June 15 - June 18, 2023
2023 Art Basel in Basel
Belkis Ayón: Mujer
The image of Sikán is evident in all these works because she, like me,
lived and lives through me in restlessness, looking insistently for a way out.
— Belkis Ayón
For Art Basel in Basel, David Castillo presents Mujer, a solo presentation of significant large-scale collographs by the late Cuban artist Belkis Ayón.
Mujer considers the power of Ayón’s oeuvre as a woman navigating the sacred mythologies of the Abakuá: A secret Afro-Cuban society and belief system that welcomes only men into its fold and whose practices are only known to its male initiates. Sikán, the only woman represented in the religion’s pantheon, features prominently across Ayón’s body of work. The foundations of the religion are based around Sikán’s betrayal for both learning and revealing sacred secrets of the Abakuá as a woman; for this act, she is put to death. Sikán serves as the artist’s point of identification and departure within this faith, the figure’s story forming the basis of Ayón’s relationship with this fraternal order as a woman seeking sacred teachings forbidden to her. The artist’s collographs slip within this spiritual world, infusing her own memories and experiences within allegorical retellings of Sikan’s narrative. Drawing parallels between Sikán and herself, Ayón reimagines the perspective of the figure’s tragic story across collographs where the two women—one human, one myth—become one and together navigate male-dominated worlds that seek to silence them.
Among the collographs presented in Mujer is the eight-panel piece Desobediencia (Disobedience), 1998. First exhibited in Desasosiego/Restlessness, the artist’s last solo exhibition prior to her death, the piece revisits themes of knowledge, power, and feminine agency that course through Ayón’s body of work. The collograph depicts the scene of a ritual performed by Abakuán men, and at the bottom of the composition is a group of women—the spectral Sikán among them—who stand disobediently and turn their backs on these men in an act of defiance. In many ways, Ayón navigates gender dynamics both within the framework of the Abakuán fraternity and faith and within broader societal structures, weaving moments of feminist recognition and solidarity within the mythologies she came to learn despite her position as a woman who—like Sikán—was kept from this knowledge.
In the penumbral magic of her visual storytelling, Ayón traces allegories of Sikán’s myth along a personal autobiography. In the text of the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia The Milk of Dreams (2022), where several of Ayón’s works were on view in the first gallery of the Arsenale, the curatorial team notes:
“Throughout her oeuvre, Sikán, the princess typically depicted with no facial features but her eyes, is imagined in various religious scenes…[and] in mysterious scenarios redolent of Ayón’s life – one belonging to a real Afro-Cuban woman at the end of the millennium, occupied by her own interior dramas.”
Through her work, Ayón’s connection to Sikán reflects the conditions of the artist’s life, localized in a particular place and time while inhabiting a body that is itself transcribed with its own societal limitations, possibilities, and myths. Ayón’s practice, represented in the works chosen for Mujer, challenges patriarchal beliefs that code women—and particularly women of color—as unworthy of knowledge and power.
Belkis Ayón (b. 1967, Havana, Cuba; d. 1999, Havana, Cuba) was a master printmaker who specialized in collography, a technique whereby she collaged materials of different textures onto a rigid matrix. She developed her practice during Cuba’s Special Period in the Time of Peace, an era of economic crisis and scarcity following the fall of the Soviet Union. Ayón was resultantly resourceful with her materials and the textural gradations of her prints were created from scraps of textiles, food, and other found materials. The first European retrospective of the artist’s work, Belkis Ayón: Collographies, was recently on view at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, and her work was also included in the 34th Bienale de Sao Paulo. For Art Basel Miami Beach 2021, four late-career works of Ayón’s were featured in David Castillo’s Kabinett presentation Belkis Ayón: My Vernicle. The posthumous solo exhibition of her work, Nkame organized by the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles (2017), has traveled extensively to institutions including the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO (2018) and others. During her life, Ayón’s work was exhibited widely, including as part of the 45th Venice Biennale (1993), 5th Havana Biennial (1994), and the 2nd Gwangju Biennale (1997).
David Castillo is the first Florida gallery to participate in Art Basel in Basel.