BIENALSUR: AT THE REINA SOFIA, CUBAN ARTIST BELKIS AYON HAS HER FIRST RETROSPECTIVE IN EUROPE
Colografias, the first European retrospective in honor of the Cuban engraver Belkis Ayón (Havana, 1967-1999) was inaugurated on November 16th at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, in Madrid. The exhibition, which brings together around 80 works produced between 1986 and 1999, constitutes Km 10048 of the International Biennial of Contemporary Art of the South (BIENALSUR), since it is a part, as an associated exhibition, of the biennial held in 124 venues around the world.
Curated by the also Cuban Cristina Vives, more than fifty collographs will be exhibited, which delve into the artist’s short but intense career, who focused her work on the reinterpretation of the mythical iconography Abakuá, an Afro-Cuban secret and mutual aid society, whose symbolic universe she appropriated in order to conduct a postmodern resignification.
Ayón used colography, an unusual engraving technique, based on matrices constructed like collages, and generated a unique artistic language, characterized by a richness of nuances and textures difficult to obtain by other means.
The retrospective exhibition, which is held in the Sabatini Building of the Reina Sofia, addresses the artist's career from her first experiences with the Abakuá myth, which she chose as her imaginary, and which has accompanied her since the presentation of her thesis at the San Alejandro National Academy of Fine Arts, in 1988. The exposition also reviews Ayón’s transition to engravings in black and white during the 1990’s, which worked as a better vehicle of expression to communicate the existential drama that her work constantly evokes. Ayón addresses the pressing issues of the time: censorship, violence, intolerance, exclusion, inequalities, control mechanisms or power structures. In addition, the exhibition includes series which contain a sharp scenographic character, as well as large-format works that represent a multitude of characters and pass through a complex visual and symbolic universe that syncretizes Abakuá mythology and ritual with the main iconographic elements of the Catholic religion.
Throughout her career, the rituals and beliefs of the hermetic Afro-Cuban brotherhood, which was exclusively reserved for men, served Ayón to create a singular language that expresses universal ethical, aesthetic and ideological issues. Ayón studied all possible bibliographic and testimonial sources, but she did so from her condition as an atheist spectator. She endowed the Abakuá legend - which was basically orally transmitted - with an overwhelming iconography and interpreted the myth from her perspective as a contemporary Cuban and black artist. The representation of central characters in the Abakuá belief system, such as the goddess Sikán (sacrificed by the men of her community and considered the artist's alter ego), transcends the ethno-identity or gender approach to address a complex universe of relationships and conflicts such as repentance, salvation, fear or the need to transcend in collective memory.
The series of etchings that Ayón made after 1997 are the last works of a career tragically cut short by her suicide, in 1999. In these last works, darker and more dramatic than the previous ones, the space is constricted in a circle with a single A close-up face that introduces the viewer into a universe of acute internal conflicts and deep existential anguish. Her first works on the Abakuá theme, on the other hand, date from 1985, when the artist was still in her third year of engraving at the San Alejandro Academy in Havana. Most of the works from this period were made in color and follow formats and techniques that responded to traditional academic demands — lithography, woodcut, linoleum, and colography. They’re geometric compositions that, with great economy of means, visually translate the artist's readings on the Abakuá theme.
Her work La cena (1988-1991), for example, sums up like no other three key moments that form the backbone of Ayón's artistic career. The first, the choice of the Abakuá theme during her student stage and the consequent articulation of a language of mediation to connect with her own context in ethical, aesthetic and ideological terms. The second is the result of the choice of colography as a technical tool that increased expressive possibilities. The third has to do with the abandonment of color in favor of black and white with its almost infinite degradations of gray, which more adequately transmitted the existential drama of her characters, in whose reflection her own is glimpsed. The cena, ordinner, broadens the reading that fuses the Abakuá myth and its protagonists with other religions and symbolic systems such as primitive Christianity and its institutional Catholic version, which share unquestionable codes of representation.
The current anthological exhibition analyzes Belkis Ayón’s work, integrating it into the broad artistic and sociocultural context of Cuba in the 1990s, and has had multiple locations in the United States, highlighting the Museo del Barrio de Nueva York (2017), the Fowler Museum in UCLA in Los Angeles (2017), or the Station Museum in Houston (2018).
Within the framework of BIENALSUR, the exhibition is established as one of the organization’s milestones, in line with the desire to build, from South America, an international community that gives visibility to Latin American art.
The exhibition can be seen from November 16th, 2021 to April 18th, 2022 at the Sabatini Building, 3rd Floor, of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, in Madrid.