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December 01, 2023

Acquisition: Belkis Ayón

Belkis Ayón, "Sin titulo [Mujer en posición fetal] (Untitled, Woman in fetal position)"

Belkis Ayón
Sin titulo [Mujer en posición fetal] (Untitled, Woman in fetal position), 1996
collograph on four sheets of wove paper
image and sheet: 195.58 x 135.89 cm (77 x 53 1/2 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Gift of Funds from Philip D. Berlin, Carmen Corrales, Ernesto Poma, Elizabeth Dascal, and Charles Boyd

One of the leading Cuban artists of the 20th century, Belkis Ayón (1967–1999) is celebrated for her mastery of the collagraphic relief printing process, in which a variety of materials are applied to a printing plate to produce a single image. Ayón was dedicated to the exploration and depiction of the mysterious iconography of Abakuá, a secret Afro-Cuban brotherhood brought to Cuba in the 19th century by enslaved men from Nigeria that still exists today. The National Gallery of Art has acquired Sin título [Mujer en posición fetal] (Untitled, [Woman in fetal position]) (1996), in which the artist explored the Abakuá foundational Myth of Sikán. Focusing on Sikán’s experience as not only the principal character, but also the martyred mother of every Abakuá, this print raises questions of power, control, censorship, violence, and freedom—all issues that were present in Ayon’s life as a Black Cuban female artist at the end of the 20th century. 

The myth centers on a perceived act of betrayal. After Princess Sikán accidentally discovers Tanze, a sacred fish which promises to impart power to those who hear its voice, Sikán brings the fish to her father, who swears her to silence. Disobeying her father, she shares the secret with her lover, a prince of an enemy nation. Sikán is condemned to death, and Tanze dies with her.  

Ayón considered Sikán to be not only an alter ego, but also a reflection of herself and other women who were marginalized by their male-dominated societies. The silhouetted figure floating at the center of this print is based on Ayón’s own body, which she traced and scaled down. Ayón’s figures are often mouthless, androgynous, and adorned with mysterious symbolic markings. Here, four such figures surround Sikán, alluding to her punishment for speaking to her lover and to the suppression of women’s voices in general in the patriarchal Cuban society in which Ayón lived. The placement of the figures, each located in one of the four corners of the composition, recalls traditional marginalia found in printed maps, such as personifications of the four winds, or other mythical characters from various cultures who represent either antagonistic forces or agents of positive change.  

Ayón made significant contributions to the field of contemporary printmaking, producing a prolific body of work before her tragic death at the age of 32. She studied engraving at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, where she was honored with national awards, held her first solo show, and received invitations to participate in more than 30 group exhibitions. In her collagraphs, she assembled a variety of materials, such as sandpaper, vegetable peelings, and hundreds of pieces of soft paper, on a cardboard sheet that she sometimes carved, as well. The composition was then inked and run through a hand-cranked printing press, enabling Ayón to achieve a range of nuanced tones, textures, and forms hard to obtain through any other medium.

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