It’s no accident that Resurrección (Resurrection) is the title of the first piece that you encounter in The Foundation of the Museum: MOCA’s Collection at The Geffen Contemporary. Created in 1998 by Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón, Resurrección seems like the perfect allegory for an institution that has been forced to reinvent itself for the third time after 40 years of being at the vanguard of LA’s contemporary art scene.
Established in 1979, MOCA was the only artist-founded museum in Los Angeles and the first in the city devoted to contemporary art. The museum houses one of the most compelling collections of contemporary art in the world, which is comprised of roughly 7,000 objects, and has a history of ground-breaking, historically-significant exhibitions. This exhibition at MOCA’s Geffen venue marks not only the 40th anniversary of the institution but also focuses on the history of the collection as an ever-changing landscape of what art is and can be.
Belkis Ayón’s Resurrección is an enigmatic black-and-white collograph. It measures 8 feet by 7 feet – a monumental scale for a work using traditional printmaking methods. In the work, a man lays on the ground unconscious while over his head a symbol glows like a halo. Below this man’s body is a fish swimming in a river among the weeds. Above him, four hypnotic, mouthless figures hover over the entire scene looking around and outside the pictorial frame. The entire composition feels like a premonition.
MOCA acquired many of Belkis Ayón’s artworks in 1997 after she won the first prize in the XII San Juan Biennial of Printmaking of Latin American and the Caribbean. In 1993 she had been invited to participate in the Venice Biennial in Italy. She and her father strapped her work to their bicycles and rode for 20 miles to get to the Cuban airport on time. The artwork almost didn’t make it. As a young artist at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) in Havana, Cuba, my professors who had met her would tell us that she was a very lively and energetic woman (1). Her story has the patina of mystery that legends are made of.
To understand Ayón’s work one has to know about the religious society of the Abakuà, a secretive, mutual aid society for men based on religion that originated in Akwa Ibom, Nigeria, and migrated to Haiti and Cuba through the 19th-century slave trade (2). Ayón, an atheist, was obsessed with the Abakuá’s complex mythology and its origin story which begins with an African legend about a woman: Princess Sikan Ekué who on one afternoon went to a river looking for water and accidentally caught the mystic fish Tanze, bearer of the sacred voice of Abasí, the Supreme God. When Princess Sikan caught Tanze in her amphora his screams were so loud that she dropped the jar and immediately killed him. The Carabalí believed that the scream of Abasí held the secret to infinite power and it shouldn’t be divulged or else chaos will ensue. After a series of complex events that followed, Sikan was sacrificed by her own father. Like a metaphor, her body was transformed into a ceremonial ekwé drum that could not be played, and thus its silence was protected by the men of the Abakuá sect (3). Princess Sikan embodied the male myth of the indiscreet and untrustworthy woman, and for this reason, women were prohibited from entering the sect.
Resurrección, like most of Ayón’s work, was made with the technique of collagraphy, applying materials to a printing plate rather than carving into its surface. She refined her skills at this technique because it allowed her to create large-format prints and a great variety of patterns and textures. The work seems to be narrating the moment after the initiation ritual when the indísime, or common man, is reborn to a new life as an obonekue (4). The glowing symbol on his head indicates that he is now part of the Abakuá society while the curtain in the background could be a reference to the curtains of the Iriongo, the secret place where the ekwé drum is hidden (5). The white silhouette is most likely the spirit of Princess Sikan coming to protect the new initiate.
The concept of self-imposed silence is evident in the mouthless figures in Ayón’s Resurrección. Perhaps it is also a social commentary on women's rights, or gender equity? Are the curators trying to show us MOCA’s role as an institution that has rescued from silence the work and legacy of an underrepresented female artist? During Cuba’s “Special Period” in the 1990s, an era that I personally lived through, food and resources were scarce and we were not able to express criticism about the system. In this environment, Ayón’s work could be read as a comment on the state’s punishment of dissent. Silence as a theme in art has the virtue of being polysemic. The intentional multiple meanings of Resurrección are most attractive to me: the various ways she finds to express the tension of forced silence, the visual ambiguity, and the uncertainty I feel when experiencing her work.
In September 1999, Belkis Ayón took her own life with a gunshot to the head in her grandmother’s house in Havana (6). She was only 32 years old. Her career was a brief but prolific one. Ayón left more than 200 prints of breathtaking beauty, many of monumental scale, and each possesses her unique, cryptic vocabulary.
“Art is the way, the manner, the solution that I found to say what I wanted,” Ayón said. Her art, as a silent language, is like the ekwé drum: It holds a deep secret that carries on.
Belkis Ayón taught printmaking at the School of Fine Arts San Alejandro and later at ISA.
Abakuá was established in Regla, Havana, in the 1830s. The name derives from the "leopard societies" of the Àbàkpà, Efut, and Èfìk peoples of southeastern Nigeria, and southwestern Cameroon. Because the port many departed from was called Old Calabar, and because the language of many others (from the Niger delta) was Kalabari, they became known in Cuba as Carabalí.
The ekwé drum is venerated like a supreme deity. Its sound is believed to be the voice of Tanze.
Indísime means a person who has not been initiated. Obonekue means the same person after having been converted into the religion.
Abakuá ceremonies are done in a temple. The temple is divided into two spaces, the fambá, where rituals are performed and only initiates can enter, and the isaroko, a patio where non-initiates can participate in some rituals. In the fambá, there is a small room called the iriongo where the sacred drum or ekwé is kept.
The reason for Ayón’s abrupt suicide is still a mystery, she was gaining international recognition at the moment and not even her close relatives were able to give a clear explanation about her death.