I was recently introduced to the work of Belkis Ayón, and it’s fascinating–mouthless, bright-eyed faces set in religious imagery that is completely foreign to most Westerners like me.
Ayón’s work was influenced by Abakua, a Nigerian secret society that combines aspects of both Christian and African traditions and which was first brought to the island of Cuba by slaves. The society is all male, which presented problems for Ayón as she researched more deeply into its practices and mythology. She was particularly taken with Abakua’s take on the myth of the fall in the Book of Genesis. In the Abakua version, it was not Eve but the African princess Sikan who figures in the story.
As Katia Ayon [Belkis’ sister] explains, the princess learns a powerful secret from an enchanted fish. She is sworn not to reveal the knowledge but cannot resist the temptation. That helps forge peace between warring tribes, but the princess is sacrificed for her transgression. While her death gives birth to the Abakua brotherhood, women are forever barred from it.
Ayón mysteriously committed suicide on September 11, 1999, which I suppose only heightens the mythical interpretations of her artwork, particularly in light of her interest in Sikan. Unfortunately for those outside Cuba, her work was declared “Patrimony” by the Cuban government when she died, which means none of it is allowed off of the island. Though currently it can be seen at San Francisco de Asís cathedral in Old Havana. Good luck getting a visa.