The first retrospective in Europe devoted to Cuban print-maker Belkis Ayón (Havana, 1967–1999) includes a selection of around fifty collographs that delve deep into her short but prolific career, framing it inside the artistic and sociocultural context of 1990s Cuba. The show places the stress on Ayón’s labour-intensive working process, exhibiting multiple matrixes of her prints, most of them previously unseen. Collography is an unusual printmaking technique based on matrixes built as collages and developed by Ayón to create a unique artistic language rich in nuances and textures that are hard to obtain through any other medium.
Ayón studied at Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte de la Habana (ISA) and came of age as an artist during a profound economic and ideological crisis in Cuba triggered by the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and the collapse of socialism in Europe. Her work shifted towards greater compositional monumentality and complexity, embracing the form of large-scale prints as spaces from which to address pressing issues in the 1990s: censorship, violence, intolerance, exclusion, inequalities, control mechanisms, power structures.
The show shines a light on the artist’s work by starting with her first visual investigations around the Afro-Cuban secret society Abakuá, imagery that would accompany her from the time she submitted her thesis at the San Alejandro National Academy of Fine Arts in 1988, to her black-and-white prints in the 1990s, a more apt medium for expressing the existential turmoil that imbues her oeuvre, to her large-scale pieces with a pronounced set design quality, through which a complex visual and universal world is conveyed, syncretising mythology and Abakuá ritual with the main iconographic elements of the Catholic religion.
Across her career, the ritual and beliefs of the hermetic, men-only brotherhood Abakuá served as inspiration to create a distinctive language expressing ethical, aesthetic and universally ideological issues. The representation of the goddess Sikán, sacrificed by the men of her community and considered an alter ego by the artist, transcends an ethno-identity or gender-based approach to embark on a complex world of relations, emotions and conflicts, for instance regret, salvation, fear and the need to transcend collective memory.
The series of prints Belkis Ayón made from 1997 onwards denotes the final work she would produce in a career tragically cut short by her suicide in 1999. In these final pieces — darker and more dramatic — space is pared down to circles with one foregrounded face that brings the spectator into a world of sharp conflict and profound existential angst.
Belkis Ayón’s work, never previously displayed in Europe, has been exhibited at different venues in the USA, among them El Museo del Barrio, New York (2017), the Fowler Museum – UCLA, Los Angeles (2017) and the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston (2018).