On 12th September 1999, the Cuban art world was left reeling reeling by the news that one of its brightest stars had fatally shot herself at the age of 32. No note was found, and she had been considered in good spirits by her family and friends. To this day, as her sister Katia has sadly remarked, the reason for Belkis Ayón’s suicide remains a secret that she took with her ‘to the grave.’ Her legacy is a collection of images that are at once terrifying, tragic and haunting, yet exuberant, invigorating and exhilarating. As a visual manifestation of Ayón’s perceptions of her native Cuba, her art is both powerful and valuable; furthermore it speaks not only of her feelings about life, but also her attitude towards death.
Born in Havana on 23rd January 1967, Belkis Ayón Manso was one of two daughters from a relatively affluent Afro-Cuban family. At the age of 6, she began to show an interest in painting, leading her parents to enter her into a school competition, which she won. In 1979, she enrolled at the School of Plastic Arts, and two years later, she entered the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes “San Alejandro” – Cuba’s most prestigious art school, graduating in 1986 before starting a degree in printmaking at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA). As she studied for her degree, her work was displayed in over thirty exhibitions across Cuba and Latin America.
Although her family were atheists, in 1984, after stumbling across a book on the subject, Ayón became fascinated by Abakuá. Originating in Nigeria and transported to Cuba during the early nineteenth-century by African slaves, as a way of preserving the culture of their homeland, Abakuá is a male-only secret society, advocating kinship and a deep affinity with the supernatural through ritual, music and dance. Called Ñáñigos, members are believed to have the power to turn into leopards so that they may hunt down their enemies. Alternatively, they are referred to as Diablitos, meaning ‘little devils,’ on account of the eerie costumes worn by Abakuá dancers, known as Iremes, who wear hoods over their faces and carry a broom and staff, the former to purge the brotherhood, the latter to beat its foes with.
Above: Abakuá (1962)
An Abakuá legend, of which there are many variants, based on the biblical tale of Adam and Eve, tells of Sikán. The daughter of King Iyamba of the Efo people, as she collects water from the Oddan river, she hears the voice of the sacred fish Tanze. On her return, she recounts the experience to her father, who warns her that she must tell no-one, and promises to keep her safe. Finding the temptation to speak out irresistible, she shares her secret with her husband, an Efik prince from another tribe. The revelation brings about war between the two tribes, and for peace to return, the princess must be offered up by her father as a sacrifice. With a heavy heart, he concedes. It is said that Sikán’s betrayal, along with the spilling of her blood, gave birth to Abakuá; from which all women are excluded as a consequence of her wrongdoing. The sound of the Ekue drum, played in Abakuá ceremonies, represents Tanze’s sacred voice.
Inspired by Sikán’s sacrifice, images relating to the story subsequently began to feature heavily in Ayón’s work, as she stated in an interview, ‘what has always drawn my attention is the female character as victim.’ Ayón admitted, ‘I see myself as Sikán, as a bit of an observer, an intermediary and one who reveals: departing from my studies and experiences, I invent her imagery since I am not a believer. But Sikán is a transgressor, and as I see her, I see myself.’
Above: Belkis Ayón – Siempre Vuelvo
Artistic representations of Abakuá myths are forbidden, therefore Ayón was forced to rely on her own ingenuity, which she combined with the influence of Byzantine icons. Using herself as her only model, her bold figures had large expressive eyes, which, as she claimed ‘look at you very directly, you cannot hide, wherever you move, they are always there watching you, they are there making you an accomplice to what you’re seeing.’ Most striking of all though, was the fact that Ayón never gave her characters mouths, thus rendering them mute and suggesting that they could communicate without words, as well as emphasising the secrecy and mystery of Abakuá.
In 1999, Ayón made three trips abroad to Pennsylvania, London and Zurich and was offered a residency at the Brandywine Workshop in Philadelphia. An exhibition of her work was planned for a gallery in Los Angeles, cementing her eputation as one of Cuba’s most celebrated artists. There appeared to be no apparent sign that she planned to take her own life, as she did on 11th September 1999. Wilfredo Benitez of Cuba’s Ludwig Foundation, a non-profit organisation for the promotion of contemporary Cuban art, remembered his horror upon hearing that Ayón had killed herself, ‘She was always laughing, that’s the way I remember her. I couldn’t believe it. I thought – maybe it’s a little bit morbid – that some Abakuá had killed her.’
Immortalised by her art, the legend of Belkis Ayón has become intertwined with that of Sikán in the Cuban people’s collective imagination. Contemplating the nature of her work only months before her death, and perhaps providing a glimmer of insight into her final moments, Ayón spoke of how she was the voice of her own creativity. When it had nothing more ‘to say,’ she embraced silence.
Transgression and Conformity: Cuban Writers and Artists After the Revolution – Linda S. Howe (2004)
Guarding Cultural Memory: Afro-Cuban Women in Literature and the Arts – Flora María González Mandri (2006)