Sunday, 20 September 2009



Wifredo Lam and the Caribbean

Edward Lucie Smith


Wifredo Lam is by far the most celebrated, and most people would say the greatest, artist produced by the Caribbean region in modern times. His relationship with where he came from is, however, extraordinarily complex― much more complex than most of his admirers suppose, largely because they usually have no direct experience of the region and little knowledge of its social history.


Attempts to write the history of late colonial and post-colonial Caribbean art are bedeviled by the cultural fragmentation of the region. Artists in the various Caribbean islands, and in those regions of South America that have direct access to the Caribbean Sea, characteristically look towards some European “mother country” whose colonial possessions they once were. Thus artists from the English-speaking Caribbean have tended to acquire their artistic education in British art schools, and artists from Martinique and Guadeloupe have journeyed to metropolitan France. Both of these Francophone territories in fact are departements de France and are administered on precisely the same basis as departements in France itself. Spanish-speaking territories, like Cuba, Lam’s native country, have tended to send artists to Spain, but there is also a well-established Latin American tradition of sending young artists to Paris to polish their skills.


In the countries that experienced slavery, and particularly in the West Indian islands, with their large black populations, there has been, from the second quarter of the twentieth century onwards, a countercurrent to this ― a desire to revive African forms as an assertion of ethnic and national identity. This has led, for example, to very active official patronage of “intuitives,” or untrained so-called primitive artists in Jamaica, the next-door island to Cuba.  There is a similar, though less organized, enthusiasm for the prolific school of naive painting that has long flourished in Haiti.


A paradox, very conspicuous in the case of Haiti, is that Caribbean artists, and especially those from the islands, have usually had to depend on non-indigenous patronage ― that is, they have always had to sell their work outside their own communities. Their products have been transcultural artifacts, made in one place to be consumed in another, or alternatively in a part of the local community that does not share the same cultural background and values. Haitian naive painting, now largely marketed in the United States, shares this characteristic with the so-called “Canton School” and “Company School” paintings of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries ― the first produced in South China for a clientele of European traders, the others made in India for officials of the all-powerful East India Company. Contemporary examples are the modern Aboriginal paintings that have enjoyed success both in Australia itself and internationally, but always as goods produced for white patrons. At a much higher level, this transcultural element can also be seen in Lam’s career. Until quite a late stage in his development his fellow Cubans had little direct experience of his art. He lived and worked in Cuba for only a small part of his adult life, though the years of his maturity that he spent there, basically the decade from 1942 to 1952, were crucial for his artistic development. His major public impact on the Cuban artistic scene was delayed until 1951, when he was awarded first prize at the Cuban Salón Nacional, just before he returned to Europe. During the rest of his lifetime Lam’s market was certainly not in Cuba, but in the great galleries of Paris and New York.


In order to understand Lam’s situation fully, one has to explore the always contentious subject of race. Lam’s own ethnic origins are well known, but the wider ethnic context has been little explored.


Born in 1902, Lam was the son of an elderly Chinese trader, reputedly eighty- four years old when his son was born, and a woman of mixed black, Spanish, and Amerindian descent. His father may have been of Hakka origin. The word Hakka is a Cantonese distortion of the Mandarin for “guest-people.” As the phrase implies this group, divided from the rest of the Chinese population by customs peculiar to themselves and by a distinctive dialect, have always been migrants. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries they spread all over the world, usually functioning as traders and small shopkeepers. Many of the first generation of Chinese shopkeepers in the West Indies arrived as indentured laborers. This was particularly the case in Cuba, where more than 120,000 contract laborers from southern China arrived on the island between 1847 and 1873, to supplement a declining slave population, which could not be replenished from Africa because an Anglo-American blockade in the early 1860s had put an end to the last remnants of the slave trade. Slavery in Cuba was not abolished until 1886, and the conditions of labor for the immigrant Chinese were little, if at all, better than those of the true slaves.


Though Lam was, from a purely genetic point of view, more Chinese than he was black, he never seems to have taken any interest in this part of his heritage, and efforts to trace any specifically Chinese influence in his work have been fruitless.The Cuban population, like all West Indian populations, is ethnically mixed. The 2006 Edition of the CIA’s World Factbook sates that the island’s population is 51 percent Mulatto, 37 percent white, 11 percent black, and 1 percent Chinese.[1]These proportions are unlikely to have changed very much since Lam’s extended residence during the 1940s and very early 1950s. By comparison, Haiti is 95 percent black and 5 percent mulatto and white; the Dominican Republic, 73 percent mixed, 16 percent white, and 11 percent black; and Jamaica, 90.0 percent black, 1.3 percent East Indian, 0.2 percent white; 0.2 percent Chinese, 7.3 percent mixed, and 0.1 percent other.


