Belkis Ayón, “La cena (The Supper)” (1991), collograph, collection of the Belkis Ayón Estate

LOS ANGELES — You may not have heard of one of the greatest printmakers of the 20th century, but you can see her work now in a retrospective at UCLA’s Fowler Museum. Belkis Ayón was a master of collography, a technique of collaging onto a matrix rather than incising it, as one would for etching, engraving, or woodcut. Her virtuosity is on full display in Nkame’s 43 prints — particularly the opener, “La Cena” (1991). The large image blends elements of the Last Supper with the initiation banquet (Iriampó) of the Abakuá, a fraternal secret society that originated in Nigeria but dates back to the 19th century in Cuba, where it provided protection and mutual aid in the face of slavery. In “La Cena,” the figures are women, in violation of the society’s all-male membership, and Jesus is replaced with Princess Sikan, the central (and only) female character in Abakuá mythology.

Belkis at the Havana Galerie, Zúrich, August 23, 1999 (photo © Werner Gadliger)

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of putting women into the male roles of such an iconic patriarchal symbol, not only in the context of 1990s Cuba, but also in reference to Abakuá itself. In the society’s origin story, Sikan brings sacred knowledge to her people, the Efut, but is ultimately killed by her countrymen for divulging the cult’s secrets to her lover from a neighboring nation. Throughout her ouevre, Ayón drew on the story of the Abakuá for her own iconography, depicting their rituals and hierarchies as a way of getting at larger human dramas. The story of Sikan is cautionary, warning of the penalty awaiting a woman who disrupts male control of knowledge. Ayón’s pictures focus especially on questions of belonging, personal freedom, and power — concerns that likely loomed large for her as a black Cuban woman and an intellectually engaged artist under a repressive regime.

On the wall opposite “La Cena” hangs the cardboard matrix from which it was printed. Consisting of six sections (her larger prints are made from individual sheets tiled into a grid to form a single image), it offers a glimpse into Ayón’s process. The bottom margin is mostly sandpaper, out of which she coaxed velvety blacks I associate primarily with mezzotint. She built up the surface using hand-cut paper shapes that she repeated and layered like scales to produce dazzling patterns, a primary element in her pictures. Her matrices also include vegetable peelings and acrylic, which she applied to generate passages resembling brushstrokes. The collaged elements produce embossments on the prints themselves, the textured ridges and valleys a pleasure to behold. It’s a common misconception that Ayón’s materials and her habit of tiling smaller sheets into larger works were necessitated by the shortage of art supplies in Cuba, but, as curator Cristina Vives writes in the wall text, “the truth is she preferred this methodology because it allowed her to control the ink and pressure in the printing press precisely.”

Installation view, Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón, October 2, 2016–February 12, 2017, Fowler Museum at UCLA (photo © Reed Hutchinson)

Belkis Ayón, “Nlloro (Weeping)” (1991), collograph, collection of the Belkis Ayón Estate

Ayón was not just a compositional master but also a formidable draughtswoman. “Nlloro (Weeping)” (1991) is a complex image depicting an Abakuá funeral ritual, with multiple figures overlapping each other. Many of the characters have elaborately patterned bodies, referencing the animal skins worn in the West African Leopard Societies that were precursors to the Abakuá in Cuba. Ayón draws with a supple, vivacious line that I’ve seen before in Picasso. Like the Spaniard, she imbues the body with a formal power whose solidity does not compromise its movement. It’s as though her characters were all portrayed by dancers, the gestures of their hands combining strength and grace in an echo of Renaissance religious painting. Like all her mature work, “Nlloro (Weeping)” is done in black, white, and innumerable shades of gray. Ayón’s art exists in a world of moody, penumbral darkness, with shadowy forms interrupted by stark white (symbolizing death in Abakuá iconography) and set in arresting rhythms and geometries.

“Nlloro (Weeping)” also draws attention to her unusual approach to the human head: eyes are the only facial features she provides, reducing them to a flat shape containing a black circle for the pupil. This might not sound like a recipe for expression, but Ayón manipulated these few variables to produce the full gamut of human affect. Her eyes are, by turns, staring, downcast, sideways-glancing, or closed; they are fearful, commanding, and heavy-lidded; they range from stark white with solid black pupils to shades of gray and even entirely black, sometimes with white pupils. This ocular vocabulary, in concert with her dramatic staging of scenes, can amplify a viewer’s feelings unexpectedly. “Nlloro (Weeping)” includes faces with an array of different eye types, announcing the funeral ritual as a communal vessel for individual reactions to grief. As I spent time with this and other works, I felt my heart rate changing, quickened and responsive to Ayón’s emotional urgency.

