Close Look: Belkis Ayón
Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Nicole Smythe-Johnson, a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History at the University of Texas, offers another insightful essay for our ongoing 'Close Look' series. This time, Smythe-Johnson takes us into the Christian-Green private collection for a close look at the rarely seen work of Belkis Ayón. As Smythe-Johnson points out, "Ayón’s work has often been misread as an ethnographic documentation of Abakuá myths..." But here, we have an opportunity to look closely at the layered meanings of Sin título (Sikán con chivo) (Untitled (Sikán with Goat)).
We remain grateful to the Christian-Greens for providing access to the treasures in their collection, for providing opportunities to study works of art, and for allowing us to take a Close Look.
Sin título (Sikán con chivo) (Untitled (Sikán with Goat)), Belkis Ayón, 1993.
Image by Mark Doroba.
Guarding an Open Secret: Belkis Ayón’s Sin título (Sikán con chivo)
By Nicole Smythe-Johnson
In Belkis Ayón’s Sin título (Sikán con chivo) (Untitled (Sikán with Goat)) (1993) a lone figure with large almond eyes set in a black mouthless face, looks over one shoulder at you. A goat nestles on her chest, its head resting on the other shoulder. The image is entirely in grey scale, ranging from the inky black of most of the figure’s skin, through the graphite greys of the background and the goat’s head, to the glowing white of the scaly layer that form a sort of hat and shirt. A medallion on a necklace hangs down the figure’s back, bearing an image of another black figure holding another small animal. This smaller figure’s posture recalls Christian depictions of Jesus and the lamb.
Regardless of these Christian undertones, the work’s title, and much of Ayón’s oeuvre, refers to another religious mythos, that of Cuba’s Abakuá fraternal society. Abukuá, also known as Nañigo, is an Afro-Cuban secret society that has been compared to Freemasonry. The society originated in the Cross River region of south-eastern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroon, and much of its mythology reflects those connections. It emerged in Cuba during slavery as a kind of mutual aid society, a safety net for Black men in an otherwise hostile society. In contemporary Cuba, the once secretive society has been the subject of multiple studies. Regardless of their small numbers, the group is accepted as an important part of Afro-Cuban culture, even if it is occasionally still disparaged as an alleged cover for organized crime.
Sikán, the subject of this work, is a figure from the founding myth of the Abakuá. Interestingly, though the society is strictly closed to women, their origin story is focused on a female character. Less surprisingly, it is her sacrifice that facilitates the founding of the fraternity. The story goes that Princess Sikán of the Efut (also written as Efor and Efó) nation was catching water one day and accidentally caught a fish in her gourd. The fish was the embodiment of Abasí, the Almighty God, and anyone who possessed it would be blessed with peace and prosperity. The fish also made a strange bellow that was the voice of God, and when Sikán heard it she became the first to know the secrets of what would become the Abakuá. When Sikán returned home, her father had her hidden away, so that she would not tell the secret to anyone, thereby risking word getting to neighboring nations that also wanted to possess the fish. Sikán told her lover nonetheless, and her father decided to have her killed as a punishment for revealing the secret. Meanwhile, attempts were being made to get the fish to make its sacred sound again. In the process, the fish was killed. A drum was made from the fish’s skin, in an attempt to make the sound of the voice again, but they were unsuccessful, so it was decided that Sikán’s blood would be used to attract the spirit of God. Sikán’s skin could not be used for a drum, so instead the skin of a male goat was used. That drum was consecrated and became the basis of the Abakuá’s rituals.
Ayón’s work has often been misread as an ethnographic documentation of Abakuá myths or an indication of her own mysticism, but Ayón never sought to join the Abakuá and was, according to her diaries, a committed atheist. The Abakuá myths were not her content, instead they provided her with a vocabulary to work through the material circumstances she found herself in as a Black Cuban woman living through a moment of profound change and difficulty. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba entered what has become known as “the special period.” During that time, Cuba lost important markets for its products and with that, access to foreign exchange. In a very short time, the country lost 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by more than 30%. At the same time, the country was subject to a continued American embargo that closed many alternative markets. As a combined result of these catastrophic pressures, there were shortages of many basics—medicine, food, oil—and widespread rationing.
Ayón’s work has often been misread as an ethnographic documentation of Abakuá myths or an indication of her own mysticism, but Ayón never sought to join the Abakuá and was, according to her diaries, a committed atheist.
Though art supplies were incredibly hard to come by, the period saw a surge of artistic production that came to be known as el nuevo arte Cubano (the new Cuban art). Ayón was a respected teacher and innovator who contributed to renewed interest in printmaking in Cuba and even pioneered new techniques of collography, the form of printmaking she practiced. Yet, her work was often not included in the exhibitions that established that pivotal generation of Cuban artists. Where nuevo arte Cubano became associated with “art oriented toward a critical examination of the self and the Cuban revolutionary project through the language of international conceptualism,” Ayón’s work was seen as mystical and ethnographic.
