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: artofetheltawe.com or @artofetheltawe.