Orlando Hernández

Belkis Ayón (1) is the unusual case of a woman who devoted her brief but intense artistic career to recreating the cultural and spiritual heritage of a religious group of African origin, known in Cuba as the Abakuá Secret Society, which has the peculiarity of being an all-male society. Despite the fact that it does not admit any woman as a member, the main protagonist of the mythology and rituals of the society was a female named Sikán. According to scholars, this secret grouping originated from the ancient “leopard societies” known as Ngbe and Ekpe, which were introduced in Cuba by slaves of the Efik, Efut, Oru, Ekoi and Ibibio ethnic groups, among others, from the Cross River area in the Old Calabar, in the southeast of Nigeria and Cameroon. Since they were from Calabar, these slaves and their traditions were known as carabalíes. It was probably in Cuba that the society acquired its function of “mutual aid and protection”, a function exerted previously by the “cabildos de nación” in response to prevailing slavery conditions and its members’ need for protection and aid.

The Abakuá Society was established in Cuba in around 1836 and it has been active until the present in the cities of Havana, Matanzas and Cárdenas and, strange as it may seem, in no other place outside of our island. A very short version of the myth of the Abakuá -among the several contradictory versions- refers to Princess Sikán of the Efut (Efor, Efó) nation, who one morning went to the Oddán (or Odane) River to collect water in a vessel or gourd and unknowingly trapped a mysterious fish that would bring peace and prosperity to those who caught it, and whose strange bellow represented the voice of a deified ancestor, King Obón Tanze, who was also a manifestation of Abasí, the Almighty God. When she placed the gourd with the fish on her head, Sikán heard the sound (Uyo) and was the first to know the great secret, since she was automatically consecrated. With the authorization of Iyamba, Sikán’s father, she was immediately hidden by Nasakó, the sorcerer, in a place in the bush to avoid the disclosure of the secret amongst the neighbouring nations who also wanted to have the fish. However, Sikán told the secret to her boyfriend, Prince Mokongo of the Efik, who then appeared before the Efó to claim his right to share the secret. A pact was made with them to avoid war but Sikán was condemned to death for disclosing the secret.

Sikan, 1991

Nasakó attempted, by means of magic, to get the fish to make its sacred sound. But the fish died and Nasakó then built a drum with the skin of the fish to resuscitate the voice, but the voice was very weak. He tried to do this with the skins of different animals; snake, crocodile, deer and ram, but the voice was never heard again. He then decided that Sikán’s blood could attract the spirit of Obón Tanze and Sikán was sacrificed by Ekweñón to invite the miracle. Sikán’s skin, however, was no good to build the sacred drum Ekwe, and instead the skin of a male goat (mbori) was used, a sacrifice carried out by the twins (abere) Aberiñán and Aberisún. When the Ekwe was consecrated, all the hierarchies and rituals of the Abakuá secret society were established. These are a meticulous representation of a very complex drama (2).Very little remains of the secret character that this institution has prided itself upon over time.

Ethnography has explained many details of its myths, rites, language, music, intricate graphic symbols (called anaforuanas), as can be seen in books by Fernando Ortiz, Lydia Cabrera, Enrique Sosa and other specialists on the subject (3). Belkis Ayón’s art preserves those mysteries in a respectful way. She may have learned about them in these same books and in conversations with obonekues or initiates of that society, and then added others mixing and overlaying them. To the old mysteries that came from Africa, she added new ones, typical of a black Cuban woman at the end of the 20th century, with her troubles, concerns, and ideas. And although unlike Sikán, she was not the victim of any sacrifice, she chose to commit suicide after leaving one of the most impressive artistic legacies in the history of Cuban art.

There is still much research to be done to discover the contents and purposes of Belkis Ayón’s work, and this will be possible using the tools of art criticism and ethnography, as well as by getting the perspectives of the practicing members of the Abakuá Society. Approaching her work seems to require readings from the true specialists, the plazas, obones or indiabones who, being the highest religious hierarchy within this institution, have accrued the most knowledge and are therefore authorized to say what Belkis’s artistic language expressed. Other transversal readings are necessary to allow us to distinguish between the real contents of the myth, rituals and Abakuá symbols which constitute the true cultural and spiritual wealth of the group and those that are the fruits of the imagination, creativity and the artist’s personal interpretation. Without these comparative readings, we will always fall short of a true understanding. Belkis created a new version of the myth, a contemporary artistic version, somewhat different from the versions that tradition attributes to the ancient members of Efik, Efor and Oru, but her artistic myths were based on actual myths that still preserve their religious function in our society. It is therefore necessary to take them into account as a starting point for a deeper understanding of her work. It is not enough to admire the uncommon beauty and technical perfection of her prints in the abstract (4), but rather it is necessary to understand the specific knowledge that the artist had if we want to understand the meanings of those other discourses that she expressed through her prints.

