Two years after “Nkame” debuted at the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles, the touring exhibition arrives at Houston’s Station Museum to showcase the collographic work of the late Cuban artist Belkis Ayón.
Ayón rose to prominence during the mid-90s and her career ended suddenly when the artist took her own life in 1999. Her large-scale prints work in muted tones and often navigate around imagery created to represent the Afro-Cuban secret society, Abakuá, and its mythological beginnings.
We spoke with Station Museum assistant curator Sophie Asakura about Cuban art, the influence of silence, and the Ayón’s lasting impact.
Sightlines: It’s been 17 years since Ayón’s passing; What about this work felt compelling to show now?
Sophie Asakura: We are in a historic moment of renewed attention of Cuba and Cuban culture and the reopening of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba. The team at the Station felt it was important to take advantage of moment to highlight an incredible artist whose body of work connects directly to each aspect of our mission statement.
The work is representative of a sub-culture present within the diverse population of Houston. The museum is also an activist institution supporting civil society issues as well as artists who engage in social, political, aesthetic, economic, and/or spiritual content and expressions. Ayón’s career fits squarely within many of these categories. The show speaks deeply about disenfranchisement, loneliness, sacrifice, hardship, and death. The artist’s work demands active introspection that is crucial during our moment of political and social upheaval.
S: For those who might be new to her work, can you introduce us Belkis Ayón.
SA: Belkis Ayón was an incredible printmaker from Havana, Cuba. During her short life she produced a body of work that is not only technically masterful and compositionally elegant, but also deeply resonant. Her central source material was the mythology of an Afro-Cuban secret society, Abakuá.
The mythology is rich with symbolism and drama but does not have a set iconography. This allowed Ayón to build her own visual language for the narrative, without having to work around set iconographic conventions. The resulting images are alternately haunting, uplifting, or mournful. Viewers can interact with these artworks without the visual associations that come with other set iconographies, like those of Christianity. While she sometimes drew on Christian imagery, it was deliberate and meant to cause the viewer to draw connections between the two mythologies.
S: Ayón utilized a specific style of printmaking, collography. What goes into that technique?
SA: Her medium of choice, collography, is a printmaking technique. The artist glued various materials to a flat backing. She then inked the surface and used a printing press to transfer the image to a sheet of paper. This process provided the range of textures, forms, and tones that is essential to Ayón’s mostly black and white works.
SM: Ayón focused on Abakuá in much of her work. How is Abakuá part of Cuban folklore/mythology and how does Ayón enhance its legacy/notoriety?
SA: Ayón was not a member of Abakuá, which is an all-male society, nor did she intend for her work to be a perpetuation of their mythology. She was not commenting on the Abakuá as an institution but rather on her personal experiences and the human condition as a whole. Although she created a visual language for their orally translated mythology, Ayón used the Abakuá as a jumping-off point, not a central focus. Readings of Ayón’s work solely through lenses of religion, identity, or cultural anthropology repeatedly fall short. The scope of her interests was much wider.
S: Silence is considered a thematic statement across Ayón’s work, rendered in mouthless figures and the muted palette she worked within. How do you feel like silence imbues or impacts the work and how has that theme been transformed following Ayón’s death?
SA: Silence plays a key role in the work of Ayón. The protagonist of the myth, Sikán, is silenced when she is condemned to death and the conflict of the myth revolves around hearing, or not hearing, a sacred voice. The muted palette and mouthless figures carry this theme, as do the piercing eyes of her figures. The viewer feels unspoken communication through the commanding and direct gaze of many of the figures in the works.
I believe that the theme of silence has been enhanced by the artist’s abrupt passing. Many of the symbols and compositions remain mysterious, partly because of the secretive nature of the Abakuá, but also because the artist is no longer able to speak for her works. The works will remain enigmatic, which I see as a great strength and key to their continued resonance.
“Nkame” continues through Sept. 3 at the Station Museum, 1502 Alabama St., Houston, stationmuseum.com