It will be seen at once that these descriptions are not consistent with one another. For example, the Jamaican population contains many variations of color. A large number of those described as black in Jamaica by the Factbook might be described as mulatto in Cuba. The classifications reflect the fact that the majority of Jamaicans identify as black, while this appears not to be true of Cuba; and it is also clear that people of unmistakably African appearance form only a small minority of the Cuban population. However, if we put blacks and mulattos together as “people of color,” they amount to two-thirds of all Cubans.


This leads one towards the even more difficult subject of racial prejudice. The Cuba that saw Wifredo Lam become a mature artist, after his return from a long period in Europe, was governed by the dictator Fulgencio Battista, who is always described as a mulatto. “Liberated” Cuba, with which Lam identified himself in the later part of his life, and where he is now a national hero, is governed by Fidel Castro, the illegitimate son of a Galician soldier who became rich in Cuba, having first come there to fight for the Spanish government against Cubans seeking independence (a campaign that later became an unsuccessful war against the United States). The elder Castro’s family was almost certainly originally Jewish ― Castro is a well-established Spanish Sephardic Jewish surname, also found among Jews in Tunis.


Battista is said to have been friendly with Fidel’s father, Angel Castro y Argiz, and to have given Fidel a substantial wedding present at the time of his first marriage. Yet, whatever the precise racial origins of Castro’s mother, who was a cook in his father’s household, he and his siblings have consistently identified themselves as white. The ethnic mixtures of the Castro and Lam families are typical of the social complexity of the West Indies in general, where nuances of this kind continue to count for a great deal, even when they are not openly discussed.


One would like to think, especially in the context of an admiration for Lam’s work, that his art forms part of a gradual development towards a democratic black consciousness in Cuba fostered in its later stages by the Castro regime. Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case. The degree of racism that continues to exist under Castro’s government is a matter of dispute between supporters of the regime who have remained in Cuba and the substantial colony of Cuban exiles in the United States. The fact that the Castro government remains to some extent racist seems beyond dispute. If black artists, such as Lam himself and the great mulatto poet Nicolás Guillén, are honored by the regime, black faces are rare, indeed pretty much nonexistent, in the upper echelons of the Cuban government. [2]


In purely practical terms, Lam’s embrace of the idea of Negritude, which is one of the key themes in his work, seems to have had minimal impact in his native country. And this embrace seems to have been motivated more by what Lam learned from Francophone friends, both black and white, than from anything he experienced in Cuba.


The temptation is nevertheless to interpret Lam’s work in terms of a liberationist black ideology, as it has often been approached by black intellectuals in America. This plainly doesn’t work in a Caribbean context, and one has to look at his achievement in a different and somewhat more nuanced way. If one considers the stages of Lam’s development as an artist, what one sees, in the broadest terms, is the following:


Lam was born in 1902, four years after the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. In the year of his birth, Tomás Estrada Palma, the first President of the Cuban Republic, took office. In the following year, the United States took possession of Guantánamo Bay, on lease only terminable if both parties agreed to it. The Republic proved to be both chronically corrupt and chronically unstable, and America often intervened heavy-handedly in Cuban affairs. This situation continued throughout Lam’s childhood and youth.


Lam studied first at the Academia de San Alejandro in Havana, founded in 1818, and the oldest institution of its kind in Spanish-speaking America. The Academia offered the thorough academic training common in Latin American art schools at that time. Recognized as promising, Lam obtained a government grant and in 1923 departed for Madrid to continue his studies. In Madrid he studied under Fernando Alvarez de Sotomayor (1875-1960), a Spanish artist  who, after a long period in Chile, teaching at the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Santiago, returned to Spain in 1929 to become director of the Prado and official painter to the king of Spain, Alfonso XIII. Despite his exotic heritage, Lam’s career thus far was a perfectly conventional one. His success in getting an artistic education and in leaving the island for Europe, with an official stipend to support him, to some extent contradicts the idea that the Cuba of his youth was more racist than it was to be later. A specifically black political party, the Independent Party of Color, was founded in Cuba in 1907, but there is no evidence that Lam had any contact with it.


