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Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón

Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón presents forty-eight prints and audiovisual materials that encompass a wide range of the artist’s graphic production from 1986 until her untimely passing in 1999. Ayón mined the founding narrative of the Afro-Cuban all-male fraternal society called Abakuá Secret Society to create an independent and powerful visual iconography. She is highly regarded for her signature technique of collagraphy, a printing process in which a variety of materials are collaged onto a cardboard matrix and run through a press. Her deliberately austere palette of subtle black, white, and gray adds drama and mystery to her works. By joining multiple printed sheets she made large-scale works which are all included in the exhibition.

Ayón’s choice of subject matter—the history and mythology of Abakuá—was a direction she took in 1985, while still a high school student at the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts. This brotherhood arrived in the western port cities of Cuba in the early nineteenth century, carried by enslaved Africans from the Cross River region of southeastern Nigeria, and since then became a nucleus of protection and resistance for its members. A brief synopsis of the founding myth of Abakuá begins with Sikán, a princess who inadvertently trapped a fish while drawing water from the river. She was the first to hear the unexpected and loud bellowing of the fish, the mystical “voice” of Abakuá. Because women were not permitted this sacred knowledge, the local diviner swore Sikán to secrecy. Sikán, however, revealed her secret to her fiancé and because of her indiscretion was condemned to death. In Ayón’s work, Sikán remains alive, and her story and representation figure prominently.

Nkame, a word meaning praise and salutation in the Abakuá language, defines the character of the exhibition. Cristina Vives, a Cuba-based independent researcher, art critic, and curator of the exhibition, states, “Nkame is not simply an homage to Belkis Ayón but a possibility to dialogue with her work in quest of that affirming message of life and future that humanity needs.”

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