Impact of the Abakuá Religion on Cuban Culture

Impact of the Abakuá Religion on Cuban Culture

The Abakuá is a secret society and a religion of African origin that arrived in Cuba in the early 19th century. Brought by slaves from the Calabar region, which is present-day Nigeria. The name "abakuá " is believed to come from the word "ibakuá ", which means "house of the spirits" in the Efik language spoken in Caladar. Afro-Cuban culture is an integral part of Cuban identity and history, and the Abakuá are a fundamental part of this culture and one that has not been explored properly. In this essay we will explore the different ways that Cuban painters have taken this Abakuá religion and represented it within their writing.

The Abakuá are known for their secret rites and ceremonies, in which homage is paid to African spirits and gods, especially the ancestral god Ekpe. These are remarkably similar to the Eleusinian Mysteries found in Greece in which rites were safe guarded and hidden away from the general public. The organization is divided into two levels: the active members, known as " ikúlés", and the inactive members, known as "egbóns ". Active members are those who participate in the ceremonies and rites, while inactive members are those who have been initiated but do not participate in the activities of the society.

During the colonial era, the Abakuás were persecuted and repressed by the Spanish authorities, since they were seen as a threat to the established social and political order. However, the Abakuá society managed to survive and preserve its traditions through secrecy and clandestine meeting. It is a daring story of survival in the face of the utmost adversity.

Today, the Abakuás are recognized as Cuba's cultural heritage and have become an important part of Cuban popular culture. Abakuá music and dance, known as "palo", are very popular in the eastern region of Cuba, especially in the city of Matanzas, where the main headquarters of the Abakuá society is located. This dance, which is performed by men, uses strong, energetic movements, and is accompanied by loud beating drums designed to rile the spirit. The group "Yoruba Andabo" is one of the most famous interpreters of this dance in Cuba and has taken his art to the whole world.

The Jungle Wilfredo Lam

In the world of art, many artists have explored themes related to the Abakuá universe and its influence on Cuban culture. The most well known would be the case of Wifredo Lam, one of the most important artists of the Cuban avant-garde, who regularly represents this theme in his work. Lam, who was of Afro-Cuban-Chinese descent, used Abakuá motifs and symbols in many of his paintings, such as in "La Jungla" and "El Último". His works reflect the influence of African culture on Cuban culture and are considered an expression of national identity recognized worldwide.


El Ultimo Viaje del Buque Fantasma I Wilfredo Lam 

Manuel Mendive is another of the Cuban artists who has explored themes related to Afro-Cuban culture in his work. In Mendive 's work, the Abakuá often appear as a source of inspiration and as a way to explore Afro-Cuban identity and culture. One of the most interesting aspects of his work is the way in which he has incorporated elements of the Abakuá culture into his art, such as music, dance, rituals, and symbols.

Mendive 's best-known works related to the Abakuás is the series of paintings "El Espíritu y la Naturaleza." These paintings show Abakuá figures surrounded by elements of nature, such as trees, plants, and animals, and are done in a mixed technique that combines painting and collage.

La Jaula Abakuá Manuel Mendive 

Another notable work is the installation "The Abakuá Cage", which consists of a forged iron cage adorned with Abakuá symbols and hung from a rope. The installation is presented as a metaphor for oppression and freedom, and as a reflection on the history and culture of the Abakuá in Cuba.

Mendive has also created several sculptures related to the Abakuá, such as "El Bote Abakuá", a piece carved in wood that represents a boat decorated with Abakuá symbols and surrounded by dancing figures.

El Bote Abakuá Manuel Mendive

Mendive 's work represents a reflection on the Abakuá culture and its role in the identity and history of Cuba. His paintings, installations, and sculptures show the influence of the Abakuá culture on contemporary Cuban art and its ability to inspire and challenge the viewer. Mendive has contributed significantly to the appreciation and preservation of this ancient culture, thus enriching the history and culture of Cuba.

Eduardo Roca Salazar, also known as "Choco", is a Cuban artist who has explored Afro-Cuban culture in his work, including the Abakuá universe. His paintings often include Abakuá symbols and characters, and he uses a collage technique that incorporates elements of Cuban popular culture.

Belkis Ayón is one of the most outstanding artists of the Cuban avant-garde of the 20th century. During her studies, she became interested in Afro-Cuban iconography and Abakuá culture, which profoundly influenced her later work. Throughout his career, Ayón created a series of works that explore the Abakuá universe and its influence on Cuban culture. Her work is characterized by a graphic style that combines elements of contemporary aesthetics with Abakuá symbols and iconography. Ayón became interested in the figure of Sikán, an Abakuá heroine who represents the struggle for freedom and identity.



One of Ayón's best-known series is "La Cena", a series of engravings in which he depicts Sikán and other Abakuá figures at a banquet. In these works, Ayón uses an engraving technique in colors and lines that creates a sensation of depth and movement. The figures in the work are arranged in geometric patterns, creating a sense of order and symmetry that contrasts with the emotional content of the work.


Another important Ayón series is "Nkame", which means "greeting" in the Abakuá language . This series is made up of more than fifty engravings and focuses on the figure of Sikán. In these works, Ayón explores the duality and complexity of Afro-Cuban identity and the influence of Abakuá culture on Cuban society. The "Nkame" series is considered one of the most important of the Cuban avant-garde and has been exhibited in museums around the world.

Nloro Belkis Ayón - Fowler Museum at UCLA


In addition to her graphic work, Ayón also worked in other forms of art, including painting and sculpture. In her pictorial work, Ayón continued to explore themes related to Abakuá culture and Afro-Cuban identity. In her sculptural work, Ayón created pieces in bronze and ceramic that explore the figure of Sikán and other Abakuá symbols .

Belkis Ayón's work is a testament to the rich Afro-Cuban culture and the influence of the Abakuá religion on Cuban society. Her work combines contemporary aesthetics with Abakuá symbols and iconography to create a unique and powerful vision of Afro-Cuban identity. Although she tragically died young in 1999, her work continues to inspire artists and art lovers around the world.


La Cena Belkis Ayón - Fowler Museum at UCLA

Works of art related to the Abakuá in Cuba reflect the importance of this culture in the Cuban national identity. From music and dance to sculpture and painting, the Abakuá have left their mark on Cuban art history and continue to inspire many artists today.

Back to blog