Belkis Ayón is the unusual case of a woman who devoted her brief but intense artistic career to recreating the cultural and spiritual heritage of a religious group of African origin, known in Cuba as the Abakuá Secret Society, which hasthe peculiarity of being an all-male society. Despite the fact that it does not admit any woman as a member, the main protagonist of the mythology and rituals of the society was a female named Sikán.
According to scholars, this secret grouping originated from the ancient "leopard societies" known as Ngbe and Ekpe, which were introduced in Cuba by slaves of the Efik, Efut, Oru, Ekoi and Ibibio ethnic groups, among others, from the Cross River area in the Old Calabar, in the southeast of Nigeria and Cameroon. Since they were from Calabar, these slaves and their traditions were known as carabalíes. It was probably in Cuba that the society acquired its function of “mutual aid and protection”, a function exerted previously by the “cabildos de nación” in response to prevailing slavery conditions and its members’ need for protection and aid. The Abakuá Society was established in Cuba in around 1836 and it has been active until the present in the cities of Havana, Matanzas and Cárdenas and, strange as it may seem, in no other place outside of our island.
A very short version of the myth of the Abakuá -- among the several contradictory versions -- refers to Princess Sikán of the Efut (Efor, Efó) nation, who one morning went to the Oddán (or Odane) River to collect water in a vessel or gourd and unknowingly trapped a mysterious fish that would bring peace and prosperity to those who caught it, and whose strange bellow represented the voice of a deified ancestor, King Obón Tanze, who was also a manifestation of Abasí, the Almighty God. When she placed the gourd with the fish on her head, Sikán heard the sound (Uyo) and was the first to know the great secret, since she was automatically consecrated. With the authorization of Iyamba, Sikán’s father, she was immediately hidden by Nasakó, the sorcerer, in a place in the bush to avoid the disclosure of the secret amongst the neighbouring nations who also wanted to have the fish. However, Sikán told the secret to her boyfriend, Prince Mokongo of the Efik, who then appeared before the Efó to claim his right to share the secret. A pact was made with them to avoid war but Sikán was condemned to death for disclosing the secret. Nasakó attempted, by means of magic, to get the fish to make its sacred sound. But the fish died and Nasakó then built a drum with the skin of the fish to resuscitate the voice, but the voice was very weak. He tried to do this with the skins of different animals; snake, crocodile, deer and ram, but the voice was never heard again. He then decided that Sikán's blood could attract the spirit of Obón Tanze and Sikán was sacrificed by Ekweñón to invite the miracle. Sikán’s skin, however, was no good to build the sacred drum Ekwe, and instead the skin of a male goat (mbori) was used, a sacrifice carried out by the twins (abere) Aberiñán and Aberisún. When the Ekwe was consecrated, all the hierarchies and rituals of the Abakuá secret society were established. These are a meticulous representation of a very complex drama[ii].
Very little remains of the secret character that this institution has prided itself upon over time. Ethnography has explained many details of its myths, rites, language, music, intricate graphic symbols (called anaforuanas), as can be seen in books by Fernando Ortiz, Lydia Cabrera, Enrique Sosa and other specialists on the subject[iii]. Belkis Ayón’s art preserves those mysteries in a respectful way. She may have learned about them in these same books and in conversations with obonekues or initiates of that society, and then added others, mixing and overlaying them. To the old mysteries that came from Africa, she added new ones, typical of a black Cuban woman of the end of the 20th century, with her troubles, concerns and ideas. And although unlike Sikán, she was not the victim of any sacrifice, she chose to commit suicide after leaving one of the most impressive artistic legacies in the history of Cuban art.