Belkis Ayón, “Sin título (Sikán con chivo) (Untitled (Sikán with Goat))” (1993), collograph, collection of the Belkis Ayón Estate.

Born in Cuba in 1967, Ayón lived in the country until her death 32 years later. There she absorbed not only the inner workings of the Abakuá but also the visual codes of Christianity, especially Catholicism. “Sin título (Sikán con chivo) (Untitled [Sikán with Goat])” (1993) is a 31-by-26-inch single sheet print showing a pregnant Sikan from behind. The princess holds a goat whose head rests on her left shoulder, and she gazes at us over her right. A chain falls down her back, ending in a medallion of either Jesus or a saint holding a lamb, while the lower portion of the print is filled with images of the magical fish from whom Sikan obtained the sacred knowledge she brought to her people. This mash-up exemplifies Ayón’s amalgamation of disparate traditions. In an essay accompanying the show, Orlando Hernandez, former curator of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana, points out that Ayón’s representations of Sikan are based on her own body and face. In this light, the portrayal of Sikan as pregnant suggests the artist’s power as a creator, a bringer of knowledge under oppressive circumstances. Here and in other works, Ayón tells stories that are about Abakuá on their surface but open up to critiques deeper down.

While her figures have a Renaissance quality, the imagery correlates equally well with Medieval art due to its symbolic visual language set within a relatively flat space. The overall form of her large prints often evokes church architecture, with the upper edges shaped to echo vaulted ceilings and gothic arches, conjuring a sacral power. “Pa’que me quieras por siempre (To make you love me forever)” (1991) stands over 14 feet tall and is made up of 18 printed sheets of paper. The lower portion shows worshipping men and is installed as a plane inclined from floor to wall; the upper portion rises from mid-wall to the ceiling and presents a six-armed Sikan in ascension.

Installation view, Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón, October 2, 2016–February 12, 2017, Fowler Museum at UCLA (photo © Reed Hutchinson)

Ayón enjoyed acclaim in her lifetime, becoming a professor at the San Alejandro Academy at the age of 26 and exhibiting at the 16th Venice Bienale that same year. She went on to serve as head of the printmaking department of el Instituto Superior de Arte and acting president of the Union of Artists and Writers. But on September 11, 1999, she shot herself with her father’s gun. Immersed in the exhibition, I couldn’t help but wonder if her death had truly been a suicide, given that there must have been members of the Abakuá who were unhappy with her art’s defiance of traditional gender roles and revelations of their shrouded secrets. Granted, Ayón was not disclosing information dangerous to the state in the manner of Edward Snowden, nor was she laying bare the machinations of powerful elites like the artist Mark Lombardi. Nevertheless, the Communist government had reasons to dislike her, given that Ayón’s work “railed against marginality, frustration, fear, censorship, violence, and impotence,” as Vives writes in the wall text, “extremely sensitive topics given the severe political and economic crises Cuba faced following the dissolution of Eastern European socialism in 1991.” In addition, the Communist Party opposed religious affiliation of any kind until 1995, so Ayón’s insistent focus on synthesizing Abakuá practices with Christian imagery cannot have been especially welcome for most of her lifetime.

Belkis Ayón, “Perfidia (Perfidy)” (1998), collograph, collection of the Belkis Ayón Estate

Belkis Ayón, “Dejame salir (Let me Out!)” (1998), collograph, collection of the Belkis Ayón Estate

Her last solo exhibition while alive, Desasosiego/Restlessness, was presented in 1998 at the Couturier Gallery in Los Angeles; works from that show end the UCLA exhibit. With titles like “Temores infundados (Groundless Fears),” “Acoso (Harassment),” and “Dejame salir! (Let Me Out),” this group of prints communicates fear and paranoia. “Dejame salir! (Let Me Out)” is a terrifying image, a circular print showing a figure, presumably Ayón, surrounded by flames and pressing her hands desperately against the picture plane, while the horned head of a goat looms above and a mystical fish appears behind. These works could be seen as manifestations of a mental illness that ultimately led to her suicide, or, if one were to question that accepted narrative, they could be taken as reflections of Ayón’s increasing sense of threat. Maybe I have an overactive imagination, but I kept seeing parallels with Lombardi, whose death, though declared a suicide, seemed suspicious to many who knew him.

However she died, Belkis Ayón left a legacy of art with that rarest of powers: the ability to lodge itself inside your heart and mind, wresting away a piece of you even as it bestows its copious gifts in return.

Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayon continues at the Fowler Museum (308 Charles E Young Dr N, Los Angeles) through February 12, 2017.

Daniel Gerwin is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles.