential exploration), Belkis Ayón did the only truly important thing that a real creator can do to prove she is an artist: make art works. And she did it constantly, with absolute dedication, veneration, and humility, until she achieved results of the highest order. Her permanent legacy is guaranteed, and she will always be present in the artistic memory of Cuba and the world. For some, achieving that goal might seem more than enough. Yet it still pains us that she chose such a vertiginous path to immortality.”