Speaking of the myths of art
February 4, 1999
Taken from Revolución y Cultura Magazine, No. 2-3/99, pp. 68-71.
To tell the truth it wasn’t easy to interview Belkis Ayón, despite the appearances, that is to say, her youth, the recognitions her artistic work has had, her personality, that one would bet was very accessible, frank and open as her laughter. But we should not confuse such attributes with the vehemence, I would even dare say the passion, of Belkis Ayón the artist, the one that with steel blue lucidity knows about the trajectory of her work yesterday and today. And I am sure she knows about tomorrow’s. But her humility and pride, features that coexist in many authentic artists prevent her to sanction such forecast. Although deep inside every great artist knows that they are great, the challenge in time is there and time, in turn, challenges her. Time, for better or for worse, can do away with everything, except with great art that resists, transcends and walks by with an ironic smile.
– We are standing in front of her mural The Supper in the Ludwig Foundation. It is a sturdily mysterious piece. I would not hesitate to say that it has many readings. But tell me its story.
– The Supper was shown in public for the first time in 1988 in the Servando Cabrera Gallery in Playa municipality. I conceived it to print in color but once printed and after the show I was not satisfied with the results. I then prepared it for my grade thesis and in 1991 I changed it and printed it in black and white. The first figure, in the upper left, is hiding her face with her hands. The main idea derives from The Supper…
-Are you referring to the traditional The Supper?
– Yes, but just as a main idea. And I’ve had it in mind for a long time. The Supper is a supper of women, except for two men, one is to the right, the black figure that remains completely indifferent, like he is going to leave the composition, and the other with the black face.
– What elements of the mythology are there?
– One of them is the background. It is made with the anaforuanas or “signatures”: the cross, the circle and the cross inside the circle, symbols of the different branches that has an influence or derive from the place where the myth of this type of societies arose, efik, efor and ori bibi. The + sign corresponds to efik, the O to efor and to oru-bibi. Another element that I use is the scale. The scales of the fish, the sacred fish. And also the type of symbol I have used to represent the man in the leopard skin, a concentric circle, somewhat elongated, with several dots around it. And, also, figures that have a design suggesting a relationship with femininity.
-And the blindfold?
– When somebody that is in process of being initiated, when they are going into the sacred room, the Fambá room, before entering they are blindfolded. It is like a ceremonial supper. There is a figure that is being initiated or is going to initiate another.
– What is celebrated through this ritual?
– In this case it is perhaps something that happened. But it is not something that happens. From the point of view of the religious ceremony part of it is the food, but it has nothing to do with this idea of the supper. This is completely symbolic.
– Another figure there has a snake around the neck.
– In the Abakuá mythology the snake is the creature sent by the tribe’s sorcerer to discover what had happened in the river when the fish Tanze disappeared.
Then Nasakó sent two snakes to see what had happened. And on the way there they appear and take Sikán by surprise who is scared and lets the gourd on her head fall. That is why the snake is always making her company. It may be a threat, prevention, or just company. And depending on the idea I also use it as an phallic element.
– Now, why the scales and what is the meaning of the fish?
-The fish was the agent, the vehicle that contained the secret, that is to say, the being that contained the secret. The secret was the voice.
– Here there is no longer a fish in that plate.
– No, not here, because this figure, that of the man with the black head, who crashed into the women’s supper and has eaten the fish. His plate is already empty, like the gourd that is besides each one of the figures besides each plate. The fish is the sacred being.
In this supper in which the guests are women two figures bear the skin of the fish, indicating that the fish’s destiny is the destiny of Sikán.
– Supposedly among the Abakuá, women play no role, women are outside their world. Anyone could think that you have a nerve because what you are doing, this transgression, is taboo.
– Women are banned from the point of view of professing the religion. But they are there, in the inside, because it was a woman who disclosed the secret. And from the moment she disclosed the secret, the story unfolds.
– What was the secret?
