Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón (1967–1999)
Kemper Museum is pleased to present Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón (1967–1999). This landmark retrospective is the first in the United States dedicated to the work of Belkis Ayón—the late Cuban visual artist who mined the founding myth of the Afro-Cuban fraternal society, Abakuá, to create an independent and powerful visual iconography.
Ayón’s signature technique was collography, a printing process in which materials of various textures and absorbencies are collaged onto a cardboard matrix and then run through the press with paper. Her narrative works, many of which were produced at very large scale by joining multiple printed sheets, are imbued with an air of mystery, in part due to her deliberately austere palette of shades and subtle tones of black, white, and gray. For a black Cuban woman, both her ascendency in the contemporary printmaking world and her investigation of a powerful all-male brotherhood were notable and bold. Nkame, a sweeping overview of her most fertile period of artistic creativity, covers Ayón’s graphic production from 1986 until her untimely passing in 1999.
Curated by Cristina Vives, the exhibition was organized by the Belkis Ayón Estate, Havana, Cuba. Exhibition tour management by Landau Traveling Exhibitions, Los Angeles, CA.
Do not recall in your sleep
Any of your siblings
Who cry over your absence*
Cuban artist Belkis Ayón (1967–1999) died at age thirty-two, leaving behind a body of work of considerable importance for the history of contemporary printmaking. Her death remains a painful mystery for the national and international art community that had witnessed with admiration her successful rise to the most demanding artistic circles of the 1990s. Sixteen years after her death, the artist’s estate presents art lovers and researchers the first retrospective exhibition of the artist in the United States—Nkame—which gathers a wide selection of her graphic production from 1986 to 1999.
Nkame, a word meaning praise and salutation in the Abakuá language, is used as the name of the exhibition and as such, to define its character. This exhibition is not a posthumous homage, a remembrance tribute or a retrospective study of the artist’s work, although they are all included. […] Nkame attempts to be a dialogue between art and Belkis Ayón’s life, who left with her death a message for the future.
Nkame does not bid farewell but greets warmly. For the visitor, this exhibition will be like a test where the works, on their own and self-contained strength, will prove their universality. It will not be necessary to have an exhaustive knowledge of the codes, symbols and religious practices that gave origin and life to the legend or the Abakuá Secret Society that the artist chose as the topic for her research to be able to “understand” or to “feel” the human drama in the work of Belkis Ayón. Nor will it be necessary either to have a full command of the Abakuá language, the identities of the characters represented, or the anecdotal passages that gave life to the legend—that time and again become “commonplace” in the texts of the critics of her work. Nor will it be necessary “to sectorize” the understanding to those that are historical or socially related to the religious topic recurrent in her works:
Although my work deals with a theme as specific as the beliefs, rituals and myths of the Abakuá Secret Society, this does not mean that it is devoted solely to the population that practices and professes this faith. Above all, I am interested in questioning human nature—that fleeting feeling, spirituality, by which my art can be appreciated by a universal public, though it is very difficult at first sight to escape from the impression, the forms, and the image. [Text written by Belkis Ayón c. 1993, in the State’s archive.]
* This praise poem (Nkame in the Abakuá language) is engraved on the Christian graves of contemporary Abakuá members.