We might be tempted to make the same mistake in reading this work. We might, for example, read this work as weaving together of Christian and Abakuá religious myths, a representation of the syncretism that characterizes Cuban culture. If we were to take the advice of Cuban curator and close friend of Ayón, Christina Vives, however, we might look for the ways in which the artist may have been “camouflaging the ‘I’ and ‘here’ according to what circumstances required”. El nuevo arte Cubano was, in large part, defined by the use of conceptual and postmodern vocabularies to articulate critiques that might not have been permitted by the Cuban government and broader Cuban society otherwise. Vives insists that Ayón’s work is consistent with this, though the vocabulary she chose to work with originated in Cuba not in the international art world.
When we look at Sin título (Sikán con chivo) from this perspective, sacrifice emerges as an important theme of the work. Sikán and Christ’s sacrifices can be read as a metaphor for the sacrifice of the Cuban people, and of Cuban women in particular, during the special period. At that time, the Cuban government demanded that its citizens make significant sacrifices to maintain the nation’s political and economic independence. The official narrative was that the Cuban people accepted that burden gracefully and willingly, as an indication of their confidence in the revolution and its leaders, and many did, but many also continued to flee the country for nearby Miami, or engaged in smuggling and other illegal activities.
It is also interesting that though Abakuá is generally accepted today, Vives points out that for a long time the fraternity was “ideologically proscribed in Cuba.” As such, Ayón “was exploring something that society feared to accept openly.” Much as the unbearable burden that the special period, and by extension the Cuban Revolution, had placed on the Cuban people could not be openly discussed due to state censorship. To acknowledge that would risk undermining the narrative of the revolution as a liberatory force in the lives of Cubans. By choosing to focus on the Abakuá, Ayón seemed to signal her intention to explore that which could not be openly acknowledged.
Even the Abakuá’s own notorious secrecy points to a contradiction. The fraternity’s secrecy is one of its defining characteristics. After all, the group’s origin story positions their secrets as so prized that their protection justified the sacrifice of a woman. Yet, multiple books document the Abakuá’s beliefs and rituals. The very “secrets” that cost Sikán her life are freely available to anyone who cares to know them. This phenomena of a closely guarded secret that is, in fact, widely known, is also a feature of the political and social climate of the special period. The disjuncture between the Cuban government’s official narrative and the lived experience of Cubans was also an open secret that could, nevertheless, not be openly acknowledged. And much literal and metaphoric blood was also shed to keep that open secret unacknowledged and unspoken.
Ayón’s attention to the skin in this and other works is also significant. In introducing a panel discussion on Ayón’s work, art historian Edward Sullivan noted that Ayón is unique in Cuban art history on two counts. Though Cuban art is widely recognized, very few Cuban women artists have achieved widespread acclaim. Amelia Paez, Tania Bruguera, Sandra Ramos, Ana Mendieta and Carmen Herrera, who worked as an artist for decades but famously sold her first painting at 89 years old, are among the very few celebrated Cuban woman artists. Sullivan notes, however, that all of these women are white. Belkis Ayón, as a Black woman artist, was distinct. Though the eradication of racial and gender inequality were important parts of the Cuban revolutionary project, systemic and structural forms of racism and misogyny have remained stubbornly persistent in Cuba (and pretty much everywhere else). Skin is closely associated with sacrifice within Abakuá mythology, it is after all the skin of the goat representing Sikán that makes the drum at the center of Abakuá ritual. That relationship between skin and sacrifice that is so significant in Ayón’s work, and in its source material, may be read as a metaphor for the history of enslavement that remains foundational to all Caribbean societies, including that of Cuba.
Though Cuban art is widely recognized, very few Cuban women artists have achieved widespread acclaim.
In Sin título (Sikán con chivo) the skin is particularly prominent. Both the black skin that causes the figure to almost merge with the background, and the white scaled skin on the arms, upper back and scalp that occurs as a kind of armor or protection. The skin, from which only the bright white eyes stare out, seem to muzzle and occlude, overdetermining the figure’s potential. The necessary silence of a mouthless face and the posture of the subject, with back turned, also seem protective or secretive. There is a deliberate mystery to Sikán, as rendered by Ayón.
Ultimately, mystery would come to extend to the artist herself. At the height of her success, after exhibiting at the Venice Biennale and major exhibitions in the United States, Belkis Ayón took her own life on September 11, 1999. She was only 32, and her family and close friends maintain that they were as shocked by her death as the broader arts community. A major retrospective exhibition “Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón” (2016-2018) has done a great deal to bring attention to Ayón’s work, but research into the artist’s oeuvre has only just begun. Hopefully, with time, the full significance of Ayón’s life and work will emerge, until then we have stunning works like this one to marvel at, even as we contend with the haunting gaze they force us to confront.
________________________________________________________  Blanca Serrano, Nkame: Remembering the Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón, panel discussion, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University, 23 October2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watchv=ungTjIdAPhE&ab_channel=CLACSNYU>
 Christina Vives, “Belkis Ayón Revisited,” Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón. New York City: El Museo del Barrio, 2017. pg. 9.
 Nkame: Remembering the Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón, panel discussion, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University, 23 October 2017.