Artist Profile: Belkis Ayón

Printmaking has a long history of making the fine art world at large more accessible internationally, due to its affordability and impact. This can be seen in the efforts of Caribbean practitioners, including Afro-Cuban printmakers Eduardo Roca Salazar and Jose Omar Torres Lopez. However, less well known may be Belkis Ayón Manso, known as Belkis Ayón, who used the tradition and language of printmaking to traverse the microcosm of a exclusive Afro-diasporic religion, as well as the macrocosm of the art world with her innovations in collography.

Early Life in Cuba

Belkis Ayón was a Afro-Latina printmaker and professor born in Havana, Cuba in 1967. She studied engraving at the prestigious Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana (ISA), and joined its faculty after graduation.

Her formative years as an artist were plagued by the periodo especial (special period) in Cuba which began with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a difficult era in Cuba when resources—let alone art supplies—were not readily accessible. Many editions could not be printed due to a scarcity of paper and various other materials needed. Plagued by shortages, Ayón had to be creative regarding her artistic process to ensure nothing was carelessly included or excluded in each of her artworks.

This is also the time in which Ayón rose in the contemporary art world. In this era, Ayón’s work was exhibited at the 16th Venice Biennale, the Havana Biennial and the Bharat Bhavan International Biennial of Prints in India. In 1999 she was awarded four residencies, including with the Brandywine Workshop and Archives (BWA), Tyler School of Art at Temple University, Bronski Center at the Philadelphia College of Art, and the Bensen Hall Gallery, Rhode Island School of Design. Around the same time, she was appointed the Vice-President of the Association of Plastic Artists of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba.

Collographs & the Exploration of Afro-Cuban Culture

The Philadelphia-based Brandywine Workshop and Archives, led by founder Allan Edmunds, was one of the first, if not the first organization to bring Ayón to the United States. When she came, she branched out in her work and explored lithography, but is best known for her pursuits in collographs.

Collography is a collage of materials of various textures glued onto a printing plate, or cardboard matrix, and then put into a pressing machine to print the design onto paper rather than the traditional method of carving figures and forms into a printing plate. This tradition is very common not only for Cuban artists, but many Black artists around the world.

Belkis Ayón, Dejame salir (Let me Out!), collograph, 1998.
Image Courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

In her practice Ayón renders an enigmatic society, creating a veil of mystery through use of monotone colors, shading, and toning. Her bleak palette of black, white, and grey silhouetting ghastly figures with stark-white almond shaped eyes evokes sentiments of uncertainty, anonymity, and angst such as that in her work ¡¡Déjame Salir!!, 1998 (seen above), and the works by Ayón coming to Swann Auction Galleries for the African American Art Department’s October 7, 2021 auction: Hay que tener paciencia (One must be patient) and Temores infundados (Groundless Fears), both 1997. Each are a prime example of her typical unsettling subject matter focusing on African iconography and Cuban culture, specifically Abakuá.

Described by Americans as “an Afro-Cuban version of Freemasonry,” Abakuá was fathomed in Nigeria and founded by enslaved Africans in Cuba as a society of refuge against the backdrop of the vile institution of slavery. The esoteric practice is composed of the usage of a creolized African language, rituals and ceremonies, and involves many iconographic figures such as princess Sikán—the only female figure in Abakuá lore. Ayón’s inclusion of egalitarian iconography with the incorporation of princess Sikán not only supplanted the Abakuá Secret Society but refuted societal norms. She is known for having been the only and the most prominent figure with an extensive body of work that traverses and investigates the exclusive Abakuán brotherhood.

Hay Que Tener Paciencia (You Have To Be Patient)

Belkis Ayón, Hay Que Tener Pacienca (You Have To Be Patient), collograph, 1998. To be offered in our October 7, 2021 sale of African American Art. Estimate $20,000 to $30,000.

Hay Que Tener Paciencia (You Have To Be Patient) is a collograph print measuring at 37 1⁄2 inches by 29 1⁄2 inches. This sizable work includes a figure that is halfway covered by the shapes that melt into the background. The haunting monocular silhouette gazes back at viewers through a large blindstamp of a tree in her work. Industriously, Ayón would have to attach an array of found materials to render works of this grandeur such as vegetable peelings, bits of paper, acrylic, and other abrasives. Thus creating a depth adorned with different textures to complement, or in this case, camouflage the figure.

Temores Infundados

Belkis Ayón, Temores Infundados, collograph, 1997. To be offered in our October 7, 2021 sale of African American Art. Estimate $20,000 to $30,000.

Temores Infundados is a ninth edition collagraph including three subjects; two facing viewers and one being hidden and held by one of the front-facing figures. The two forward-facing figures, one an endless black and the other a lifeless gray, are engulfed by an intricate background full of geometrics appearing to be circles, crosses, and even some flora. An edition of this print is included in the contemporary posthumous traveling exhibition Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón.

Posthumous Legacy

After her untimely death in 1999, at the age of 32, Belkis Ayón left behind an oeuvre that is important to the history of printmaking, (inter)national art making, and crossing gender boundaries. Her body of work functions as a reflection on the mysticism and traditions of the secret religious Afro-Cuban brotherhood, Abakuá Secret Society. She left behind a body of work that has broken barriers and pioneered discourses regarding African iconography and influence on Cuban culture and society.

Much of what is being discovered and uncovered of her works is credited to the first contemporary posthumous traveling exhibition in the United States retrospective of the artists entitled Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón. The exhibit includes forty-eight graphics, including some large-scale installations, from the artist’s estate. The exhibit not only revealed the mystical powers of a African religious society but also the gamut of Ayón’s artistry and investigative skills. Nkame is curated by Cristina Vives and organized by the Belkis Ayón Estate, Havana, Cuba, and premiered at the Fowler Museum at UCLA in 2016. Since then, the exhibition has been hosted at El Museo del Barrio in New York, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum at the University of Oregon, and the Chicago Cultural Center.

Written by Lei Edmonds. Edmonds is a recent graduate of Spelman College, class of 2021, and was the Swann Galleries’ African American art department’s first remote department intern this summer. Edmonds came to Swann via the summer internship program of Atlanta University Center Art History + Curatorial Studies Collective.

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