Despite the fact that the references in Belkis’s work are unquestionably bound to the African and Afro-Cuban tradition, and that they essentially preserve many “premodern”, even “tribal” features, in many cases the atmospheres where the events develop, as well as the expressions and body posture of the characters send us back to traditions that we don’t link easily with Africa, but with Christian Europe, sometimes reminiscent of a medieval and pre-Renaissance architecture, with allusions to the paintings of Giotto, Piero della Francesca or Fra Angelico. The solemnity, the elegance, even the gentleness in her work, refers us inevitably to such European tradition. For the first time in the representation of an all-male tradition of warring characters, bold as the Abakuá, it was possible to neutralize that violent, impulsive aspect, replacing it with correction, with manners, with a label that is very far from the African or Afro-Cuban stereotype that we know. Occasionally, Belkis even took well-known episodes of biblical history, such as The Last Supper, and overlayed in them episodes of the sacred history of the Abakuá. What could have been Belkis’s intention in such cases? Perhaps not so much syncretism with the Catholic tradition present in our traditions of African origin. There must be more than this, a less visible intention, perhaps to break down the negative clichés which still exist about this grouping – often considered a bloody and even criminal brotherhood – and to allow for a less prejudiced approach to its extraordinary aesthetic, symbolic and poetic values. It is curious that in almost all her works Belkis herself served as model for the representation of Sikán. The shape of her body, her head, her face, her eyes constantly appear in her prints replacing the body, the head, the face and the eyes of Sikán. With this replacement, Sikán stopped being represented only by a male animal, the male goat (mbori), which is sacrificed in a substitution ritual, or by the simple signature or anaforuana with which Sikán is represented in an abstract, symbolic way. In Belkis’s works, Sikán became a woman once again, a black Cuban woman with feelings, ideas and opinions. Belkis’s presence as Sikán allows the ancient mythical situation constantly re-enacted in the rituals to become human and contemporary, thus making visible the real and daily content which the mechanics of every ritual tend to hide or forget.

Perfidia, 1998

Perfidia is one of the great works by Belkis. Despite the limited nature of our interpretations, we seem to see on the right side, Mpego, one of the obones, or dignitaries of higher hierarchy, holding his small and authoritarian drum and reporting, probably to king Iyamba, Sikán’s father, the need to sacrifice his daughter. To the left, with the body covered in fish scales, is Princess Sikán, her front and back depicted in such a way as to show that she hides the coveted fish Tanze in her right hand. Below, to the right, with a signature or anaforuana in the back that represents his hierarchy as a sorcerer, Nasakó offers a white rooster as an offering, since this is the first animal that Nasakó sacrificed to purify the fish in the episode of the bush. Another character offers him what could be the light of a candle, gunpowder or incense to remove bad spirits. All this is to make the spirit of Sikán appear, without which it is impossible to carry out any ceremony. It is probably this set of offerings, tinged with blackmail that Belkis alludes to in her title, since such offerings have previously implied no more or less than the sacrifice or the ritual death of Sikán.

The twins Aberiñán and Aberisún seem to be represented in Nuestro Deber, 1993, in the foreground, one holding in his hands the head of the sacrificed goat, and in the other the head of Sikán, since they are at present (especially Aberiñán) responsible for the sacrifice of the male goat representing her in the ritual. In the background, the white figure would represent Sikán’s own spirit. In this ceremony of killing the male goat, Aberiñán always approaches the place of the sacrifice dancing and refuses to fulfil his mandate, comes closer, makes a first attempt and withdraws horrified, embarrassed, until finally he is forced by the drum of Nkríkamo to commit murder. Perhaps in this work Belkis reflected a plea of pardon on behalf of those that have carried out the sacrifice, not only of a woman, but of the first consecrated member of that secret fraternity. There is in no hate in this action the executioners seem to be saying, but simply the discharge of a duty. However, did Belkis really accept this remote excuse?

Resurrección, 1998 is another of the many monumental and powerful works by Belkis Ayón. It could refer to the momentous moment when the indísime, after having been initiated and transformed into obonekue, is born to a new life in the Abakuá society. The signature painted on the shaved head of the kneeling character seems to indicate thus. The curtains could represent those of the iriongo or secret place where the Ekwe, the sacred drum of the Abakuá, is hidden and after which the different spirits appear from the bush, the river, which needed in this ritual. The figure at the back of the recent initiate is probably the spirit of Sikán who comes to protect the new initiate. High up, almost in darkness, an opened-mouth mysterious face seems to mimic the sacred sound made by the Ekwe, a drum that is not tapped, as wisely pointed out by one obonekue.

Perhaps we cannot disregard that all these complex mythical stories narrated by Belkis Ayón may have another reading, and refer to situations of her daily life, or the intimate, emotional, psychological life of the artist, or perhaps they are comments on women’s rights, defensive arguments about gender equity, but what is evident is the existence of a consistent poetic language, well informed about Afro-Cuban religious traditions and performed with a great technical mastery and beauty.

*This essay was published first in Without masks. Contemporary Afro Cuban Art, and was generously provided by the author for this blog. I’m sharing it now because last Friday NKAME: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón opened at the Chicago Cultural Center. We have two articles featured here about Belkis Ayón’s work and the exhibition.


(1) See her web site www. belkisayon.com

(2) We have based our information on the version of the myth in Tato Quiñones essay. “La leyenda de Sikán: origen del mito abakuá”. In Ecorie Abakuá, Ediciones Unión, Havana, 1994.

(3) On the Abakuá secret society, refer to, among others: Lydia Cabrera, La Sociedad Secreta Abakuá narrada por viejos adeptos, Ediciones Universal, Miami, Florida, 2005; bythe same author, La lengua sagrada de los ñáñigos, Colección del Chicherekú

en el exilio, Miami, Florida,1988; and Anaforuana, ritual y símbolos de la iniciación en la sociedad secreta Abakuá, Ediciones R, Madrid, 1975; also, Enrique Sosa Rodríguez, Los ñáñigos, Premio Casa de las Américas, Ediciones Casa de las Américas, Havana, 1982.

(4) Orlando Hernández. “La respetuosa arbitrariedad de Belkis Ayón.” Catálogo XLV Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte, La Biennale di Venezia, Istituto Italo-Latino americano, Rome, June-October, 1993. (Fragment in Italian); Catalogue for the exhibition Angel Ramírez/Belkis Ayón, The new wave of Cuban art – 1, Gallery Gan, Tokyo, Japan, March 31, 1997 (fragment in English and Japanese); Catalogue for the exhibition Belkis Ayón. Origen de un mito, Galería Villa Manuela, UNEAC, October 2006 (text entirely in Spanish).