Cuba Was A Canvas For Artist Belkis Ayon When Ayon committed suicide in 1999, she was just 32 years old — and already a star in the Cuban art world. A major exhibit of her work now under way in Havana has revived an enduring mystery in Cuba — about art, African myths and the shadowy, all-male secret society known as Abakua.

Cuba Was A Canvas For Artist Belkis Ayon

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And we're going to go next to Cuba. Ten years ago, one of Cuba's leading young artists took her own life with no warning. Her name was Belkis Ayon, and a major exhibition of her work is now on display in Havana. That event has revived an enduring mystery in Cuba - about art, African myths and a shadowy, all-male secret society. Nick Miroff reports from Havana.

NICK MIROFF: At the time of her death, Belkis Ayon was 32 and already a star in the Cuban art world. New York's Museum of Modern Art had recently acquired one of her prints, and her work was sought after by collectors and galleries in the U.S. and Europe. Ayon's rise coincided with the worst years of Cuba's post- Soviet economic crisis, and she developed a low cost printmaking technique well-suited to the times.

Art historian Cristina Figueroa is a curator for the exhibit, which is being held in a 300-year-old former church and convent in Old Havana.

CRISTINA FIGUEROA: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: As Figueroa explained, Ayon used tiny bits of paper to meticulously create the ridges and patterns that gave texture to her large, multi-paneled prints, a process known as collography. But it was Ayon's subject matter that drew the most attention to her work. Ayon had become fascinated with Abakua, an all-male secret society that originated in what is now southern Nigeria, and was brought to Cuba's port cities by African slaves who concealed it from their masters. Ayon first learned about Abakua through books and later with practitioners, according to her sister Katia.

KATIA AYON: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Katia says her sister's research was extensive, and she used the characters and myths of Abakua to express other things entirely. Ayon depicted her Abakua world in sharply contrasting black and white tones. Many of her characters appear with intense, even fearful expressions in their eyes. As exhibit curator Cristina Figueroa points out, they also lack mouths.

FIGUEROA: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Figueroa says facial expressions are the key to Ayon's work. Her characters can look at you but cannot speak, so you have to interpret what they're trying to say through the expressions in their eyes.

Like other Afro-Cuban religions, Abakua is a form of syncretism that blends Christian and African traditions. Its founding myth is a familiar story of temptation and betrayal paralleling the "Book of Genesis" - only the culprit is not Eve, but an African princess, Sikan.

AYON: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: As Ayon's sister, Katia, explained, the princess learns a powerful secret from an enchanted fish. She is sworn not to reveal the knowledge but cannot resist the temptation. That helps forge peace between warring tribes, but the princess is sacrificed for her transgression. Her death gives birth to the Abakua brotherhood, and women are forever barred from it.

Over the years, Ayon's work became fixated on the myth of the princess. Her prints were filled with scenes of her death and spiritual resurrection, along with sacred symbols like the fish. Then, on September 11, 1999, the artist's subject and her own fate seemed to merge.

WILFREDO BENITEZ: I still remember the moment when we received that news, that shocking news that Belkis had just shot herself.

MIROFF: Wilfredo Benitez is the associate director of Cuba's Ludwig Foundation. It promotes Cuban Art and worked directly with Ayon.

BENITEZ: She never gave any hint of depression. She was always laughing. That's the way I remember her. The reason why she decided to die is still a mystery for me. I couldn't believe it. I thought - maybe it's a little bit morbid - but I thought that some Abakua had killed her.

MIROFF: A police investigation ruled that out, but rumors and theories about the motivation for Ayon's suicide have rippled through Cuba's art world since then - speculating that she was sick, or that she had fallen under some malevolent Abakua spell. He sister says none of that is true.

AYON: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: It happened, Katia said, because that was the decision her sister had made. No one in their family knows why. She didn't tell anyone, and she left no clues. It's a secret, said Katia, that her sister took to the grave.

MIROFF: For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

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