There is still much research to be done to discover the contents and purposes of Belkis Ayón's work, and this will be possible using the tools of art criticism and ethnography, as well as by getting the perspectives of the practicing members of the Abakuá Society. Approaching her work seems to require readings from the true specialists, the plazas, obones or indiabones who, being the highest religious hierarchy within this institution, have accrued the most knowledge and are therefore authorized to say what Belkis’s artistic language expressed. Other transversal readings are necessary to allow us to distinguish between the real contents of the myth, rituals and Abakuá symbols which constitute the true cultural and spiritual wealth of the group and those that are the fruits of the imagination, creativity and the artist's personal interpretation. Without these comparative readings, we will always fall short of a true understanding. Belkis created a new version of the myth, a contemporary artistic version, somewhat different from the versions that tradition attributes to the ancient members of Efik, Efor and Oru, but her artistic myths were based on actual myths that still preserve their religious function in our society. It is therefore necessary to take them into account as a starting point for a deeper understanding of her work. It is not enough to admire the uncommon beauty and technical perfection of her prints in the abstract[iv], but rather it is necessary to understand the specific knowledge that the artist had if we want to understand the meanings of those other discourses that she expressed through her prints.
Despite the fact that the references in Belkis’s work are unquestionably bound to the African and Afro-Cuban tradition, and that they essentially preserve many "pre-modern", even "tribal" features, in many cases the atmospheres where the events develop, as well as the expressions and body posture of the characters send us back to traditions that we don't link easily with Africa, but with Christian Europe, sometimes reminiscent of a medieval and pre-Renaissance architecture, with allusions to the paintings of Giotto, Piero della Francesca or Fra Angelico. The solemnity, the elegance, even the gentleness in her work, refers us inevitably to such European tradition. For the first time in the representation of an all-male tradition of warring characters, bold as the Abakuá, it was possible to neutralize that violent, impulsive aspect, replacing it with correction, with manners, with a label that is very far from the African or Afro-Cuban stereotype that we know. Occasionally, Belkis even took well-known episodes of biblical history, such as The Last Supper, and overlayed in them episodes of the sacred history of the Abakuá. What could have been Belkis’s intention in such cases? Perhaps not so much syncretism with the Catholic tradition present in our traditions of African origin. There must be more than this, a less visible intention, perhaps to break down the negative clichés which still exist about this grouping - often considered a bloody and even criminal brotherhood - and to allow for a less prejudiced approach to its extraordinary aesthetic, symbolic and poetic values.
It is curious that in almost all her works Belkis herself served as model for the representation of Sikán. The shape of her body, her head, her face, her eyes constantly appear in her prints replacing the body, the head, the face and the eyes of Sikán. With this replacement, Sikán stopped being represented only by a male animal, the male goat (mbori), which is sacrificed in a substitution ritual, or by the simple signature or anaforuana with which Sikán is represented in an abstract, symbolic way. In Belkis’s works, Sikán became a woman once again, a black Cuban woman with feelings, ideas and opinions. Belkis’s presence as Sikán allows the ancient mythical situation constantly re-enacted in the rituals to become human and contemporary, thus making visible the real and daily content which the mechanics of every ritual tend to hide or forget.
[i] See her web site www.belkisayon.com/
[ii] We have based our information on the version of the myth in Tato Quiñones essay. “La leyenda de Sikán: origen del mito abakuá”. In Ecorie Abakuá, Ediciones Unión, Havana, 1994.
[iii] On the Abakuá secret society, refer to, among others: Lydia Cabrera, La Sociedad Secreta Abakuá narrada por viejos adeptos, Ediciones Universal, Miami, Florida, 2005; by the same author, La lengua sagrada de los ñáñigos, Colección del Chicherekú en el exilio, Miami, Florida, 1988; and Anaforuana, ritual y símbolos de la iniciación en la sociedad secreta Abakuá, Ediciones R, Madrid, 1975; also, Enrique Sosa Rodríguez, Los ñáñigos, Premio Casa de las Américas, Ediciones Casa de las Américas, Havana, 1982.
[iv] Orlando Hernández. “La respetuosa arbitrariedad de Belkis Ayón.” Catálogo XLV Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte, La Biennale di Venezia, Istituto Italo-Latino americano, Rome, June-October, 1993. (fragment in Italian); Catálogo exposición Angel Ramírez / Belkis Ayón, The new wave of Cuban art - 1, Gallery Gan, Tokyo, Japan, March 31, 1997 (fragment in English and Japanese); Catálogo exposición Belkis Ayón. Origen de un mito, Galería Villa Manuela, UNEAC, October 2006 (text entirely in Spanish).