Los Angeles

Belkis Ayón, La cena (The Supper), 1991, collagraph, 54 3/8 × 118 1/8". © Collection of the Belkis Ayón Estate.

Belkis Ayón, La cena (The Supper), 1991, collagraph, 54 3/8 × 118 1/8". © Collection of the Belkis Ayón Estate.

Belkis Ayón

Fowler Museum at UCLA

Belkis Ayón, La cena (The Supper), 1991, collagraph, 54 3/8 × 118 1/8". © Collection of the Belkis Ayón Estate.

The Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón spent the majority of her career producing print-based works that engage the mythology of La Sociedad Secreta Abakuá (the Abakuá Secret Society), an all-male religious group of African origin that exists only in Cuba. Although Ayón likely never participated in any of the ceremonies, she studied the society at length and featured its figures—particularly the central female protagonist, Sikán—prominently in her celebrated collagraph-based practice. Sikán, whose sacrifice is at the heart of the religion’s origin story, is often seen as a foil for the artist, who committed suicide at the age of thirty-two. Beginning her career in the mid-1980s, as Cuba was experiencing an economic depression born of the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Ayón, thanks to the apparent ethnographic focus of her work, was able to evade the censorship that dogged so many of her Cuban peers, and she was widely exhibited in both national institutions and international venues. Yet for all her success within a strictly regulated society, one should not discount the critical potency of these scenes of sacrifice, death, and resurrection, which today can take on a variety of connotations, including those of subtle political protest, proto-feminist symbolism, and personal existential explorations. This first solo museum exhibition of the artist’s work in the United States, comprising forty-three prints dating from 1984 to 1999 (the year of Ayón’s death), guest-curated for the Fowler by Cristina Vives, certainly hints at these issues, although it does not propose to resolve them.

La cena (The Supper), 1991, made the year Ayón graduated from Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte, deploys its symbolism in ways that raise subtle questions of female empowerment. Sikán is seated at the center of a table surrounded by female figures who, while mouthless (like all of the characters depicted in the artist’s work), display vaguely menacing miens and gestures. The scene is widely interpreted as a reference to the initiation banquet of Abakuá, yet it invites additional comparisons to the iconic depiction of Christ’s Last Supper. These mute female figures are strangely moving; Sikán looks directly out at the viewer, her expressionless face a blank field inviting us to project our own thoughts. Though the artist leaves the work’s subject matter ambiguous, it is hard not to ask oneself what kind of larger message is offered about female agency in the contemporary world, an agency further circumscribed by the censorship endemic to Cuban society more generally.

Other works are less overtly feminist and, apparently, more straightforwardly anthropological; however, they lose nothing of their emotional resonance. The moody expressiveness of Nlloro (Weeping), 1991, derives not only from the use of iconographic symbols of mourning—two figures with outstretched arms bend over the deceased; others hold candles and crosses; yet another covers her face with her hands—but also from our visceral reaction to the work’s textured surface. Ayón’s use of collagraphy, a printmaking technique not unlike collage, in which disparate materials are glued to a cardboard substrate, allowed her to achieve a wide range of forms, textures, and tones. This extreme variety, used to both directly symbolic and more generally suggestive effect, invites an experience of embodied association, rendering these ritualistic scenes of death and sacrifice even more potent.

A number of the large-scale, multipanel prints are curved and shaped along the top edges, as if cut out from a larger, sculpted framework, making them reminiscent of medieval or Renaissance altarpieces. Some, such as Pa’que me quieras por siempre (To Make You Love Me Forever), 1991, Ayón’s submission for the 1993 Venice Biennale, also activate the architecture of the surrounding space, inviting physical entry into the scene. In the last series she produced, Ayón did away with both scale and physicality as well as with the overt symbolism of her earlier work; graphic mark-making and textural variation, however, proliferate, resulting in a series of tondos that necessitate slow, elaborate visual examination. In ¡¡Déjame salir!! (Let Me Out!), 1997, a woman peers upward from the depths of a dark, watery abyss, palms out to the viewer, as if in supplication. While the source of her distress is, as ever, unclear, the urgency of her plea evidences stakes that, tragically, would be fully understood only after the artist’s death.

Karen Butler