In 1923, Spain was still officially a monarchy, but it was in reality ruled by the dictator Primo de Rivera, who fell from power in 1930 and died soon afterwards. Following Rivera’s death, the monarchical government was overthrown in 1931, and Spain became an increasingly turbulent Republic. In 1936 the Republic was challenged by Spanish Nationalist forces commanded by General Francisco Franco and, after three years of civil war, finally succumbed to its opponents in 1939.


Lam was by this time definitely a man of the left. He had been reading Lenin, and he joined other Cubans, among them Guillén, in the defense of Madrid against the Nationalists. In 1937 he was transferred to a munitions factory, where he was poisoned by the chemicals used. After a period of convalescence, he left for Paris in 1938, ahead of the fall of the Republic.


One of the things that took Lam to Paris, apart from the pressing need to get away from a now imminent catastrophe, was the fact that he had a letter of introduction to Picasso from the Catalan sculptor Manolo Hugué, one of Picasso’s oldest friends. Lam was well received in Paris. His exotic heritage, combined with his status as a combatant in the Civil War, made him immediately acceptable to Picasso and the circle of artists and writers who surrounded him. These, especially the writers, were mostly men linked to the Surrealist movement, among them the formidable “pope” of Surrealism, André Breton.


Picasso’s work seems to have represented Lam’s first encounter with African tribal art as a major source for Modernist imagery. Works of this type were not available in Cuba, nor were they at all common in Spain. The Surrealists, with their emphasis on dreams and trances as sources of artistic inspiration, were to prove even more important to him in the long term.


Lam’s alliance with the Surrealist group was cemented by the events of 1940-1941. Like many other artists and intellectuals, he made his way to Marseilles in 1940, and eventually embarked on a long journey to the Caribbean. Among his fellow passengers were Breton and the great structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.[3] Levi Strauss later described the voyage in his autobiographical meditation, Tristes Tropiques (1955). The voyage concluded in Martinique, where Lam met the black writer and founder of the Negritude movement, Aimé Césaire. By 1942, already forty years old, he was back in Havana.


Picasso, Breton, Lévi-Strauss and Césaire can be regarded as the cornerstones of Lam’s later work. It is significant that none of them were Cuban and that only one was Spanish. Havana in 1942 was economically depressed, thanks to the presence of German submarines in the Caribbean, which cut off trade between the islands and, more important, trade with the United States. This was soon to change. The years of the Battista dictatorship were marked by an economic boom. Cuba had never been so prosperous previously and was never to be so rich again ― though much of the money being invested in the island came from doubtful sources, the American Mafia in particular. The gangster Meyer Lansky was a close Battista ally.


On his return to Cuba, Lam was struck by the racial discrimination that was still a matter of course in Cuban society, despite the fact that the most powerful figure within it was a man of color. He also rediscovered Santería, the syncretistic religion made up of Catholic and African elements. In his youth, his godmother had been a Santería priestess. The product of these discoveries was an ambitious painting, The Jungle, 1942- 1943, that marked his achievement, at long last, of a fully mature personal style. The Jungle shows a procession of Santería orishas, or deities, moving through, and blending with, tall stalks of sugarcane. Sugar was, of course, the crop with a historical association with slavery, and the painting is a statement about the secret survival of African beliefs in the context of the New World.


It is, however, much too glibly assumed that the figures in The Jungle are a direct derivation from Picasso’s use of African tribal objects and masks as source materials for Modernist art. This is not quite the case. Lam was never much interested in Cubist plasticity. In this, as in later paintings that develop the same idiom, he used whatever sources seemed good at the time. For example, a number of his mask-like faces seem to be based on New Guinea originals, not on African ones ― in particular on a Sepik mask that belonged to the French Surrealist poet Paul Eluard, who was a close friend.


Yet one must also note that neither Santería nor Haitian Voodoo offered especially striking artworks as a basis for the kind of transformations that Lam was beginning to undertake. Specific references to these syncretistic religions in his work are relatively few ― horses in some of his paintings of this period refer to the way the orishas are supposed to “ride” the worshipper, who falls into a trance as he/she is possessed. The blade-like forms in many of Lam’s works may refer to the similarly shaped charms that form part of Santería necklaces. In some cases there may also be references to the Voodoo flags that decorate Haitian shrines. These flags, with their bold, flat designs, are considerably more powerful visually than Haitian naive painting, which was popularized by two Americans, De Witt Peters, who founded the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince in 1944, and his co-director, the poet Selden Rodman. Rodman in particular rejected Modernism ― he wanted the artists he publicized to retain what he thought of as their innocence. In the long term, the result was that the new Haitian art failed to develop, and it continued to repeat the same motifs over and over again. Even at its beginnings, it had little to offer a sophisticate such as Lam.


