Belkis Ayón and the Cuba-West Africa Connection

With her ongoing showing at The Milk of Dreams (Venice Biennale), and a recently-ended retrospective at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, there is a revived interest in Belkis Ayón’s work. But who are the Abakuá secret society, a central subject in the artist’s work, and how did their Afrodiasporic history and tradition influence Ayón? What does it mean for the Abakuá to be given global visibility by someone who was banned from participating as a woman?

The name Abakuá is a creolization of “Abakpa”, an area in southeast Nigeria where the society was active. It is the region of the slave port and ancient Kingdom of Calabar (Akwa Akpa) referred to as Carabalí in Cuba. In Nigeria and Cameroon, Abakuá is known as Ékpè (leopard) societies. Since arriving in Cuba in the early 1800s, the society is still active today with over 20,000 members in Havana, Matanzas, and Cardenas, who maintain their own language and laws. Moninas (initiates) belong to lineages with tratados (origin myths or treaties) linked to their African counterparts: Efik Ebuton (Èfìk people), Eforisún Efó (Efut people), & Orú Ápapa (Úrúrán or Oron people). Linguistic syncretism, or creolization, became imperative encryptions and preservations of African oral tradition within the Spanish colony. Dia de Tres Reyes (Three Kings Day), the earliest celebration permitting African descendants to publicly exhibit their culture, has been where Abakuá tradition is more widely memorialized. Abakuá has imprinted an indelible mark on the Cuban cultural landscape, including danzón, rumba music, and the 1920s Afrocubanismo artistic movement, for example. However, it is still frequently stigmatized and colloquially known as Ñañigos, an arguably pejorative term linked to criminality in Cuban popular culture. Like many debated accounts of oral histories, there remain several variations of these myths, codifications, and their chronologies.

Though Ayón herself was an atheist, she appropriated Abakuá lore in her work to offer a feminist dialetic, in consultation with members of the society with whom she nurtured close professional relationships. Ayón’s object of affection from the origin myth was princess Sikán, who was sentenced to death by her community after revealing esoteric knowledge to her lover from a neighboring nation. The secrets were transmitted by a fish’s voice “ekué”, a reincarnation of the old king Obón Tanzé, whom Sikán encountered by chance at a sacred river. In many ways Sikán’s story became a cautionary tale and further grounds for banishing women from Abakuá as they were perceived to stir conflict — a narrative akin to the original sin of Eve in the Bible.

There is nothing silent about Ayón’s works; a sense of drama unfolds in her compositions much like a panoramic Renaissance painting. Sikan stands in the midst of men, a commanding presence in bold and subtle gestures. In La Cena (The Supper), Ayón juxtaposes the Abakuá iriampó (initiation banquet) and the composition of the Euro-classical Last Supper, a ceremonial banquet that preceded Christ’s crucifixion. Christ is replaced by Sikán, with women disciples by his side. The figures protrude from the edges inviting the viewer to participate in this syncretic and disruptive counter-narrative. Ayón’s life-size tableaus exhibit Judeo-Christian architectural qualities of stained glass windows, gothic arches, and vaulted ceilings. They appear transcendental, like altars or a theatrical staging of a ritual. The structural qualities may speak to hierarchies and stratification of political power, reflective of the existential crisis of Cuban society in the 1990s. Ayón’s work visually dismantles hegemonic and patriarchal structures, while often (re)membering haunting histories. Abakuá was certainly a vehicle for the historicization of African tradition and resistance to cultural subjugation. It was operationalized as an anti-colonial vehicle against Spanish rule, after the formation calbidos (nation groups) across the colony. Although closely paralleled with the original Ékpè model, Abakuá is sometimes likened to cimarrón (maroon) rebel traditions of the Caribbean. For me, Ayón was able to acknowledge, embrace and critique the role of all institutions at play. She was in constant conversation with the past, present and future, from the positionality of a Black Cuban woman.

Ayón often depicted androgynous specter-like silhouettes embellished with sacred symbology and shrouded in mystery. Her characters are examples of figuration and transfiguration, by virtue of her process and visual synthesis. Most prominent are their peculiar eyes and featureless faces derived from Abakuá íreme masks. Recurrent motifs are totems such as the serpent and the fish, and sacrificial offerings like the goat and rooster, often reimagined by Ayón. The Sese Eribo (initiation drum), adorned with feathers, shells and other markings, is also referenced in her works. Christian symbolism such as the dove referring to the Holy Spirit, are juxtaposed against encrypted geometries and Abakuá symbols known as Anaforuana or Gandó. These symbols are derived from Nsìbìdì, an ancient writing system developed by the Ékpè in Nigeria/Cameroon, the same script informing Vèvè symbology in Haiti. Anaforuana was documented by Cuban ethnographer Lydia Cabrera whom Ayón read, offering partial insight into her depicted occasions and characters. For me, Ayón’s collographs may also be metaphorically likened to the indigo-dyed Ukara cloth of the Ékpè, for their focus on the ceremonial. It is believed that the cloth is transformed into a ritual object when nsibidi symbols are inscribed onto it. Ayón’s printing process used vegetable peelings and inks on her matrix, layering and combining cardboard sheets like a puzzle. Her occasional use of yellow and white highlights may reference the coded chalk used in Abakuá ceremonies, and the recounted tale of Moruá Engomo who brought the chalks into Ékpè practice. During her later years, Ayón chose to abandon color for a grayscale monochrome palette. The actual Abakuá masquerade processions are chromatic and highly animated; a motion that now transcends these static portraits to register and move us internally.

Ayón’s goal was never to perpetuate the Abakuá myth but to subvert and transgress it. For me, she exhibits a practice of remix: “religious ritual that removes demons of fear and releases imagination”, a concept borrowed from Binyavanga’s lyric essay on the artist Wangechi Mutu. Black artists across the diaspora have long grappled with issues of displacement and temporality to conjure new visions. While Ayón’s work certainly reflects historical narratives, it is also highly metaphorical and autobiographical. “I see myself as Sikán, in a certain way as an observer, an intermediary, and a revealer. As I am not a believer, I create her imagery from my studies and experiences. Sikán is a transgressor, and as such I see her, and I see myself,” she is quoted in her Reina Sofia retrospective. “I think that these engravings could be a spiritual testimony if you will, not lived in my own flesh, but imagined”, she elaborates in her 1991 “confessions” letter published by her estate. In essence, Ayón employes Saidiya Hartman’s notion of “critical fabulation”; “by playing with and rearranging the basic elements of the story, by representing the sequence of events in divergent stories from contested points of view […] to jeopardize the status of the event, to displace the received or authorized account.”

Ayón’s work was not without burden, which became evident when the artist took her own life at the young age of 32. The chiaroscuro of her collograph, lightness and darkness, become metaphorical to the threats that surrounded her as she delved into contentious terrain in post-Cold War Cuba. “Sikán, a woman who prevails in the works presented because she, like me, lived and lives through me in uneasiness, insistently looking for a way out”, Ayón shares in a 1998 letter. Sikán had become her alter ego, with features based on Ayón’s own body. Recurrent themes of restlessness, betrayal, and longing reveal the deeply troubled state and angst that consumed the artist’s imagination before she transcended. Mapping a history of Abakuá, from the Cross River basin to its plural formations in the diaspora, it is evident how syncretic practice was both cathartic and disruptive. The origins of Ékpè was for managing diversity with mutual respect, a practice that seems to underpin some of Ayon’s work. But why had I never heard of Abakuá in its cradle and my home Cameroon? Of course the mystery and gaps in African history are a result of active colonial erasure and denigration. Ayón acknowledges that “there are innumerable variations of popular imagery when recounting how the events that gave rise to this type of secret society happened and from them I show you my variations intertwining their signs with mine”. She (re)invented and left behind a world to ponder; simultaneously a commentary on diaspora, and a counterimage on gendered and racialized realities.

Ethel-Ruth Tawe is an image-maker, storyteller, and time-traveler based between continents. She is a multidisciplinary artist, curator, and writer exploring memory and archives across Africa and the diaspora. Read more at: or @artofetheltawe.