-The secret was the voice. According to the myth, having the fish that contained the voice, meant that person would make the tribe richer and more prosperous. It meant power. In fact the fish was the reincarnation of an old king that predicted such events.
-The guilt of the woman when disclosing the secret banned her from the rituals of the Abakuá universe.
-Yes, and I also think that, like in all stories based on myths and legends, there are different versions. One of them sustains that women were excluded because of having given information to an enemy tribe.
– But I believe it is not necessary for the spectator to have a knowledge of the myths, of the Abakuá ritual or the meanings of each one of the components to admire or to be impressed before your work.
– We would have to find out why it makes an impression…
– What is there in that print? First, there is mystery. Those characters, seemingly passive, convey an atmosphere of tension, of suspicion. Strange diners that, also, are symbols. There is a sensation of uncertainty for the weight of the allegory. I would say that they challenge us, because the scene presented by those disconcerting characters, goes back to the mists of times immemorial. They are, at the same time, myth and complex human matter; they transcend time and if by chance I saw that work years ago and I see it now again, I continue thinking that it impresses me as something telluric, unfathomable.
-Those are things I think at the moment that I am making them. Afterwards I print them and its been so long after, that is not mine any more and I stop thinking about it. Now I was thinking of the tension, something happened or is going to happen, but it is contained. Something like that.
– And the eyes in your characters?
– In fact, the eyes in my work is what impresses people the most. People are intrigued because the eyes look at you directly. I believe that you cannot hide, wherever you go they are there, always looking at you, making you an accomplice of what you are seeing. And, above all, in these large pieces, you are almost at the same level, the same size, it like someone you are coexisting with somehow.
– The fact that the characters do not have defined facial features is contributing to feed the myth and the symbol. There is no detail to place them in a historical context: They have no clothing or hairdo. From the clothing or the hairstyle you could deduct that they are characters from a certain period of history. When you conceive those characters – I don’t really know how to call them- you are not thinking of an anecdote, of a certain moment, but simply thinking of an episode of the Abakuá universe that you want to represent…
– Yes, I believe it is what you say and also some more, there is always something more. I enjoy working, filling the characters with something, that is to say, through the textures, the shapes, I want to provide them with some type of clothing. The clothing are the skins I provide, depending on what is happening, of what I want to say.
– For example, the scales.
-As I told you before it is the skin of the fish and for a lot of people it may also be the skin of a snake. That is to say, there is all that ambiguity.
– Now then, how did you penetrate, how could you appropriate the knowledge of the Abakuá world?
– It was out of curiosity, that of facing something that you read, speak of or you see for the first time. It is not something you are accustomed to and you feel it is attractive and you start researching, finding information.
– And your father?
– He is not Abakuá. And in my family nobody is, except for a cousin. It is important for me to say it because some people are inventing stories that in my family all the men are Abakuá. Absolutely not. We are two sisters, no more.
– But it must have made a big impact that you turned it into your topic, into the object of your artistic work?
– I became interested in the topic when I studied printmaking in San Alejandro. There were so many things that attracted me of the African-Cuban cultures; It was a pleasure to go to the Rumba Saturdays shows and when National Folkloric Ensemble had its seasons in Mella Theater. Also the UNESCO’s Courier. When I was at school I was interested in the issues that had to do with African culture. In my grandmother’s house there was a poster with some íremes announcing the performances of the Folkloric (ensemble) and Sara Gomez’s film, De cierta Manera.
It could have been the fact that my uncle had among his books, that I could see and browse all the time, Los Ñáñigos, by Enrique Sosa, or the suggestions made by my professors of San Alejandro that I should also read La Sociedad Secreta Abakuá narrated by old followers, by Lydia Cabrera, or The African Diaspora, or a little of all that. Or a catalog my father gave me of a retrospective in Paris of Lam’s paintings. These things I simplify them.
I discovered that at that moment no other artist was working with the topic, since they were working with other topics such as Santería, Voodoo, Spiritualism and Palo Monte. Likewise I was influenced by reading the different versions of the myth. The images passing in front of my eyes were so plastic, the faces would appear and disappear.
