Subject to tumultuous moments in history, Wifredo Lam saw the peaks and valleys of the human condition. Skilled with an avant-garde paintbrush, his works have become a pinnacle of Cuban art. Exercising European education and a proclivity for the Afro-Caribbean culture together in an iconic yet familiar aesthetic, Lam shattered artistic stereotypes and effectively sucker-punched the cultural commodification happening in Cuba at the time.
Fighting in the Spanish Civil War and fleeing Germany in the 1940s, Lam not only experienced major conflicts of the 20th century, but he also artistically cavorted with some the era’s greatest artists from Matisse to Picasso. Deeply influenced by Picasso, when Lam first saw the modern master’s works, he proclaimed that they weren’t just a revelation, but a “shock”. Having taken Lam under his wing and championing him around Europe, Picasso’s unique style is quite vivid within Lam’s later works: surreal figures projecting almost shattering emotions and a puzzle of hodgepodge cubism with an almost other-dimensional magnetism.
But with his historical and spiritual roots firmly planted in the Cuban soil, Lam brought the spirit of the island alive, painting the struggle and passion of the Afro-Caribbean culture. With his grandmother a former Congolese slave and his godmother a priestess of Santeria, Lam, like his paintings, had a free-flow of rich and vibrant intertwining stories in his background. Doing as a true artist does, Lam stuck his finger in all the artistic pies when he returned to Cuba in 1941. Befriending anthropologists, poets and the like, Lam immersed himself deeply in the African culture of Cuba and got rather swept away by the rhythm of the ceremonial drums. His fascination and deep respect for the history manifested itself famously in his magnum opus, The Jungle. His work reflects the capitalisation of heritage with the almost magic realism of the African elements:
The history of subjugation and commodification in the colonial realm is seen in the sugar cane background, Santeria and systems of belief through the African mask-like faces, and the direct human connection is visualised via exposed bodies and famous round backsides. The ethnographic forest captured the swirling spirit of the country: the nature, the history, the people, the religions – all that made Cuba distinct and colourful. MoMA would eventually buy the painting and display it next to Picasso’s Les Demoisell d’Avignon, but in its physical aesthetic and power of imagery to embody the struggle of the people, perhaps it would have been better placed next to Guernica.
Although his work bears a striking resemblance to Picasso’s style, Lam’s cultural and geographic heritage was deeply intertwined with the “magic realist” genre that sprung up in Latin America in the 1940s. A beautiful weaving narrative of imagination, beauty, and almost crushing human realities blended with African metaphysical rhythm. A visionary, Lam brought Cuban art into modernity through the beat of the drum of the past.
Tate Modern in London is currently holding an exhibition displaying some of Lam’s finest works. View the Ey Exhibition from now until 8 January, 2017 to see the art that redefined post-colonial national art in Cuba.
By Alice Bauer
Cover image: Wifredo Lam. Your Own Life. 1942.
Gouache on paper.Wifredo Lam
105.4 x 86.4. The Kreeger Museum, Washington D.C.