At least the name was familiar. Reading a survey on Caribbean art that I found at the public library, Wilfredo Lam came up at least half a dozen times before I even got to the section on Afro-Cubanism. The Jungle, above, is the most famous example of his work and displays the merging of European painting tradition in its Cubist perspective yet the masked figures amidst the sugarcane and bamboo also reflect the painter’s inclusion of his African heritage and culture.
It should be noted that The Jungle was not intended to represent Afro-Cuban traditions literally–the masks are African-inspired rather than relating directly to his experience in Cuba. It is, in fact, a critique. His intention was to describe a spiritual state, most particularly that of an Afro-Cuban culture that had been reduced to absurdity by panning to tourist trade.
“I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country, but by thoroughly expressing the negro spirit, the beauty of the plastic art of the blacks. In this way I could act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters.”– Wilfredo Lam
La Silla, 1943
Lam was born in Cuba to a Chinese father and a half Congolese, half Cuban mulatto mother. After studying in Cuba, he moved to Madrid and then Paris to continue his training. He became friends with Picasso and his circle and was influenced by them. He later traveled through the Caribbean with Andre Breton, another influential person in the Caribbean arts scene of the time.
When he returned to Havana in 1941, Lam became newly aware of Afro-Cuban traditions, which he felt were being lost and made picturesque for tourists. He wished to free Cuba from cultural subjugation and to rediscover its African heritage. Many great artists of the 20th century combined radical style with “primitive” arts. Lam did so by synthesizing the Surrealist and Cubist forms to express the iconography of Afro-Cubanism. Authenticity was perhaps more created than discovered in his work. A successful artist internationally who supported his ingenuous roots, he died in Paris in 1982. He remains widely influential in Cuba and throughout the Caribbean.