Belkis Ayón: Preamble for an Endless Trip toward the Soil
December 1, 1999
From Extramuros, December 1, 1999, pp. 25-26.
For us, weary of the crowds and sleepless nights, arriving in Alamar—the promised land—confirmed, among other things, that there was a place teeming with life, without hate or betrayals; a castle where we could exercise the greatest spiritual tranquility. Then Belkis would come with her enormous eyes of an Egyptian goddess, open the door and let us in, and nobody dared to get rid of this state of mind while we sojourned comfortably under her warm smile and contagious optimism.
I see Belkis as a mysteriously invulnerable woman, ready to offer the best spaghetti in Havana and the finest beer, to satiate the appetite, thirst and fatigue of the most demanding traveler. I see her with her kind and enthusiastic face, giving each of us a flow of affection and vitality.
When I met her in the San Alejandro Academy, I was just another student from the evening course with a keen interest in engraving. She was already the artist whom all admired, the teacher of two quite popular classes in the day course. With excessive persistence I would slip through her students and wait patiently for a quiet moment to ask her about some technical or conceptual aspect, and she would answer without any reservation, without the slightest mistrust. By the time my four years of studies concluded we had become very good friends, and by chance, unpredictably, she wound up being the chair of my graduation thesis panel.
I recall her as one of those essential teachers, concerned for her San Alejandro students, to whom she imparted all her knowledge on printing, and even gave not only expensive materials that she was able to buy in her trips, or had been donated by foreign friends, but also catalogs and any information she could muster. For a long time, the San Alejandro engraving department survived because of her unfaltering dedication. She was an irreplaceable friend, and I can’t stop thinking of her eyes, her words of encouragement.
For Cuban culture, she left an impeccable body of work of exquisite elegance, full of perfection and determination. A path had been opened up by someone who had devoted herself to seriously promoting Cuban engraving, with unquestionable competence. For Cuban culture, her death means the loss of an artist who had risen to the highest levels of national and international culture in the fine arts at the age of only thirty-two, with a very original, amazingly mature, and deep work.
For those who loved her, for her friends, there is something everlasting and more intimate. We will recall her kindness, her unselfish dedication, her concern for the well-being of her family and friends, her desire to always procure a just and happy future for other artists and friends.
I remember now when she received an award at the Print Biennial of Puerto Rico, one of the most important events on the continent. For her it was a rather happy surprise; I am sure she received it with some reservations. However, I also remember very well her joy and pride when Abel1 visited«La Huella Múltiple,» and she walked him through each of the exhibition’s halls. All the works were of exceptional quality. I looked into her eyes as though I could see her wonderful thoughts, her plans for the engravers, opportunities that would open up as of that moment. We recalled all the difficulties we went through to hold the show: the nights we worked at UNEAC for the catalogs; that there wasn’t enough money and that she paid from her pocket; the difficulty of staging so many pieces; and our exhausted, sleepless nights; and although we were convinced «La Huella» would cost us a lot, at this moment, while she was engaged in a conversation with Abel, we knew deep inside that our efforts had not been in vain.
Her work as UNEAC’s vice-president for plastic arts, for many of the graphic artists, was a dream come true; here was somebody who gave engraving—such a laborious technique, and with such a long tradition in Cuban culture—its true importance. Belkis was not only a very responsible artist, but was also absolutely accessible to any artist, not only the most important ones. She paid special attention, in fact, to those who were less well known, less «privileged.» She had a special capacity for drawing people together, thanks to which she could hold any event, not only with printers, but also with sculptors, photographers, anyone. She gave herself to this job with devotion, even leaving aside her own creative work.
Today, while I commute from Alamar, I think of the time that Eliseo left us, and I can’t imagine including Belkis in that immaterial, unsubstantial time; I try to understand its essence, its latitudes, and I am not able to imagine her body and her spirit in those labyrinths.
Some people believe it is the tacit and irreversible end. Others, that it is one of so many voyages, from which she sometimes returned inexplicably depressed, despite her artistic success.
For me it is neither one nor the other. I still think she will be there, in her castle (now forever ours), waiting for the first thirsty commuter, extending her arms. I know this is absolutely certain and I don’t want to deceive myself. We shared too much joy, too much sadness, so many truths, and although all of this means a terribly devastating loss, we will try to be calm. I ask myself about the things that weren’t said, the darkness none of us perceived, what was it we didn’t understand, and then I think:
How would she contemplate suicide, but as the threshold of a fervent banquet, and to tell us would have been like depriving us of our sardonic sorcery as if all our anguishes ended there, where the water runs transparent and salt shines like goldout of a goat’s mouth. What other way is there to contemplate vacuity. One and the other are voracious objects that our exhausted youth possesses, relic of a knowledge that wears out as unavoidably as our children. Love ushers the bodies when they die. A fine line divides stone from desire. Patience. Before the yew tree, patience. After the desert, a slow and infinite patience.
Then I arrive before the door of this wonderful castle. When the door opens she appears, she says «hello,» and her enormous eyes pull me in, taking hold of me for eternity.
1- Abel Prieto, Minister of Culture of the Republic of Cuba (Editor’s note).
2- Referring to the Cuban poet Eliseo Diego and his poem «Testamento,» in which he bequeaths to future generations «time, all the time» (Editor’s note).