Voodoo is considerably more “African” in its imagery and rituals than anything available in Cuba; just as Haiti itself is much more visibly African in terms of ethnicity. This is clearly the reason why Lam made a point of making a visit there. Yet it is obvious that he experienced the country as an outsider. His companion was the quintessentially French André Breton, and their host was Pierre Mabille (at that time French Cultural Attaché in Port-au-Prince), a close friend of Breton and author of The Mirror of the Marvelous, the classic Surrealist text on mythology.


This was not the only trip out of Cuba that Lam made in these years, and he also received European and American friends in Havana. Among those who came to see him were the French dealer Pierre Loeb, who had given him a one-man exhibition in Paris in 1939; Pierre Matisse, the son of the painter Henri Matisse, now established as a dealer in New York; and the influential French Surrealist poet Benjamin Péret. It was Pierre Matisse who first exhibited The Jungle in his New York gallery and, after a satisfactory scandal caused by Lam’s refusal to allow it to be shown in an official exhibition of contemporary Cuban art at the Museum of Modern Art, maneuvered it into the permanent collection at MOMA. This fact alone confirmed Lam’s situation as a leading, fully recognized member of the International Modern Movement. His international eminence was confirmed in 1948, when he was included in the exhibition Forty Years of Modern Art 1907-1947 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. The moving spirit in this was Picasso’s British disciple Roland Penrose, founder of the ICA.


Lam’s close links to the United States at this time, before his return to Europe in the early 1950s, mean that one must also think of his work in terms of the development of American art. There is an obvious affinity between The Jungle and Jackson Pollock’s Guardians of the Secret, which was painted in 1943, the year in which Lam’s masterpiece was first shown in New York. There also links to some paintings by Arshile Gorky and to the work of the Chilean painter Matta, another member of the French Surrealist Movement and protégé of André Breton, who recided in America from 1938 until 1948 and was also an exhibitor at the Pierre Matisse Gallery.


Matta’s compositions from this period often seem to have a half- concealed narrative element, explained by the fact that many of them were inspired by Lautréamont’s proto-Surrealist text Les chants de Maldoror, first published in 1874. Dore Ashton once described these works as showing “the clash of mystical  worlds.” Lam’s more ambitious paintings are even more obviously fantastic narratives, with their horned diabolic figures, savage hybrid beasts, and predatory birds. The sources are less African art than African myth ― the bad dreams that the transported slaves took with them into exile in the New World. Notoriously those elements of African culture that survived in the Caribbean, despite all efforts made by the slave owners to eradicate them, were stories not material objects. A good example is the cycle of stories about the trickster Anansi, which survive both in modern African American and in Jamaican folklore. Anansi was originally a West African spider god. The stories emphasize his power to overturn the social order. He can cheat both the Devil and Death and create wealth out of nothing at all. Underlying these stories, and also many of Lam’s paintings, is a message of anarchic freedom. This is Lam’s real relevance to Caribbean art.


In terms of his actual career Lam nevertheless belongs much more to the story of the international Surrealist movement and its American successor Abstract Expressionism, than he does to that of specifically Caribbean or even that of Latin American art. Despite the presence of the Centro Wifredo Lam in Cuba, and his own proud support of Castro’s revolution, his impact on culture in Cuba, and in particular on attitudes to race, has clearly been much less than he would have hoped. The new mythic cycle he wished to see has yet to fulfill itself.




[1] U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook.

[2] For a discussion of race in Cuba, see Claudia Márquez Linares, “Institutionalized Racism,” CubaNet, December 26, 2002.

[3] Lévi-Strauss later described the voyage in his autobiographical meditation, Tristes Tropiques (1955). Lévi-Strauss is relevant to Lam’s work because of his theory of structural anthropology, which saw cultures as being primarily systems of communication governed by myth― governed by long cycles of change in which one fundamental mythic pattern would gradually replace or displace its predecessor.


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