In addition, there was no figurative iconography, except, of course, the signatures. Then I saw that there was a possibility, there was an entire world that I could perfectly well create, from what I already new of the legends.
– How do you explain that those faceless characters have such intensity, such density?
-There are things in the work that one doesn’t know how to explain. The tension… It is not something preconceived, it came out that way. I always say that I am accompanied by something that is like a good sign, good company: intuition. Perhaps my work is that: these are things I have inside and that I toss them out because there are burdens with which you cannot live or drag along.
– Could it be said that you rid yourself, in the creative process itself, from many of those myths?
– Yes, I get rid of them; and not because I think that I am always, although I want to say something else, using the same symbols and the same figuration and the same signs that I use when I want to refer specifically to a scene or to a detail that belongs, strictly, to the mythology, although later, perhaps, I go back and think I want to say something else. But these are fixed elements in my work. Right now I am using more personal stuff; however, I continue using the Sikán character, the fish, the goat, the scales, the snake, I continue using wrinkled papers and the symbols that I have always used in other situations, but with different contents.
I use collography because I find it is the most appropriate technique to say what I want. That is first. Also, it is the technique with which I can work large formats, whichever I want, and I like the craft that the piece requires, it is fascinating. Then, I enjoy tremendously the whole process.
-It is one of the reasons why you continue working with collography. If you were painting, would it be same?
-No, it would not be the same. It is a limitation I have in the eyes of many. But, above all, I consider myself to be a printmaker. And I don’t plan to stop being one for the moment being.
– Do you believe that the most important thing you have to express as an artist you have already said it in your work or do you believe that not to have exhausted all your possibilities?
– Those are questions that I ask of myself once in a while. Once when I was engaged in conversation with my friend Antonio Martorell, the Puerto Rican engraver and painter, he told me: it is incredible how one gets obsessed with certain topics, and even when you portray them in a different way they are always there. That is to say, there’s an obsession and you turn around and go back to doing the same thing. And I wondered if I was repeating myself. lmagine. Maybe yes, maybe not. The problem is that I feel there are lots of people who are very simplistic when they talk about an artist and their work. It is easier to say: Ah, look, she works on the Abakuá! That’s all right, but there is not much more than that.
– And since you speak about obsession for a topic, that may happen to the spectator with your characters. They are there and then they are not, as you say. And they are characters that are telling me things or are questioning me…
– Exactly. I believe that you are right, they are questioning. Questioning the others. The others are accomplices of what is taking place.
– As if they said: Things are not clear here. It is a disquieting situation.
– The title of my last exhibition in Los Angeles, was Restlessness. Perhaps that is what my work is about. After so many years I realize the disquiet.
– And perhaps such restlessness, more than a religious character, has…
– Let me tell you, it has more to do with life than with religion.
– How were your beginnings since you studied in San Alejandro?
– I was sixteen in 1983-84 when I studied in San Alejandro and I had big problems with drawing, I failed a lot of exams because I was bad drawing from a model. And my figures seemed like made of sticks.
– How did you overcome that?
– More than drawing, by thinking. And observing a lot and looking a lot. Many times I talk it over with those students who also work figuration and have drawing problems. I tell them: look, I am not requesting academic work from you, I am not requesting hyperrealism, I am not asking for academic work, I am asking you to be convincing with what you are doing there. Let that hand be credible, a little more, a little less, but there shouldn’t be any disproportion, it must not bother when you look at the works.
– One of the distinguishing characteristics of your work is the absence of color. Does your use of black and white have a meaning?
– White is a value. Like black is. Like the grays. The value is not the color, the value is the point of attraction in the work. One figure is white, but that doesn’t mean it is white. A figure is white because it is the point of attraction and because I work with white, black and values. The person as such could be black, but the value is white.
– It means that it has a compositional sense.
