The Return of Belkis Ayón

A Cuban artist is “rediscovered,” and her market responds accordingly

Last week’s Latin American Art sale at Christie’s in New York included a series of lots from the collection of Howard and Patricia Farber. The array of works by Contemporary Cuban artists included a new record sale for recently “rediscovered” artist Belkis Ayón. With an artistic career cut short by tragedy, Ayón and her work remained under the radar until a series of institutional shows over the past five years. As a result, Ayón’s market momentum is rising. Her top six prices were all achieved in 2022; this year also marked the most volume of Ayón’s work to ever come to auction. 

Belkis Ayón was a Cuban printmaker whose black and white compositions read like Surrealist altarpieces. She was born in Cuba in January 1967, and both the content and form of her work were greatly influenced by the details of her life there. The artist is known for her use of collography, a technique that involves collaging materials directly onto a printing plate before pressing. In the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, artists in Cuba had limited access to materials, so collography allowed Ayón to leverage the textures of everyday objects such as sand, wire, and newspapers. 

“Although a self-declared atheist,” says curator Madeline Weisburg, “Ayón dedicated her life’s work to the codes, symbols, and tales of Abakuá, a secret Afro-Cuban fraternal society whose foundational myth is based on a woman’s act of betrayal.” Ayón’s work focuses on the woman at the center of the story, Sikán. In Ayón’s subversive narrative scenes, she reimagines Sikán as Christian saints like St. Sebastian, and sometimes as Jesus himself. 

Ayón’s inclusion in the 1993 Venice Biennale indicated the growing international support for her work. Six years later, Ayón committed suicide. 17 years after her death, the Fowler Museum at UCLA presented the first solo museum exhibition in the United States dedicated to Ayón. Over the following years, the exhibition traveled to El Museo del Barrio in New York, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Missouri, the Chicago Cultural Center in Illinois, and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Oregon. 

In fall 2021, the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, Spain mounted Collographs, the first European museum retrospective dedicated to Ayón. The museum describes the show as “a selection of around fifty collographs that delve deep into her short but prolific career, framing it inside the artistic and sociocultural context of 1990s Cuba.”

In a full circle moment, Ayón’s work returned to Venice in 2022. Her collographs are currently on display in Cecilia Alemani’s Milk of Dreams at the 2022 Biennale. Ayón’s work is right at home among the underappreciated women Surrealists Alemani made her reputation promoting.

Canon recalibration is the theme of this year’s Biennale. Opening the canon tends to have market effects as we have seen with the work of Leonora Carrington and other women Surrealists. Perhaps the impressive results for Ayón’s work at Christie’s last week are the beginning of something just as big.

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