Belkis Ayón. The Flame and the Rope, The Supper, Yearning, Untitled.

When I happened upon the astonishing work of Cuban artist Belkis Ayón, I felt sure that I’d run across something that everyone already knew about. Nope. She’s obscure, a black Latin woman working in lithography and ink, often producing transgressive iconography for an existing religious tradition (that of the all-male secret society Abakua, which originated in Nigeria, and came to Cuba’s port cities with African slaves). 

Her work is surreal, startling, full of fantastical elements. It’s also devastatingly sad, and frequently frightening. Images of torture, abduction, sacrifice…

They are indelible. I saw a thumbnail of The Supper on an international comic art website - and indeed, there’s something of the graphic novel in her work; given the context in which I first saw the piece, I was actually hunting for the narrative they came from, muttering HOW HAVE I NEVER HEARD OF THIS? - and then had to paw through the internet hunting for the artist. 


Tons of reasons for her relative obscurity, all of them sad. Ayón (1967-1999) died at 32, a suicide which remains mysterious. Her work is classed as a Cuban patrimony, and not allowed out of Cuba. And she died just before the age of the internet, as far as art distribution is concerned.

Look at it, though: the harshness of her lines, the eyes on her mouthless figures. I hesitate to analyze the work in terms of content, largely because it depicts both a religion I’m  unfamiliar with, and more than that, her own take on it as a woman in Cuba. Her family reports that she was most interested in the Eve-equivalent from Abakua, an African mythic princess named Sikan, who learned a powerful secret of an enchanted fish, and was sacrificed for breaking her vow of silence - though her revelation made peace between two warring regions, she was nonetheless sentenced to beheading. Sikan appears a lot in the work, sometimes covered in fish scales, sometimes in serpents and hands. 

Here, an NPR piece about Ayon