Belkis Ayón review

/ 1 March, 2018

A retrospective of the work of Belkis Ayón, at El Museo del Barrio, NY, is a refreshing demonstration of contemporary art that makes an impact strong enough to challenge pre–conceived notions about culture and contemporary expression, all too often perceived as a development on abstraction. This reading was transformed into an orthodox dogma of Modernism, from the traditional centers in Europe and the US, particularly after the war, when the avant-garde movements from the beginning of the century finally were re–evaluated at the museum level. The fascinating work of Belkis Ayón is a powerful and important chapter in Cuban Contemporary art, precisely because it demonstrates the existence and development of another horizon in the art of our time and an outstanding accomplishment considering her short life that came to an abrupt end with her suicide in 1999 at the age of 32.

Belkis was fascinated with the cultural heritage from Africa that had been nurtured and protected in secret by the African slaves in Cuba through the adaptation of religious beliefs, all of which forms part of the process of cultural amalgamation that happened in the Americas as a result of the African diaspora.

(…) Cristina Vives, curator of this exhibition, states in the catalog that there are three important landmarks in the development of Belkis as an artist. The very first occurred in 1986 when the artist decided to make the Abakuá secret society her subject matter. Then came her decision to work with collography exclusively, a technique of printing which incorporates textured elements fixed to a base before applying the ink. (….)

The third development of her style occurred when she eliminated all colors from her work reducing it to white, black and the many shades of gray. There were also other additional challenges, as there were no visible records of drawing or painting from the Abakuá tradition, except for the lines and graphics that are painted on flors or walls with white or colored chalk for the Abakuá rituals, known as Ekeniyo, plus the fact that dealing with a secret society for men made Belkis’ research an even more problematic process.

(…) What emerges from viewing this retrospective is clearly the engagement of a great voice, using the language of art to establish many complex dialogues with the great and ancient tradition of the Abakuá in a contemporary context. (…)

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