For some time now, I have been studying one of the components of our culture on the African side, the carabalies, and of them the Abakuá Secret Society, in which only men can participate, a society of mutual help and succor, self-funded by its members. In Cuba, this Society is sort of reborn in the 1830s, under objectives and conditions very different from those its African ancestors had.
There are people who feel the need to believe in something, which is inherent to human life. One of the many possible examples is that…even after so many years, ceremonies are carried out for initiation, for promotion of ‘obones’ or for creation of new ‘powers’; the cry or ‘nlloro’ (funeral ceremony for the death of one of the members of the society); the ‘refreshing’ of the sacred pieces of the liturgy; and the assemblies of plazas or general assemblies, mainly held in the province of La Habana and Matanzas, and only exclusively in Cuba.
“To be a man, you don’t have to be Abakuá but, to be Abakuá you have to be a man.” Which means, you don’t get prestige from the Society; you come to the Society to prestige it, to give it your best.
“There were women in the Calabar that used to play like men in their power (…) and when ceremonies began, hidden in the bushes, in a cave by a lagoon, men robbed them their secret…” “Ekue hates females. The secret is absolutely of MEN…” 1
When dealing with this topic, unknown and airtight for many, as it is not as popular as other components of Cuban culture values because it deals with certain aspects not clear yet, it is my purpose, first of all, to render my vision from the point of departure of its complicated secret memories, full of religious imagination, presenting, in a synthetic way the visual aesthetic and poetic aspect I have discovered in Abakuá (…) “conveying a compulsive message that, in spite of its conceptual dimension, it is never direct, but is allusive…,”2 often going back to its origins in Africa. The origins of this secret society are to be found well back in time, in very primitive economic-social formations in which man faced the unknown countless times, always looking for a satisfactorily answer to the natural and social phenomena that surrounded him. Therefore, in my engravings you will find infinite aspects coincidental with the cultural fact in itself, verifiable both in the area of ideas and in the visual references. The antecedents of the ñáñigos were, back there in Africa, the Secret Societies Ngbe and Ekpe which names in Ekoi and Efik languages respectively mean leopard man. These associations, thanks to their cults and their great economic and ideological power manage to extend the leopard as a totem animal whose… “fraternity is established based on a perfect equality among a group of human beings on the one hand and a group of things, generally, animals, vegetables…” on the other, according to Frazer’s deductions in El hombre, dios y la inmortalidad, totems, together with the other primitive religious forms (magic, fetishism and animism) generally achieve, as a result, the magic sympathetic because of the laws of equality, which, in turn, will permeate the life, the thoughts and the actions of primitive man. These societies can be found in the area between the so-called Rivers of Oil, from the vast quays of the Niger River delta and the Río de la Cruz in what now is South Nigeria and part of Cameroon, just across Biafra Bay.
When I started researching about this interesting and mysterious brotherhood, the only one in Cuba, and in its sacred memories —highly entangled, by the way— I can pick out characters that, in my view, are the most important ones to convey what I want, and will be present in all my works, namely: leopard man, with whom all the different positions and hierarchies of the society are designed and identified, Sikán, the woman who discovers the secret and is sacrificed so that the secret could be handed down to men, so it wouldn’t disappear. Sikán dies in vain, and the secret is lost once again; this will consist of a voice, UYO UYO ANFONO sacred voice or sound produced by a fish she had discovered when coming back home from the river. The fish was the reincarnation of the old king Obón Tanzé, King of Efigueremo, who was at the same time the reincarnation of Abasí, THE SUPREME GOD. Many were the efforts and the attempts to transmit the sacred voice, for it was quieter and quieter every time. The last transmission was the hide of a goat; there it is! There it is! The voice that vibrates in the sacred drum EKUE could be heard… “that peculiar sound, horribly adorable…” 3.
There are countless variations of the popular images when telling how the things that originated this type of secret society happened, and from these variations I show my own variations, entwining their signs with my own. I use collograph, which has become a technique I identify with, because it adapts to the way I am and the way I have been working for some years, and because it offers a very peculiar visual information with effects and results that in a way harmonize with the subject, apart from the possibilities it has for its multiple character, that, as it is generally defined, is the impression of a collage with a wide variety of materials, which are glued to a cardboard base.
In reference to the use of color, there was a period in which I worked with a variety of them and I was very much satisfied at that time, but then I started feeling nostalgic for black, and I admitted I was strongly tied to black, and was forced to use it again. Depending on the materials I use, it gives me a whole range of shades of white, grays and blacks, and I think of it as an ally for the type of figuration I work with its composition... so hermetic, so secret and mysterious apart from the force and the power it conveys to us.
I think all these engravings could be a spiritual testimony, so to say, not experienced by oneself, but imagined, where I placed in the foreground an equivalent of the human figure, around and on which are finally and consequently my ideas, that are memories of the memory materialized as sort of flashes: when the light goes off and then comes on again, new memories appear flanked by a proper companion, intuition.
I believe there is an extremely close relationship between the vision I give and the Abakuá Secret Society, sharply presented in the work of Lydia Cabrera:
“…By the knowledge and authority of the signs, it turns the past into present, recreates the hills, the river, the palm tree in the sacred places of Awána Bekúra Mendó.”
Belkis Ayón /91
(1) CABRERA, Lidia. La Sociedad secreta Abakuá narrada por viejos adeptos. Havana, Ediciones C.R., 1958
(2) MOSQUERA, Gerardo. Ensayo sobre América. Juan Francisco Elso. March 1986
(3) CABRERA, Lidia. La Sociedad secreta Abakuá narrada por viejos adeptos. Havana, Ediciones C.R., 1958