There are many exclamations in the exhibition of the artist Belkis Ayón (Havana, 1967-1999) at the Museo Reina Sofía. As soon as you enter, a card contains six: Stay! Come! Do not go! It gives its title to a 1987 triptych, a large lithograph on paper of various characters whose eyes also appear to be punctuation marks. There are many more eyes like that, very white in very dark bodies, as if they were spotlights on the edge of the known world. Throughout the entire journey they mark the pauses and the intonation of a story as luminous as it is overwhelming. Ayón committed suicide at the age of 32, just before the turn of the century, in one of the best moments of his career. It is the first thing that surprises when knowing his biography and traveling such a luminous smile in his portraits. A strong unease always accompanied her on a path that was not easy.
The one who took her to the Venice Biennale in 1993 began by bicycle, through an economically depressed Cuba and with no other means of getting to the airport than two wheels. He did it with his father, pedaling against the clock to catch a flight full of symbols. She was able to speed up and was on time, but her father couldn’t. Neither did the work that he had wrapped around the back of the bike. Imagine that image and the push of that man so that So that you love me forever (1991) arrived at the appointment. Because they arrived.
In the Reina Sofía it occupies a capital space, in the heart of the show. It is the first major review of his work in Europe. For that alone it deserves a visit. Cuban artists were rarely granted permission to travel at that time, but Ayón always had the shield of a stoic work, almost exclusively black, white and gray, which crossed all kinds of censorship. His has to do with the purely human, with that fleeting feeling always unfinished. An elusive and fragile work in terms of interpretations, elusive even in the certainties, which appear and at the same time disappear as soon as you want to put words into it.
His work, stoic and almost exclusively in black, white and gray tones, crossed all kinds of censorship
The retrospective held at the Museo del Barrio in New York in 2017 was key to the global review of a work that manages, suspiciously, its estate no multi-site galleries behind. Although time to time. Rarities are increasingly popular in the art market and Belkis Ayón undoubtedly is, for the better. It has gone down in history as a reference in colography, a relief printing technique that consists of incorporating textures that adhere to the matrix before inking. It is an unusual type of engraving, based on matrices constructed as a collage, surely the technique that best defines the times we live in, full of traces and imprints by collision. Its plots achieve an incredible variety of tones. The subtlety in the degradation of inks in the entire range of blacks and grays coexists with the cleanliness of the white spaces in an almost exquisite way. The adjectives here also border on the exclamation points, because what this exhibition reveals is precisely that, amazement and amazement.
Walking silently through the exhibition, the great cultural discovery here, beyond the work with the engraving, is the Leopard Society, a secret organization originating in Sierra Leone and active until the middle of the 20th century, from which the artist drinks to plot her narrative full of masquerades. Such societies constituted the base of the Abakuá brotherhoods established in the port cities of western Cuba with the objective of providing protection and help to their members, always men and for men, and that stigmatized and segregated women. Throughout Ayón’s career, the ritual and beliefs of this hermetic brotherhood serve to create a language with which to put the accent on universal ethical, aesthetic and ideological issues. The vindication of the leopard woman from all possible angles. The representation of the goddess Sikán, sacrificed by the men of her community and considered Ayón’s alter ego, transcends the gender approach to address a complex universe of relationships and conflicts such as the need to transcend collective memory. Without a doubt, she succeeded despite the shortness of her life and her career. Despite the universe of acute internal conflicts and deep existential anguish. Or thanks to it.
‘Belkis Ayón. Colographs’. Reina Sofia Museum. Madrid. Until April 18, 2022.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.