Symbols and Secrecy: The Intriguing Work of Belkis Ayón

Updated: Sep 20, 2020

The intricate collagraphic pieces by the late artist Belkis Ayón captured my attention recently, and the more I read about them the more unknowable they become. Her work is instantly recognisable, for its deeply symbolic and often monochromatic composition. From Cuba herself, Ayón’s work reflects an interest in the urban mythology surrounding the secret Afro-Cuban society Abakuá; the society is all male, and, from reading interviews with Ayón, I still feel I know very little. I’m not going to delve into the intricacies or history of the fraternity, but it seems to have roots in many different places, and has been described as the Afro-Cuban equivalent to the Freemasons.

Ayón’s figures are largely featureless, with the notable exception of the eyes. This works effectively to raise questions about sight (or lack of, in cases where figures have their eyes closed or are blindfolded) and its associations with knowledge and secrecy. The blindfold is commonly used to convey the process of initiation.

The fact that females are restricted from joining the society is an inescapable theme, and one is forced to think about masculinity and femininity when taking in Ayón’s work, in order to unravel it. In The Supper, the figures are apparently androgynous, but Ayón explained that only two are intended to be male – I wouldn’t have guessed at first glance, assuming that females would be distinctly absent. But when considering a mindset which could lead a group to become so androcentric, it seems that questions of gender and factors which distinguish gender continually occur.

Belkis Ayón, Untitled (Black Figure Carrying a White One), 1996

Although outlines of people feature heavily, layered on top of one another in collage effect, the primary meaning of Ayón’s work comes not through the body, but by symbols and shapes. Some figures have the vague curves of breasts, but the persons are primarily distinguished through patterns. Ayón makes frequent use of scales, which supposedly represent the sacred fish in the mythology of the Abakuá. Other motifs represent femininity or masculinity, but as the viewer you have to piece these symbols together like a patchwork.

The striking faces largely devoid of features mean that gestures have to be employed to convey actions or emotions. The Supper is a particularly turbulent composition; figures stand over each other, some sit, and one central white figure stares directly at the viewer. That the figures are all monochrome indicates the anonymity and precaution surrounding the society, and the mix of patterns makes many of the pieces confused; just as I’m sure things would be for a young initiate, who hope to gain a secret knowledge after the blindfold is removed. As viewers, we are still outsiders to the events of Ayón’s work.

The enigmatic nature of such a society is an ingenious idea for a subject of artwork, as the mystery is directly reflected in the art. It’s iconographic, certainly; as soon as I saw it I wanted to ask more about it. The collographic layers represent layers of secrets, and for me the work continues to raise more questions than it answers.

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