– Exactly. Like this black that turns about here; the black goes there, in the snake, in the face, in this eye and it goes up to the other eyes that are inverted, it returns to the black eye and goes to the black in the rim. Using black is a problem of the composition, the balance and the tempo in the piece.
– What is your relationship with the Abakuá world: affective, cognitive?
– A difficult question. It is the way, the manner, the solution that I found to say what I wanted. And I tell you: it is like letting yourself be carried away, and I have been carried away.
– When you start to work this topic, at any given moment, do you fall like in a state of trance?
– In a trance, but between quotation marks. It is a problem of concentration, the problem is to believe in what I am doing at the moment, even perhaps like a performance.
– There is some theatrics about it…
– Yes, it is very theatrical, like the ceremonies of the Abakuá. For Fernando Ortiz it was like a theatrical performance. It is like taking the theater to religion.
– And religion to the theater.
– As to the trance it is a question above all of concentration and the limitations imposed by commissions.
– Also apart from a passion for the topic, the fact of working with it for so many years. Does it reflect some fear on your part?, that is to say, you are being conservative with it because you do not tackle any other topic.
– Ah, look, perhaps that is it.
– Of course, an unconscious fear.
– I believe there are unconscious things that become conscious.
– In your case is it conscious?
– I believe so. I believe you can say things one way or the other. But I want to keep it this way. For the moment being, because this way I say what I need to say.
– One of your characteristics is originality.
– I take from millions of things. What I see that I like, I try to do it. There is an entire process of decanting. I think that all of this is like my child, something that I created. If I created it I don’t have to abandon it if I have still got things to say.
– Well, forgive me, but you can have a child and then have another without necessarily abandoning the first.
– Ah, well, for the moment being I only have one!
– Suddenly, when you wake up in the morning, you say, today I will work, do you already know what will do?
– No. Not until I have it here (she takes her index finger to her temple), I don’t do anything. In the meanwhile time goes by and I read my books, the books I buy, that I like, art books. And while I browse them I tell myself, I like this composition, here I will place this character, and the other, and the other. And this has to do with the lack of satisfaction, intolerance, treason and I want to talk up about sacrifices. Many of the compositions I have taken, for example, from The Family. The Family was to piece that I had had in my head for a long time. I said, I have to do this somehow. And it all came about watching Gauguin’s work, Ana the Javanese. I love it; and that is very important for me, it marked me… And The Family comes out of that work, from that figure sitting there so placidly.
-You have said that among your plastic references, apart from the Abakuá universe, there are also the Byzantine icons.
– The reference of the icons is purely formal. The shape of the arches, the retables, I was always attracted to them and it was like inventing an iconography for these people. And also many times I like the compositions very much.
And I tell you that my work takes me by surprise because it has led me to be what I am, it was not on purpose.
– Perhaps there was a certain kind of ignorance of yourself, of who you are? If we accept that the characters, apart from being disturbing, are also defiant, one has every right to suppose that within you there is a struggle, between the Belkis that wants to defy and the other that you know is calm and wants to go about without being noticed.
I suppose that’s more or less like it.
– Does the fact that you are a black woman reflect in any way in your defiant characters?
– Not at all, or at least, that’s not my intention. You see, I have never had racial problems.
– Let me explain myself. I know you haven’t had problems, on the contrary, anyone that sees you would say you are an achiever. But both you and I know…
– I believe these are things that are manipulated a lot or perhaps through them we are manipulated or I am manipulated. But it is not something conscious.
– In each work the anaforuanas or signatures are placed there to support the idea you are stating.
– That’s right.
– In one work there may be several signatures but according to the characters or their relationship with the others.
– The Abakuá myths are the basis of your creative production, but the result, the work of art as such, is already something else, it transcends the motives that originated it to become universal. Your work makes an impression even in connoisseurs, not because of your command of the matter but because of the irrefutable artistic result.
– I like the subtleties of my work, but also that the spectator is the sufficiently bright to discover them.